Volkswagen id 3 2020
quick-drive

Volkswagen ID.3 prototype review

International first drive

If you believe the hype Volkswagen has been heaping on it in recent months, the ID.3 might just be the most significant car the German company has ever set out to produce.
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The ID.3 is aiming to be to Volkswagen’s future what the Beetle is to its past and the Golf its present.

The ID.3 is the first dedicated electric-powered model from Volkswagen. The company says its significance comes not through projected production volumes, at least initially, but in its ability to deliver affordable, environmentally friendly motoring.

We’re told the Volkswagen ID.3 will cost roughly the same as a mid-range Golf when it goes on sale in Europe in 2020. In Australia, which may not see the car until 2022, there’s potential for the starting price to be around $40,000.

Based on a newly developed platform known internally as the MEB (Modularen Elektrik Baukasten, or Modular Electric Toolkit for less tongue twisting), the five-door hatchback is the first in an extended range of up to 10 new electric models set to carry the name of Volkswagen’s new ID sub-brand, many of which have already been revealed in lightly veiled concept guise (see breakout).

Volkswagen intends spending more than €80 billion (AUD$128 billion) over the next decade or so in realising an ambition to become the first car maker to mass-produce electric cars profitably.

The target set by VW’s chairman, Herbert Diess? To raise annual production of electric cars at Volkswagen to three million by 2025, from just 40,000 in 2018. If it is successful, there’s little doubt Volkswagen would become the global leader in electric cars, projecting it to a position it holds today with petrol and diesel cars in the short term.

It is with a notable sense of anticipation, then, that we arrive at Volkswagen to drive the very first example of the ID.3 to roll down the production line at the company’s Zwickau plant in Germany.

Many of the key details pertaining to the new electric car, including its dimensions, remain under wraps. Quite literally, as our pilot production prototype is still covered in the same psychedelic wrap/disguise in which it was unveiled in front of the world’s media last month

Sebastian Ungerland, the lead engineer Volkswagen sent to accompany us on our first drive, says it is roughly the same length, but marginally wider and higher, than the soon-to-be-replaced seventh-generation Golf.

The definitive production version of the new electric Volkswagen certainly looks bigger in the metal than it does in photographs. Its cab-forward profile and four conventional front-hinged doors, as well as an angled tailgate, are aimed at providing the sort of practicality demanded by existing Golf customers.

Although previewed nearly three years ago by the first of a number of ID concept cars, its looks remain contemporary. It’s perhaps more conventional in appearance than the BMW i3 with which it shares a rear-wheel-drive layout, but looks more confident, too.

There’s a distinct MPV look to the fixed side quarter windows, though there’s nothing at all mundane about the large wheelhouses, whose dimensions accept wheels up to 20 inches in diameter. A heavy cowl over the rear window and the unique wind-cheating design of the wheels also hint that Volkswagen is trying hard to deliver on very slippery aerodynamics.

As with most electric cars these days, the ID.3’s battery is housed completely within its floor structure. There are no real footwells either front or rear, so you have to step up over a fairly wide sill to enter the cabin.

With its world premiere at the 2019 Frankfurt motor show still more than two months away, Volkswagen decided to hide certain elements of the ID.3’s interior, including a deep dashboard designed to house a new augmented reality head-up display unit and two digital displays – one for the instruments and another for infotainment.

What it can’t hide, though, is its unique driving position, which by way of the new MEB platform is quite a bit different to that of the Golf. With a flat floor elevating the height of the pedals and a near-vertical steering wheel, it is quite sporting in character.

The driver’s seat is mounted higher than in Volkswagen’s more conventional hatchback models, setting up a rather commanding view of the road through a heavily raked windscreen. But with a short bonnet largely out of sight, judging the front corners is not always an easy task without the help of park distance sensors, which will be available on production versions of the new car.

Given its height, headroom can only be described as average. For its relatively compact length, however, the ID.3 offers outstanding legroom, thanks to a long wheelbase that places its wheels as close to each corner as possible.

It’s the size of a Golf outside, but the size of a Passat inside. Despite packaging its electric motor underneath the luggage compartment at the rear, load capacity is also well up to class standards at about 370 litres, or just 10L less than the existing Golf.

The ID.3 features a 150kW electric motor produced at Volkswagen’s Kassel factory in Germany. It also has a 58kWh lithium-ion battery claimed to provide a range of about 420km on the WLTP test cycle.

It is one of a number of specifications buyers will be able to choose when the new Volkswagen officially goes on sale later this year. Also available will be a less powerful 110kW electric motor, and both a smaller 44kWh and larger 77kWh battery with respective ranges of 330km and 550km.

First, flick the gear lever – a rotary device mounted high up on a pod just a hand stretch away from the steering wheel – into D (drive) mode. Then, nudge the rather heavily sprung accelerator pedal, and the ID.3 moves from standstill in quite an urgent manner.

In urban surroundings, it immediately delivers responsive and easy-to-live-with qualities. Initial impressions are based around the imbibing smoothness of the power delivery upon step-off, strong mid-range flexibility, and the near-silent nature in which the new Volkswagen goes about its business at typical urban speed limits.

There is no obvious whine from the electric motor mounted at the rear, even under hard acceleration. However, a constant lick of wind and some pitter-patter from the suspension were noticeable around the exterior mirrors.

But this is an early, hand-built car without the final-specification side glass and sound deadening, according to Ungerland. He suggests the production car will receive new windows featuring improved laminated glass to dampen wind noise, and new material within its structure to better isolate road noise.

The steering is quite direct but lacks any meaningful feedback. It does, however, manage to provide the ID.3 with outstandingly agile qualities due to a turning circle that is quite a bit smaller than that of the Golf at just 10.18m.

The electric motor mounted in the rear of the ID.3 is a synchronous-type unit, which Volkswagen deems better suited to everyday use in stop/start traffic conditions than the asynchronous type employed by Tesla in its various models.

There’s instant acceleration from standstill, though it’s not savage as torque has been limited to a fairly conservative 310Nm.

No official performance claims have been released yet, but I’d put the 0–100km/h time at around 7.5 seconds. Top speed is 160km/h. The new Volkswagen could theoretically go a lot faster, but battery energy levels deplete alarmingly quickly at such velocities, so it has been limited to protect range.

Volkswagen has engineered its first dedicated electric car to coast in a freewheeling fashion, without any mechanical drag, when you lift off the accelerator in Drive mode. So configured, it can be made to coast for seemingly impossible distances on flat roads to raise overall efficiency.

Those who prefer to simulate the braking effect of a combustion engine on a trailing throttle car can move the rotary gear lever into B (battery) mode to summon regenerative braking. Consequently, the ID.3 comes to a stop all by itself without the need for the driver to operate the brakes – just a lift off the accelerator – in a one-pedal-driving process similar to that of the Nissan Leaf.

The actual brakes themselves are not initiated until the threshold of the regenerative braking is breached. When it is, there is solid stopping power, although the brake pedal itself lacks any real feel.

Projecting real-world range is something that will have to wait until we get to drive the production ID.3 a meaningful distance. Our brief test of the first production-based prototype, however, suggested the new Volkswagen is likely to deliver on its promised 420km range.

Volkswagen plans to provide customers with a range of different charging possibilities, including both 7.2kW and 11kW on-board charger and optional 125kW fast charging capability – the latter of which will allow the 58kWh version we drove to be charged inside 30 minutes, according to Volkswagen.

The ID.3 corners in a nice tidy manner with resolutely composed qualities, even when it is being hustled along. With its battery housed wholly within a flat floor structure, it boasts a significantly lower centre of gravity than a conventional combustion-engine hatchback like the Golf. With power going to the rear wheels, it also delivers excellent punch out of corners without any interruption to the steering, which remains free of any drive forces.

The primary ride of the prototype we drove was quite impressive by electric car standards, even on the optional 20-inch wheels with 215/45-profile tyres.

Without the optional adaptive dampers that will be made available on the production version of the ID.3, its MacPherson strut (front) and five-link (rear) suspension managed to deliver effective control of vertical body movements, making for quiet and relaxed progress over smooth-surfaced roads. However, there is still some work to be done to its secondary ride, which as mentioned can become unsettled over less than smooth bitumen.

Interestingly, VW’s Ungerland indicated the 150kW version of the ID.3 we drove will not remain the top-powered version for long.

“We have the capability for four-wheel drive that will see an asynchronous electric motor mounted up front. With the two power sources, we’re looking at outputs comparable to today’s Golf GTI,” he says.

Volkswagen still has a lot of work to do to right the wrongs of the diesel emissions scandal, but if our first drive of the ID.3 is any indication, its future on the electric car front is bright.

There may still be a few remaining niggles to sort out before it sees showrooms, but the fundamentals of the German carmaker’s first dedicated electric car are very sound indeed.

The ID.3's Australian debut will be some time away, however, thanks to our government’s lack of foresight in mandating emissions regulations that no longer adhere with those in place in other key world markets.

Time will tell, but with Volkswagen suggesting its petrol and diesel engine models will begin to be phased out by the end of the next decade, local regulations need to move fast if Australia doesn’t want to fall further behind the rest of the world in the acceptance of electric cars.

NOTE: As a prototype drive, we have left this review unscored. 

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