EV Diary: Test Drive to Road Trip

Observations after about 2 months living with the Volkswagen ID.4

A couple of months ago, after about 13 years driving traditional hybrids, I got my first all-electric car, a Volkswagen ID.4. I had a set of requirements that narrowed the list of candidates down quite a bit:

  • My lease was ending in August, so I was limited to EVs available then.
  • Both because I can’t charge at home and because I wanted something suitable for road trips, I wanted a range of at least 200 miles.
  • No Tesla, because I hate Elon Musk and I hate the way the company does business, from deceptive pricing in their ads (taking “estimated gas savings” off the MSRP!), to building a proprietary charging network, to perverting the perception of EVs from environmental responsibility to dick-swinging for rich people.
  • I’d been hoping for a mid-life crisis convertible, so I wanted something that was at least a little bit fun to drive.

Even with just a few options left, I still went back and forth quite a bit over which one made the most sense. All the online discussion around EVs either made it sound either like it was a complete non-issue, which seemed unlikely; or that you spend all of your time fixated on routing to the next charging station, becoming intimately familiar with kWh/hour charging rates, charging curve, and your miles per kWh.

I wanted to see more accounts of what it was like to drive an EV day-to-day, for an average person. So here’s my thoughts on owning an ID.4 for a little over two and a half months, including one road trip.

Overall Usage and Charging

I work from home and only drive the car once or twice a week, for short trips around town. Here at the tail end (I hope!) of the pandemic, I’d estimate I drive it about 60 miles per week, maximum. We’re renting an older house, so there’s no way for me to charge at home, and installing a charger isn’t an option. Instead, I’ve been using the Electrify America stations at the local Target or grocery store. With as little as I drive, I only have to charge it once every two weeks.

Volkswagen includes three years of free charging at Electrify America stations with every ID.4, which has turned out to be an even bigger incentive than I initially thought. I like knowing exactly how much I’m going to spending on the car, with just the lease and insurance payments. I’m not sure that it’s actually “saving” me any money compared to a non-EV, considering how expensive the car was, but it’s definitely a lot more convenient.

The Pro S Gradient Package

Consensus among reviews of the ID.4 emphasized words like “comfortable” and “dependable” instead of “luxurious” or “exciting,” but it’s still easily the nicest car I’ve ever had. The seats are super comfortable, the cabin is quiet, and the tech system includes a pretty huge screen for CarPlay. The front seats have a massaging feature, which is weird but not entirely unpleasant, and I’m not exactly sure yet whether I like it or not.

The trivial things that helped push me over the edge toward the ID.4 were the lighting and the sunroof. The sunroof is huge and covers the entire top of the car, and there’s an automated fabric cover you can extend to keep it from getting too hot. It’s by no means a replacement for a convertible, but it does make the interior seem lighter and bigger. And under the dash and door handles, there’s colored lighting that is RGB-configurable from the main panel, which is exactly the kind of nerdy thing that appeals to those of us who’ve spent too much money on Hue light bulbs.

When I first heard that Volkswagen wasn’t going to bring over the hatchback ID.3 to the US, but only the crossover-SUV ID.4, I was worried that it’d be way too big for what I need. As it turns out, it’s not that big, and it doesn’t drive all that differently from my Honda Insight. There’s plenty of space in the back for two big suitcases and a couple smaller bags, but it’s not quite as cavernous as a minivan. I think you feel most of the space in the passenger area, as there’s tons of leg room. I can imagine going camping and sleeping in the car, and the prospect actually seems appealing.

Oakland to Los Angeles

In my mind, the big test for whether I’d made the right choice in getting the ID.4 was seeing how it did on a road trip down to LA. We spent a week down there, which was a 370-mile drive each way.

Because the ID.4 has around a 250 mile range, it could ostensibly make the drive from the east bay to LA with only two charging stops. (In fact, that’s all that the A Better Routeplanner app recommends). We ended up doing three charging stops each way, mostly to keep from having such range anxiety.

Driving through the Grapevine is a stress test on an EV — and its first-time drivers — with all the changing elevations and constantly fluctuating range estimates. After over-taxing the battery on all the inclines, the car was reporting that we had less than 50 miles range left, leaving us scrambling to find a charging station somewhere nearby. Recharging all the way downhill into the valley had our range estimate back up in the high 90s, which would’ve been plenty to make it to the hotel. We stopped anyway, which turned out to be a good idea for having a comfortable amount of range for sightseeing the next day. I think in general, though, the lessons were to be a little more conservative about how frequently we charged the car, and not to trust the range indicator on any type of incline.

The road trip was odd because I’ve taken that drive down I-5 at least once a year for the 25 years I’ve lived in the Bay Area, and I know all the stops almost instinctively. It was odd stopping at Targets and Wal-Marts instead of gas stations, and really weird not stopping at Tejon Ranch for dinner and a refill of gas. Stops ranged around 25-40 minutes, which I’d originally thought would feel like an eternity stuck in a parking lot. In practice, though, it was a perfect length of time to go to the bathroom and have a fast food meal.

We did have one incident where a charger didn’t work, but moving to a different one worked fine. None of the stations that we needed were full, or inoperative. And we never had to pay for a non-Electrify America charger. I’ll be interested to see how the charging infrastructure improves, if it’ll ever become as convenient and ubiquitous as gas stations along a major freeway. Until then, though, it just adds some down time to the trip, which is probably better for my physical and mental state. Driving down I-5 tends to stress both my bladder and my patience.

Not Walking in LA

In the city itself, I’d picked a hotel 25 miles away from the office where I was working, meaning that we ended up driving at least 60 miles a day. That meant recharging once every two days — usually before the battery dropped too far below 20%, and only to 80% each time.

The ID.4 warns if you drop below around 40 miles of range left — I don’t know the exact number, since we only encountered it a few times. It’s probably a little too conservative a warning, but it does at least give you ample range to find a charger. The charging interface in the car also recommends charging to 80% maximum, for the health of the battery. (We charged to 100% during the drive up and down, but only to 80% within the city). It also slows down its charging rate significantly after 80%, where going from 80-100% will often take at least as long as it did to get from 20-80%.

I was surprised that there weren’t more EA stations within Los Angeles, considering how car-dependent the city is. Most of them were in Target or Wal-Mart parking lots, or in Bank of America lots. We did have to pay $5 to park in one of the BoA lots, but the charging itself was free; that lot was also the only time we ever had to wait for a charging station to open. (Interestingly, every other charger was occupied by another ID.4). One of the charging stations was in a parking deck for an uncomfortably fancy mall; luckily, everything was closed, so we couldn’t be reminded how everything there was way out of our price range.

At least half the time, the charging station was free without my having to sign in. I’m not sure if EA was running a promotion during that period, or what. The other times, it was easy enough to use the EA app to activate charging. Occasionally it would require unplugging it and plugging it back in, as any good technology should. It will be a welcome upgrade when the car is able to negotiate with the charging station itself, without using the app; this is supposed to be included in an upcoming software update for the ID.4 One problem with the Electrify America app is that it doesn’t allow for family accounts, so my fiance had to sign in as me to be able to charge the app while he was driving.

The Joy of Driving

Since my only experience with electric vehicles prior to last year was golf carts and go carts, I’d expecting a lengthy process of sudden starts and stops while I got used to driving a real EV. Neither of the ones I test drove — the Mustang Mach-E and the ID.4 — took any longer to get used to than your typical rental car.

Driving the ID.4 is extremely comfortable, and I’ve got almost no complaints. My last car, a Honda Insight hybrid, could’ve been my forever car in terms of comfort and its absurdly high gas mileage, but it was a drag to drive — even moderate hills or 65-70 mph highway speeds would have it make it sound like it was redlining. Reviews of the ID.4 all reminded people to lower their expectations of EV power, but I can only imagine that’s compared to meaningless 0-60 figures, or the aforementioned Tesla-led dick-swinging. I’ve been very impressed by the responsiveness of the ID.4 when I’m passing and merging — I press lightly on the accelerator, and the power is there immediately.

I have two main complaints, aside from the aforementioned unreliability of the range estimates. First is that there’s no explicit way to turn the car off and on. As it is, if you’ve got the key and you’re sitting in the driver’s seat, pressing your foot on the brake turns the car on. Putting it in Park and taking your foot off the brake turns it off. There is a button on the side of the steering column, but more often than not, it toggles the car into this weird indeterminate third state, where it’s neither off nor on. I think VW went a little too far trying to make the ID.4 into a future car instead of just giving us a power button.

The other complaint is something I can’t tell is specific to the ID.4, or is common among EVs: because the car doesn’t have gears, it doesn’t behave like a regular car on hills. In particular, parallel parking on the hill in front of my house is nerve-wracking, since the car always seems to want to either roll backwards or accelerate too quickly into the car in front.

The Verdict

Overall, I’m really, really happy with the car, even more than I’d expected. I’d thought that it would be like driving the disappointingly boring Jetta I had years ago, with the only consolation being the smugness that comes from being environmentally responsible. But in practice it’s really nice, and it’s exactly as fun to drive as I need it to be. I keep looking for excuses to drive it more often.

At the time I was deciding on a car, the only cars with 200+ miles of range were the ID.4, the Mustang Mach-E, the various Tesla models, the Hyundai Kona, and the Audi E-tron. The only ones in my price range were the ID.4, the Mach-E, and the Kona. I test drove the Mach-E but didn’t love driving it; it just felt a little too big, like I was taking up too much of the road, and I think any extra power it has would be wasted on a driver as conservative as I tend to be.

The Kona is pretty great on almost every account. We saw a couple at charging stations on the trip down to LA, and I really like the look and overall size of them. But I think they feel a little too “conventional,” on account of being designed for both ICE and EV models. I wanted the goofy extras that came with ID.4, like the sunroof and accent lighting.

Since I started looking in earnest, Chevy came out with the new Volt, Kia announced the EV 6, and Hyundai announced the Ioniq 5. Of all of them, I think the Ioniq 5 is my favorite in terms of looks and features, as well as the emphasis on sustainable materials. It’s likely to cost as much in its base model as the top-spec ID.4, though.

With as much as I like the ID.4 now, I can only imagine it’ll be even better when we move somewhere where I can charge at home and park not on a hill. I’m skeptical I’ll want to keep it after the lease is up, although the only reason I wouldn’t is because I’m hoping even more efficient batteries and more options in car design come along over the next three years. I’ll be very happy never owning a gas-powered car again.