Volkswagen Readies Its ‘People’s’ EV

VW’s ID.4 leads the 2021 stampede to electrification for the mass market.

At a starting price of $39,995, Volkswagen intends the 2021 ID.4 to be at the vanguard of affordable long-range electric vehicles. (Volkswagen)

The parallels between Volkswagen’s 2021 ID.4 electric vehicle (EV) and the brand’s icon, the Beetle, are unmistakable – particularly the rear-mounted powerplant driving the rear wheels. Some believe there’s a certain cosmic appropriateness at work. The Beetle introduced America to a unique European concept of mobility for all. The ID.4, VW’s first dedicated EV for the U.S. market at a starting price of $39,995, may be one of the first models to make the EV an option for middle Americans.

Cutaway of VW group lithium-ion battery pack. (Volkswagen)

There have been affordable EV predecessors, but until now they were either electrified versions of conventional models or comparatively short-range efforts such as Nissan’s Leaf. These were compromised efforts in a wide-open-spaces America that never was going to accept small EVs with small battery capacity and small driving ranges. The ID.4 is Volkswagen’s Beetle for a new era. It leads a surge of EVs such as Ford’s Mustang Mach-E ready for showrooms and aggressively priced to tempt mainstream buyers (see chart). Everyman EVs are finally here.

In base configuration, the ID.4 is propelled by a single drive motor at the rear axle – a rear-“engine”/rear-drive arrangement similar to the brand’s original Beetle. (Volkswagen)

It may not be the racing grandeur of “Ford vs. Ferrari,” but the early rounds of the affordable-EV tussle could shape us as Ford vs. Volkswagen (even though the two companies are closely tied in an ever-widening EV and automated-driving global alliance). VW said it is investing 11 billion euros in emobility by 2024 and will produce 1.5 million “e-cars” by 2025. ID.4 is expected to account for one-third of that total.

To answer, Ford in September confirmed it was cutting the initially-announced price of the Mach-E by $1,000 to $3,000 depending on model, meaning a rear-wheel-drive Mach-E starts at $42,895, just $2,900 more than the RWD base model of VW’s ID.4 (all prices before the federal $7,500 tax incentive or state rebates and before delivery charges). The Mach-E also was scheduled to start customer deliveries in the late 2020, getting a small head start on the ID.4, which is slated for VW’s U.S. showrooms in the first quarter of 2021.

Sales for EVs are projected to expand thanks to the larger number of truck/SUV configurations expected by 2023. (Cox Automotive)
(Bloomberg NEF)

“Price is absolutely a really important factor,” asserted Matt Renna, vice-president of e-mobility for Volkswagen of America, in an interview with SAE International. But it’s not the only metric crucial to mainstream success: “It's price, space and range,” he added. Renna drove the company’s battery-electric e-Golf as personal transportation for more than five years and is confident U.S. consumers will respond to a 250-mile (402-km) EV with an SUV-type body style that pencils out at well less than $40,000 after tax rebates. “I'm pretty experienced in EVs, and if I felt the e-Golf was a good customer value proposition, I think that ID.4 is a great customer value proposition.”

Battery and drive layout for the 2021 ID.4. (Volkswagen)

Meanwhile, corporate valuations for industry heavyweight Tesla and many hopeful EV startups have skyrocketed as cost concerns abate. Bloomberg NEF, in its Electric Vehicle Outlook 2020 report, summarizes: “Price parity between EVs and internal combustion vehicles is reached by the mid-2020s in most segments, but there is a wide variation between geographies.”

Initial ID.4 models will be imported from VW’s Zwickau assembly plant in Mosel, Germany. Starting in 2022, VW said in a release, U.S. ID.4 production will be sourced from the company’s assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the plant will build a “localized version” of the ID.4 with pricing starting around $35,000.

Detailing price, space and range

Some EV number-crunchers already are questioning whether driving ranges of much less than 300 miles will suit American demands, but Renna said the hard economics of current battery technology dictate that EVs without a premium badge to justify higher pricing are subject to an inescapable cost calculation. “Range is just highly correlated with material cost – and therefore the price of the car. We fight for efficiency, we fight for not only cost efficiency of the battery, but energy efficiency of the drivetrain. Those both go in part to develop that cost and range equation.”

Tumbling cost for lithium-ion batteries is accelerating the advent of long-range EVs. (Bloomberg NEF)
The ID.4 was developed on Volkswagen's MEB modular vehicle architecture designed specifically for electric vehicles. (Volkswagen)
Uncluttered cabin architecture of the 2021 ID.4. (Volkswagen)

Battery costs are on a steady downward trajectory (see chart), a major factor in the coming explosion of EV choice, particularly for SUV and truck body styles. According to Cox Automotive, there will be 18 non-luxury EV trucks or SUVs available by 2023. The heavy consumer shift in the U.S. to SUVs and pickups is what inspired VW to give its first EV for the U.S. a compact SUV configuration; he said interior room was crucial for customer appeal.

“There are a lot of more-compact SUV's in the market, which are more energy efficient because they take up less space and aerodynamic area. And they're lighter. But we felt they're less usable. We also make those [sub-compact SUVs], like the ID.3 in Europe. But the sweet spot for the U.S. market seems to be the compact SUV and we wanted something that delivered the same utility as the sweet spot of the market.”

Volkswagen has made much of its investment in the ID.4’s modular MEB dedicated-EV architecture and its flexibility. Renna said MEB is adaptable for the wide spectrum of EVs the global market will demand. He said MEB can range from the ID.3 to large vehicles such as a probable production version of the ID Buzz concept, a 3-row van/SUV. The VW-Ford alliance will see the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker source 600,000 MEB platforms and related components starting in 2023.

“We're the masters at VW, the masters at this platform strategy,” Renna asserted. “We understand which parts are efficient to carry over car-to-car. And that can span a very wide range of vehicle sizes and which parts need to be invested for separately. When you look at the MEB platform, being able to scale from an ID.3, all the way up to an ID Buzz, I think, demonstrates the scalability of the platform.” By 2029, VW projects that 20 million vehicles will be built on MEB.

Projected EV model launches in the U.S. through 2023. (Cox Automotive)
Matt Renna, vice president of e-mobility at Volkswagen of America. (VWoA)

Renna added that MEB also has its own type of advantages for crucial dimensional aspects such as width and dash-to-axle ratios. “People get focused on width, because of axles and tire loads, a lot of things to do with the chassis components, and that's consistent. But we call [MEB] a single platform; we designate within the platform, our platform variants. With those platform variants, you can change axle programs and width appropriately to manage those attributes.

“I think that's what makes EV platform strategy maybe a little bit different from ICE,” he continued, “because the cross-structure is quite a bit different. You don't have the engine in front of you, which gives you a lot more flexibility, overhangs and that axle-to-dash distance. Whereas in an internal combustion vehicle, a lot of your crash load is going through the front engine compartment. You've got to design the car very differently. That’s how some of the platform strategy differs between electrics and internal combustion.”

Compact dimensions, conventional construction

VW said the ID.4 “sits squarely in the middle of the compact SUV segment, size-wise.” At 180.5 in (4,585 mm) overall, it is 4.6 in (117 mm) shorter overall than the company’s Tiguan, while the ID.4’s wheelbase is just 0.9 in (23 mm) shorter than the Tiguan’s 108.9-in (2,766-mm) between axles. The ID.4’s height is 64.4 in (1,636 mm), 1.9 in (48 mm) lower than Tiguan.

Although its battery pack is encased in aluminum, the ID.4’s body and chassis are steel, VW said. The ID.4’s battery supplier is SK Innovation (SKI) and that the U.S.-built ID.4’s battery cells will be sourced from SKI’s new production facility in Commerce, Georgia – although SKI is in a legal technology-ownership tussle with battery giant LG Chem.

The 82-kWh battery pack for the rear-drive ID.4 is comprised of 288 pouch-configuration cells arranged in 12 modules housed in the aluminum structure between the chassis side rails. Renna said the AWD variant – coming “roughly midyear,” – will use the same battery pack size. “[The AWD model] takes a little hit in range, but it’s the same battery pack.”

Borrowing one beloved customer perk from Tesla – the company Volkswagen Group of America CEO Scott Keogh said effectively isn’t a direct competitor – the ID.4 comes with three years of fast charging from VW subsidiary Electrify America. The ID.4 is fitted with an 11-kW onboard charger for AC recharging or DC fast-charging. At a DC charger with 125-kW capability, the company said the ID.4 can recharge from 5% of battery capacity to 80% in roughly 38 minutes. The traction motor for the rear-drive ID.4 generates 201 hp (150 kW) and 288 lb-ft (390 Nm). When the ID.4 is fitted with AWD, it will develop 302 hp (225 kW), the company said.

Volkswagen engages in in-house design and manufacture of the traction motors for its battery-electric ID-family EVs, with major components coming from various manufacturing sites in its VW Group Components division. (Volkswagen)

In a strategy certain to differentiate automakers in the new EV landscape, Renna said VW is intent on designing and developing much of the crucial hardware for EVs, including the traction motors, in-house. “We have an internal components division (Volkswagen Group Components) in Germany. I think some of the better-known are things like seats and steering gears, made for certain plants. But that team has also expanded into batteries. This is the department we've talked about before, called the Center of Excellence. But, included in that components division is also e-machines,” Renna explained.

“That doesn't necessarily mean that 100% of cars made by Volkswagen or Volkswagen Group are supplied by this components division,” he added. “But we do consider them kind of an internal supplier. And in the area of batteries and drive units, we absolutely see it as a strategic investment for us and our technology.”

Changing climate via the market

Variety of components produced in-housed for Volkswagen’s MEB-platform EVs, as demonstrated by the recently launched ID.3 subcompact hatchback. (Volkswagen)

Whether consumers are ready for EVs or vice-versa, the propulsion transformation has another driver: the accelerating push to address climate change. Although the COVID-19 pandemic injected disruption into some launch plans, a September 2020 report from Cox Automotive addressing the COVID disruption said, “the push to electric is inescapable as carmakers scramble to meet strict emissions targets in Europe, China and nationally, including California and an ever-growing list of states that have adopted or are poised to adopt California’s zero-emissions mandate.”

Renna makes the connection between climate change and mass-market potential for EVs. “I think our core vision for this product was accessible e-mobility. And it comes from a greater place of us understanding the effects of CO2 on climate change and the contribution of the transportation industry in that,” he said. “And if you look at where we're going as a company, globally, towards being carbon neutral in the future, I think the way we get there is by creating efficient, clean transportation.

“We can sit and talk about the connected features, the autonomous features, the range, the performance – and of course each one of those is their own engineering feat,” Renna said of the ID.4 “I think we deliver a lot of bang for the buck on this car. I think that's what we're most proud about is, giving a more-than-viable, a really compelling package that we feel furthers mainstream adoption of clean transportation.”