Volkswagen ID.3 first drive: VW’s electric onslaught begins

Brace yourselves, because there is going to be an onslaught of battery-powered vehicles entering the market over the next 12 months or so, not least from German giant VW, which will release an electric SUV and a Tesla-bothering saloon by the time you’re making preparations for next Christmas.

The compact, Golf-sized ID.3 is designed to make an immediate impact with customers, not straying too far from the Golf stable (great build quality, roomy interior, typical VW interior tech) but offering enough funky touches to distance it from its comparatively reserved cousin.

Although VW experimented with an electric Golf in the past (with middling success), this is the first purpose-built ‘leccy vee dub, which has been developed from the ground up and rides on the Group’s latest MEB platform. Expect to hear that a lot in upcoming reviews, because VAG hopes to sell 20 million vehicles built on these underpinnings by 2029.

To give you some ideas of VW’s confidence in its ID.3, you only have to look at the badge. That ‘3’ represents its designated chapter in the history books, joining the ranks of the Beetle and Golf in terms of significant success stories.

Phew, lofty ambitions indeed but Volkswagen hopes to achieve legendary status for the ID.3 by pleasing the broadest possible audience (a bit like Beetle and Golf did/does). As a result, the rear-wheel-drive electric hatch is offered with three choices of battery packs: 45, 58 or 77kWh variants, which deliver a range that varies from 260 to 340 miles (WLTP). Prices are slated to start at just over £30,000 (with the UK government’s EV grant) and rise to around £40,000 for the most lavishly appointed and most powerful cars.

First things 1st

For now, we have the aptly named 1st Edition, which features the middleweight 58kWh battery and comes loaded with plenty of enticing features, such as the Discover Pro Navigation with 10-inch touchscreen (lifted from latest Golf), natural voice control and semi-autonomous adaptive cruise control. It costs an equally middleweight £35,880.

Jump inside the relatively spartan interior an it all feels very roomy and airy, the experience aided by a massive panoramic glass roof that lets plenty of light flood onto the neutral tones of the cabin’s fabrics and materials. It goes some way to replicating the “lounge like” experience so many designers bang on about when waxing lyrical about a concept car. The lofty front seats are comfy, offer a great view and they both pack armrests, which I suppose is ‘lounge like’ when you think about it.

The 10-inch infotainment system spans the centre console and most of the car’s functionality is taken care of by touch sliders. There aren’t many buttons to speak of and even the module to operate the windows has been slimmed down.

Bizarrely, the ‘compact’ unit that resides in the driver’s door now has just two switches that control the front windows. If you want to control the rear, you have to tap a touch panel labelled ‘rear’. Want to control them all? Hold this button until it flashes.

There’s probably perfectly good explanation for this (weight saving? cost saving? general tidying up of buttons?) but it’s beyond infuriating. The touch panel switches that control the wing mirrors is equally fiddly and after a while, you pine for the halcyon days when cars were festooned with switches.

Other notable interior design touches include the drive selector switch, which is basically a large twistable button located behind the steering wheel. It has more than a whiff of BMW i3 about it, as does the colour screen that also sits behind the steering wheel. There’s also something called an ID.Light, which consists of a large LED tube that spans the inside of the windscreen. It flashes like an Amazon Echo Dot when you use the “Hello ID” voice commands and glows when the car is charging to notify the user of battery status.

It’s a neat touch and Volkswagen have even integrated this light into the navigation system, where it strobes left or right to signify an upcoming motorway exit. However, it feels like the marque could do more with it, bringing it into play at more junctions and turnings, as it acts as a useful little navigational tool. The infotainment system is otherwise fast and its menus intuitive, although the vehicle I drove didn't have Apple CarPlay or Android Auto yet. Apparently, this is an update that's 'coming soon'.

The daily drive

Keyless entry in this version works extremely well with the general demeanour of the car, as it’s simply a case of hopping in, twisting that drive selector and then prodding right foot to get going. When you come to a stop, just prod the ‘P’ button and walk away. The car takes care of locking up.

That’s the overarching feeling you get after spending some time with the ID.3, it’s just really easy to live with. The driving experience is judged just right: not so taught and sporty that it gets uncomfortable but with just enough rear-wheel-drive characteristics and electric motor performance to make things interesting when the mood takes.

Acceleration is punchy and darting in and out of busy city traffic is a joy, thanks to the raised seating position, good visibility and point ’n’ squirt performance. But ID.3 is also a convincing long distance machine. The seats are incredibly comfortable, the car stable at speed, the lane assist not overbearing and the near-silent cabin a relaxing way to while away the miles. Range is also very reliable, with a long 130-mile journey in the car leaving me with 75 or 80-miles left in the tank. That's easily enough to potter around town for the remainder of the week, without needing to hunt down a charging point.

The charismatic Honda e feels like a more adept city car and its Grand Designs-inspired interior is definitely more of a conversation starter amongst those who ride inside, but its range is limited and it doesn’t feel as solid at higher speeds. The Nissan Leaf can just about match the middleweight VW’s range but it feels a bit bland by comparison and it certainly doesn’t drive as well as the ID.3.

Then we have the excellent Hyundai Kona Electric, with its impressive 300-mile range, £30k asking price and no nonsense interior, but good luck getting hold of one of those. And good luck attempting to have fun on a favoured country road.

Volkswagen has ensured every stage of the ID.3 buying and ownership experience is thoroughly considered, from the pre-determined trim lines (you can’t pick and choose options) that massively speed up production to the carbon-neutral manufacturing facility in Zwickau, Germany, this is a car that has been designed and produced to sell at scale.

This could explain why the ID.3 feels a little tame compared to the concept car upon which it is based, or Tesla's Silicon Valley approach to its vehicles. But tame is the name of the game, because VW knows that to rival the Golf or Beetle in terms of sales, it needs to appeal to the everyman not just the early adopter.

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