Volkswagen and GM take on Tesla with new compact electric SUVs

The Volkswagen ID.4 interior includes gauges on a digital screen that adjusts up and down with the steering wheel.
(CNN)
After years of saying it would happen, major automakers are finally coming out withmore affordable electric vehicles for regular people.

The Volkswagen ID.4 and Chevrolet Bolt EUV are both new compact SUVs that are priced below $35,000, including, in VW’s case, government incentives. That’s well under the average price of most new electric vehicles. They are also less expensive, at least in their base versions, than the cheapest Tesla currently offered, a two-wheel-drive Model 3 sedan starting at about $37,000. (Tesla and GM vehicles are no longer eligible for federal electric vehicle tax credits.)



Both automakers are hoping to catch up, and maybe even pass, Tesla in total electric vehicle sales. GM’s current electric vehicle, the Bolt EV, hasn’t even come close to outselling the Tesla Model 3. But GM hopes to sell only electric vehicles by 2035 and the new Bolt EUV represents a tiny first step toward that much broader lineup.

VW, meanwhile, first launched its new ID line of electric vehicles last year with the ID.3, a hatchback not sold in the US, and the ID.4 crossover.

The new electric SUVs from VW and Chevy represent a chance for these automakers to compete in the market for relatively entry-level EVs that Tesla has so far dominated in the United States, but one that analysts view as vulnerable.

I had the chance to drive both of these new electric SUVs. Not only are they strong competitors for one another, but they will also test Tesla’s ability to keep its firm hold on the electric vehicle market in the US.

VW’s ID.4 is fun but flawed

Fun and friendly looking, the ID.4 takes the prize for design. It has the approachable appeal of the classic Beetle, with an added electric glow. A line of lights across the front suggest a smile. As an option, even the round VW logo on the front can glow.



VW designers and engineers didn’t want the ID.4 to be too weird or intimidating for those used to regular, internal combustion-powered crossovers. It’s supposed to be just weird enough to be fun.

As with a Tesla, there’s no need to press a Start button. Just get in while carrying the key fob, press down on the brake pedal and the ID.4 springs to life. (There is a small button behind the steering wheel to turn on the ID.4 in “accessory mode” if you just want to listen to the radio or play with the navigation system.) Look down into the driver’s footwell and you see the double bar “pause” icon on the brake pedal and the triangle “play” icon on the accelerator pedal.

The SUV I was driving had rear-wheel-drive, something rarely found these days as most mainstream vehicles are front-wheel drive. All-wheel-drive will be offered on later versions of the ID.4.

Thanks in part to that rear-wheel-drive design, the ID.4 has a nice, subtle steering feel. With the front wheels only doing the steering, it’s easy to sense the road’s surface through the steering wheel as well as what the vehicle is doing as it turns through curving roads and corners.

Given how nicely it drives, it’s a shame how badly the ID.4 stops. The brakes feel squishy, indistinct and awful. In an electric car, stopping is somewhat complicated. Press lightly on the brake pedal and the electric motors are used to slow the car, a process that also generates electricity to recharge the batteries a bit. Press hard and traditional “friction brakes” come into play stopping the vehicle the old fashioned way. Getting those two separate braking systems working together smoothly takes some effort and finesse. Volkswagen apparently hasn’t quite got this down yet.



Like many other electric vehicles, the ID.4 can be set for “one pedal” driving, more or less. With this setting, just lifting up on the accelerator pedal tells the electric motors to slow the SUV. Driving down a twisty road this way, using the accelerator pedal alone to slow down for curves, is great fun. Besides the sheer enjoyment I was even able to gain a couple miles of driving range going downhill on a winding mountain road.

Despite the ID.4’s small size and sleek shape, the backseats are surprisingly roomy. There’s also a fair amount of cargo space. The quality and selection of the materials in the ID.4, at least in the First Edition version I was driving, also seemed rather nice.

Prices for the ID.4 start at about $40,000, but the already sold out First Edition model cost about $44,000. Buyers will be able to get a $7,500 electric vehicle tax, credit, though, taking that starting price down to around $32,500.

With 201 horsepower from its electric motor, the two-wheel-drive ID.4 was plenty peppy enough for ordinary enjoyment. The all-wheel-drive version will get up to 302 horsepower so that should be even more fun provided VW can improve the lousy brakes.

Chevrolet Bolt EUV is a solid base for GM

The Bolt EUV is a good example of just how little difference there can be between a hatchback and an SUV these days.

In this case, there are just a few inches between the Chevrolet Bolt EV (electric vehicle) hatchback car and the Bolt EUV, or electric utility vehicle. The EUV is six-inches longer and just slightly taller than the Bolt EV. In terms of practical space, this means three inches more rear seat legroom but, somehow, no added cargo space. The VW ID.4 boasts much more cargo space.

If you were thinking you might get all-wheel-drive since it is, after all, a crossover SUV — or EUV or whatever — sorry, but no. The Bolt EUV will only come with front-wheel-drive, according to General Motors. GM will offer other electric all-wheel-drive SUVs in the future so executives saw no need to offer it on the Bolt EUV now.

The Bolt EUV drives nicely and, in terms of its interior design and features, it seems like a more mature option than the VW. You do have to press a button to turn it on. And instead of twisting a polygon-shaped knob, as you would in the ID.4, the gear selector relies on buttons and pull switches similar to that in the Chevrolet Corvette. (That’s about the only similarity to the Corvette, though.)

Unlike the ID.4, the Bolt offers true genuine one pedal driving that can slow the car to a complete stop. Unless there’s an emergency demanding a quick halt, you don’t ever need to touch the brake pedal at all. Lift your foot off the accelerator and it will quickly pull itself to a full stop. There’s even a paddle on the steering wheel you can pull to slow down more aggressively. That came in handy when I drove down the same twisty mountain road I’d taken the ID.4 on.



The Bolt also offers one neat option no other electric vehicle currently has, GM’s Super Cruise. On many major highways, Super Cruise will enable you to safely take your hands off the steering wheel and your feet off the pedals. The Bolt EUV will stay in its lane and avoid other vehicles while a camera watches your eyes to make sure you’re looking at the road. It’s a neat trick, although I’m not totally convinced it’s preferable to similar driving assistance systems from other automakers, all of which make me keep a hand on the steering wheel.

The brakes on the Bolt EUV are much better than the ID.4’s. This is one place where GM’s decades of experience engineering electric vehicles really shows. The Bolt’s brakes feel smooth, natural and direct.

Prices for the Bolt EUV start at about $34,000. Because GM has sold so many electric vehicles over the years, its customers are no longer eligible for EV tax credits. That means these two SUVs are roughly equally priced to start. Both will also go about 250 miles on a full charge.

The Bolt EUV will be available this summer but the ID.4 will start arriving in dealers at the end of this month.

Ultimately, the Bolt EUV seems like sort of a placeholder. With a few tweaks to the Bolt EV — which has also had some changes and improvements, including a nicer design — there’s now an electric SUV GM can offer while it works on better stuff for the future. Plus, from a purely practical standpoint, the ID.4 boasts much more cargo space which is, after all, what a lot of people want in an SUV.

For now, the main competition isn’t against one another though. These small electric SUVs are for people who don’t have the money to spend on a Tesla. Despite its flaws, the ID.4, with its stylish design, practicality and optional all-wheel-drive, stands the better chance of reaching that customer before Tesla does.

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