Crossovers are inherently compromised vehicles that balance a variety of functions, often poorly. They're multitools that, like a Swiss Army Knife, do many things with the kind of mediocrity that just makes you wish for something more purpose-built. But just as using one to carve a bust of Harpo Marx would be impressive, so would creating a heart-pounding performance car from one of the least inspiring electric crossovers out there: the 2021 Volkswagen ID.4.
The first of VW's new generation of EVs sold in the United States arrived to little fanfare. It marked an important step in VW's transition toward EVs but not much else. Its range isn't exceptional, its infotainment has elicited four-letter words from my colleagues here at The Drive and over at Car Bibles, and its stock driving experience apparently doesn't do a whole lot to make up for either problem. In other words, it's highly representative of modern crossovers. But when you stop and consider the makeover VW issued to the ID.4s it races off-road in events like the Rebelle Rally and NORRA Mexican 1000—ones it let me abuse in the sands of Southern California—you'll see the potential in these widely loathed vehicles.
2021 Volkswagen ID.4 Pro AWD Rebelle Rally Specs
- Powertrain: 82-kWh lithium-ion battery | dual electric motors | 1-speed transmission | all-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 295
- Torque: 339 pound-feet
- Quick Take: Your parents' boring crossover is closer to a real off-road racer than you might think.
2021 Volkswagen ID.4 RWD NORRA Specs
- Powertrain: 82-kWh lithium-ion battery | AC permanent-magnet synchronous motor | 1-speed transmission | rear-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 201
- Torque: 228 pound-feet
- Quick Take: Modifications mean all the difference between a humdrum SUV and one that embodies the spirit of motorsport.
Ruggedized for Racing
I visited at the off-road Mecca that is Johnson Valley—site of the infamous King of the Hammers—to drive a pair of ID.4s modified for off-road racing. One was a rear-wheel-drive ID.4 First Edition and the other was an all-wheel-drive ID.4 Pro. The former is a hardcore, heavily modified example built to survive the NORRA Mexican 1000, while the latter contested the Rebelle Rally; the women-only event that has emerged as a grueling, weeklong competition between near-stock vehicles. Being built to compete in completely different races, their modifications differ vastly, though they shared several key alterations.
For starters, both cars' interiors were pared back, the AWD Rebelle car losing its rear seats, and the RWD NORRA car, damn near everything to shed weight. Both received strengthened suspension arms, extra skid plates to armor the potentially explosive battery pack against the terrain, and by way of a raised battery heat exchanger that increased the ID.4's approach angle, a little bit of extra coolant capacity.
Each rolled on lightweight, 18-inch OZ Racing wheels wrapped in Yokohama Geolandar A/T tires, though the NORRA car's were slightly larger to increase ground clearance—two more inches of which it gained from rally-style coilovers. The NORRA car was also fully caged and had its air conditioning deleted to save weight. As the Rebelle car wasn't allowed as extensive a list of modifications, it merely gained an onboard inflation system. But whether modified extensively or modestly, though, I learned on a rallycross course that either are enough to enliven a crossover like the ID.4.
Wringing the Rebelle ID.4
Despite overbearing stability control, jerking the roughly 4,800-pound AWD ID.4 Pro's wheel sent its rear end into a skid which its 295 horsepower and 339 pound-feet of torque had little trouble maintaining. Because much of that mass is concentrated in the battery beneath the seats, the ID.4 rotated with surprisingly little roll, responded predictably to corrections, and its weight distribution and AWD guaranteed the car went where it was pointed. Understeer loomed large but was easily tamed by the imperceptibly blended regenerative and friction braking, which brought weight back over the front axle.
It took only a few corners, some fumbling with the wheel, and one accidental whack of the wiper stalk to come to grips with drifting this ID.4, a car which had until now been completely alien to me. How to toss and catch it came to me more quickly than did the Acura Integra that I raced last summer (a car renowned for its approachable handling), which, even after hours on the track, didn't give up the secret of how to best treat its front end. This VW was far more forgiving, recovering from my blunders (and its own stumbles) alike with the dogged, yet playful determination of a golden retriever. Appliance-like it may be, but even a toaster can bring joy unto the world if you fill it with fireworks.
Switching to the NORRA Car
Such was also the case for the rear-drive NORRA ID.4, but for a completely different kind of driving.
Unlike the more powerful, all-wheel-drive Rebelle car, this one couldn't be wrung by the neck and expected to comply. Instead, it was explicit in which inputs were ineffective, losing its composure the second you rubbed it the wrong way, making it a bit like driving a cranky old housecat in that regard. Like said cat, and like the AWD car before it, this ID.4 had a stubborn streak in the form of that overeager traction control, which wouldn't allow its 201 hp and 229 lb-ft of torque to be doled out if it so much as sniffed a slide. Enough of your foolish games, human, it felt like it wanted to tell me.
But the finely tuned suspension and rigidity added by its full cage gave it a self-assurance over rough ground, like that of an animal prowling familiar stomping grounds. It didn't have the sheer grunt of the Rebelle car—a challenger to its territory—but it was clearly built more with sector splits in mind, and that was reflected in my lap times.
Of course, that might've been down to how quickly I gave up on trying to drift it, as again, that damn traction control meant both ID.4s were both slower and less fun than they could have been. (VW could've disabled it too; I was told this could be done through the OBD2 port.) Both had numb, video-gamey steering that communicated nothing through my hands. It left sensing oversteer to my eyes and butt—which, having leaned against the side of the car for a photo (which I hated and later deleted), was as gilded with dust as my newly blond nose hair by the end of the day.
Still, though my boogers were dirt-brown for days, my experience of driving this pair of off-road-modified ID.4s left me giddy and broadened my understanding of what a fun car can be. If electric crossovers—to many the antithesis of an invigorating driving experience—can be given character by what (in the Rebelle car's case) amounts to only a few light mods, interest in modifying cars, even electric ones, will carry on unabated. The future is still bright, even if the light's a different color.
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