The world of crossovers is chock full of vehicles that look like they could go off-road but fall short when the going gets tough. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised when I took a pair of Volkswagen ID.4s for a punishing drive out in the desert in California and found out they could hold their own.
Little did I know that the Volkswagen ID.4 can be turned into an off-road beast with just some minor mods. Sadly, there is one really big catch.
(Full Disclosure: Volkswagen invited me out to Johnson Valley, California to test a pair of off-road prepped ID.4s and a Class 11 Beetle. It paid for my airfare and put me in a nice western themed motel. It also loaned me an Atlas Cross Sport, which I promptly took to Joshua Tree and to the Salton Sea.)
Jalopnik has found itself behind the wheel of numerous Volkswagen ID.4s. Jason took the helm of the original rear-wheel-drive model and found it underwhelming. Later, I took the faster dual-motor all-wheel-drive model through mountains in Tennessee. I found it to have that perfect mix of speed when you want it and tame family crossover vibes the rest of the time.
I’ve long wondered how the ID.4 AWD would handle off-roading. That front motor really pulled the vehicle through curves, and I took it on a short jaunt down loose rocks. It seemed like it could be pretty good at getting dirty.
My curiosity isn’t unfounded. Volkswagen has a rich history of vehicles that are surprisingly capable when things get dirty. The Baja Bug is a famous example. Take a Beetle, jack it up a little, give it chunky tires and some extra cooling for the engine. That’s part of the formula behind the little Beetles that have proven themselves in everything from the Baja 1000 to the Dakar. At home, you’ll see them playing in mud, out on trails, or on the beach.
For a newer example, look no further than the Volkswagen Touareg.
These unibody SUVs look like they’d be as capable as your mom’s Toyota Camry, but they’re proven to be absolute beasts. The Fast Lane Car put a cheap used Touareg through lots of tests. One YouTube channel did a massive off-road test of 18 off-roaders where the Touareg finished near the top.
So is the ID.4 a beast in disguise? Let’s find out. Volkswagen’s plan for our small group of journalists was to take us out to the dry lake bed that finds itself becoming part of the King of the Hammers around this time of year. But we had to drive out from the warehouse the vehicles were stored.
To The Proving Ground
My test started out with me driving Volkswagen’s off-roading past. The car was a 1969 Volkswagen Beetle built to Class 11 desert racing specifications. This thing had a roll cage, harnesses, a foot of ground clearance, a Bilstein prototype “Ensenada” race suspension, and a hilariously complicated starting procedure.
You had to flip a bunch of switches then push a button to get the thing fired up. It felt a lot like a preflight check at flight school.
The scrappy little Beetle had all of the battle scars you’d expect in a racing machine. A headlight was cracked, the metalwork had all sorts of dents, dings and waves. The paint had all sorts of scratches. In the rear was 1600cc air-cooled four making roughly 74 hp and by Volkswagen’s own admission had a top speed of “75 MPH (downhill w/a tailwind).”
But driving it? The last time I had this much fun off-road it was a mostly stock Smart Fortwo in a forest. And this was better. I was near the front of the pack with the other testers behind me. The side-by-side in front of me kicked up sand, and it wasn’t long before I felt like I was in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The little bug was unfazed by anything the desert had to throw at it. It almost never needed to slow down for any change in the road surface. Most of the time it felt like the car and its 2,150 lbs of weight just skipped right through everything. There were a number of times I caught air and it felt like driving a side-by-side. But again, this thing was way more fun than a side-by side.
About halfway to the lake bed I switched to the Volkswagen ID.4 AWD Pro.
This one competed in the 1,400-mile Rebelle Rally, driven by Mercedes Lilienthal with Emily Winslow handling navigation. Volkswagen’s reps joked that my name was literally on the car.
I love this ID.4 for a number of reasons. The first is this rock star wrap job created by Salt Lake City-based artist Liz Kuz. I need it on all of my Volkswagens, please. But my love is more than just looks. Volkswagen says this was all that was done to this ID.4 for the Rebelle:
- Radiator moved to help with approach angle
- Reinforced select suspension arms while utilizing stock components, dampers and springs
- Kevlar underbody skid plates
- Thule roof rack accessories
- Yokohama Geolandar A/T tires and Method wheels
- Navigation software disconnected per event rules
- Terra Trip odometer computer installed per series rules
- Rear seats removed for camping cargo
- Tire inflation solution installed
- Water tank installed per rules
- Fire suppression system installed per rules
These are pretty minor modifications, I think. The rest of it is standard, including the two motors adding up to 295 hp. Even the air-conditioner still works.
Admittedly, I wasn’t the most kind to the car with my name literally printed on it. I misjudged some parts of terrain to be bunny hops when in reality they were basically the kinds of jumps that you see trophy trucks launching off of. The ID.4 AWD Pro took some seriously hard landings, but nothing broke. It never tried stopping or slowing down.
That said, the car’s driver assistance systems were freaking out and producing all kinds of errors after each landing. One of the other journalists there told me that on one landing the car told him to take it to a service center, but the error cleared itself soon after.
The ID.4 Pro also couldn’t really keep pace with the other ID.4 and the Class 11 Beetle. This car wasn’t built to be a sort-of desert truck. It was built to survive the Rebelle — and that it did. But when you tried to pick up the pace out here, the front end would practically lawn dart into the ground after sharp elevation changes and even real bunny hops. It wasn’t that the ID.4 AWD couldn’t handle it, but it just wanted to do things at a slower pace. The trade-off was that you got to do it in air-conditioning while everyone else sweated.
An Addictive Test Course
Once we reached the dry lake bed, Volkswagen turned us loose on a course it set up. The first section was an acceleration test. The second section was long sweeping slaloms. The third section was an S-curve around vegetation. You then did one more slalom before heading back to base. We all got to try all three, doing at least three laps in each car.
I hopped into the RWD ID.4 to start.
This one was the ID.4 First Edition that competed in the National Off-Road Racing Association Mexican 1000 (NORRA) with Tanner Foust at the helm and Emme Hall navigating. This 840-mile race wasn’t so much about winning as it was about just finishing. They finished at the back of the pack, but it was still a triumph for Volkswagen as they did it without running out of juice on the stages.
The modifications on this one are more extreme, and even included cutting out the wheel wells to fit thick tires.
- Modified off-road suspension and racing interior
- Interior was stripped and modified with a roll cage, racing seats and supplemental screens for key data such as battery temperature
- Suspension was thoroughly reworked with rally-style coil-over struts at all wheels and tubular lower control arms in the front and boxed lower rear links
- Radiator was raised several inches to improve approach angles and cooling capacity
- Additional skid plates of 3/8-inch steel added to undercarriage
- HVAC system removed
- Wheels were downsized from 19” to 18” with 255/70 R 18 tires to provide more sidewall
- Body lift of about 2” from stock
This car was pretty uncomfortable to drive. The racing seat was designed to perfectly fit Tanner Foust.
He may be taller than me, but I have a bit more junk in the trunk than he does. I didn’t so much sit in his seat as I put it on like a tiny coat. But that’s fine, because I wasn’t in there long enough for it to matter.
On the acceleration test, the ID.4 RWD built speed gradually, not enough to pin you back. The drivetrain is stock, including the sole 201 hp motor. On all laps it reached the end of the acceleration run at about 45 mph.
Next up was the slalom. If you pushed it too hard here, it would deliver heavy understeer as the traction control and stability control systems tried to bring you back straight.
Oh yeah, neither of the ID.4s had their electronic systems defeated. The best we were able to do was put them in Sport mode.
If you didn’t push it, the NORRA ID.4 handled the course well and without drama. I was never really able to do any hooligan type of stuff with it before the computers hit me with their digital rulers. There wasn’t much drifting to be had. It was plenty capable, but you felt like there could be even more. This NORRA car would get its chance later.
Next up was the Beetle, and this was a riot.
The acceleration test was a giggle. You never hit more than maybe 25-30 mph, but you felt like if you were going to go any faster you’d tear a rift in time and space. Oh, and you didn’t really want to go too fast because the brake pedal went to the floor and then barely worked when it got there. That only added to the fun.
On the slalom, this car ranged between the most fun possible and even pretty dangerous. On my first run, I shifted into second gear and kept it there. This put me right in a good spot in the power band to drift every single turn, almost uncontrollably giggling at how awesome it was. At one point the car was sideways enough that I was using the driver door net as a windshield.
The shenanigans only continued on the S-curve, where the Bug hugged the vegetation still going sideways.
On the second run, I kept it in first gear, and that was a huge mistake. During the slalom in first? I actually got the car on two wheels a couple of times.
Finally, I got back into the Rebelle car, and this one proved to be the ultimate best all-round.
It actually consistently hit 60 mph before the cones at the end of the acceleration run. And on the slalom? The front motor didn’t just eliminate understeer entirely, but replaced it with delicious oversteer.
The computers didn’t like it, but just like I found in Tennessee, the motors overpowered the nannies for fantastic drifting action.
With my heart still racing I was saddened to hear that we had to head back to the warehouse.
For the drive back, I chose Tanner’s sweatbox. I thought maybe it would be better at the desert trails than the course, and I was right.
It kept up with both the Beetle and the side-by-side without issue. And the same terrain that caused the Rebelle car to lawn dart into the ground? This ID.4 handled it with grace. I even got it to fly through the air, doing its best trophy truck impression. And it came down to some smoother landings than I’ve done with a plane before.
That day, Volkswagen showed us all that it still knew how to be great off-road. And now it’s doing it with electric vehicles. The company doesn’t build the Beetle here anymore, so this is probably the closest you can get to a present day Baja Bug. I drove all three of these cars with the biggest smile on my face, and I was only disappointed that there wasn’t any mud to play in.
Sadly, despite how good these cars were, Volkswagen doesn’t intend on making any off-road parts for the ID.4. These cars more or less exist as marketing tools for Volkswagen to show off how much of a beating its EVs can take. That’s fine, but I think it’s missing out. These ID.4s are capable enough and fun without having to build a whole new car.
Maybe the aftermarket will step up and do what Volkswagen won’t. Even just a skid plate and a lift kit would do wonders. Until then, a girl can dream.