So what is it about the I.D – which can stand for Identity, Individual Design, IDea or anything else you want – that makes Volkswagen so sure it can succeed where every other manufacturer who has tried has so far failed? What wizardry has it alighted upon that is going to turn the I.D into a literal million-seller?
The company is surprisingly opaque on the subject. Christine Leuderalbert is a VW e-Mobility product specialist who says only that the car will contain ‘the latest, most energy-dense battery technology’. But it will still have lithium ion batteries like every pure electric car since the Nissan Leaf broke cover in 2010 and, it appears, will not be built around a super-light, strong but expensive carbonfibre shell like the BMW i3. Using VW’s new dedicated electrical MEB architecture, it will follow conventional thinking in laying out its batteries flat and thin along the floor, pushing the wheels out to each corner so the powertrain resembles a skateboard, albeit with an electric motor at the back driving the rear wheels.
So, it seems that VW’s approach is the one that almost always results in the greatest success: wait for everyone else to do the pioneering stuff, make all the cock-ups and sort them out, then commit when the hard work has been done and direct all your resources to doing what’s already been done better than anyone else.
The I.D concept illustrates the point nicely. At fractionally over 4.1 metres long, it's closer in length to a Polo than a Golf, but it sits on a wheelbase only fractionally shorter than that of a Passat. And because the motor is at the back, the front wheels can turn far more than those of a conventional car, resulting in a tiny, sub-10-metre turning circle.
Inside, it feels almost impossibly airy – the metal roof supports are so thin and the glazing so expansive that the view out is as if from within a giant, minutely structured bubble. Come production, the roof will be raised further still, although I strongly suspect its pillars will need to be more heavily bolstered to provide sufficient rollover protection. Whether one appears between the two rows of seats remains to be seen, but Leuderalbert says the production car will have ‘conventional’ doors rather than the electric, sliding rear items on the concept, and it’s hard to see how those could be engineered without a B-pillar.
Predictably, the I.D is terrible to drive. I’m restricted to a short strip of pedestrian space alongside a marina in Lisbon, Portugal, and VW has thoughtfully limited the car’s top speed to just a little less than 20mph. It accelerates slowly and haphazardly, even at these speeds showing no sign of the sub-8.0sec 0-62mph time potential claimed for the production version. Yet we should not allow this to delay us, much less to dismay us: most concept cars won’t even move under their own power, so no profit lies in trying to infer some sense of what the real thing will be like, based on a few minutes in a contraption that would render a Unigate milk float as a Porsche 918.
It’s the ideas this concept contains, not its necessarily clumsy execution that should interest us here.
The first is platform versatility: the MEB platform has the elasticity of vigorously masticated bubblegum. It can create cars like this that are as small as a Polo, or as large as a campervan, as the MEB-based I.D Buzz Microbus concept shown in Detroit at the start of the year made clear. Frustratingly, some 16 years after VW first showed a 21st-century interpretation of its iconic Dormobile design, they still won’t say when or even if it will make it into production. But the existence and versatility of MEB makes it a clearly far more practical proposition.
Then there is VW’s answer to range anxiety, which is simply to provide as much or as little of it as you are prepared to pay for. When the I.D goes on sale for around £22,000 in 2020, the entry-level car will come with a quoted range of around 250 miles. That's usefully better than the 186 miles the latest e-Golf will do when sales begin next month, but still some distance short of the I.D’s true capability. If you pay for an extra battery pack, range can be expanded to 372 miles. The plan is for the additional range to be retrofittable and for all batteries to be replaceable when technological advances make it sensible to do so.
Actually, the concept is better at showing us what the fully autonomous I.D will be like in 2025 than the still-driver-dependent car will be in 2020. You can see the four roof-mounted lidar sensors that will be the car’s primary source of real-time local information, and you can watch as the approximately hexagonal steering wheel retreats into the dash to become a shroud for the display screen when autonomous mode is engaged. You can also see what VW calls ‘Augmented Reality’ with a head-up display that shows not merely your next direction but the contours of the road ahead as it twists and turns into the distance. I hope VW has considered the undoubted fact that frustrated rally drivers will use Augmented Reality as virtual pace notes. And, lest we forget, the I.D can wink and blink too, although, I was disappointed to discover, not squint.