Buying a new car

/ 20 May 2021

For a few years now, Mary and I have said to ourselves that our next car would be fully electric. We wanted to gift our 2010 Prius to Nate so he had enough room to move around with Saffron, so the time had come. This year we got more serious about looking for our next car. I go through a lot of “process” as I make a purchase, especially a major purchase, and this post is a bit of catharsis, a way to let go of all that I took in during this journey so that I can focus on what lies ahead.

For us, an electric car is a bit of a problem. We are a one-car family, so once we go electric, we somewhat limit our mobility options. At that point, we can only take our wheels as far as the grid allows. So, at first I tried to compromise. Maybe a plug-in hybrid would be good enough.

Our other priority for this purchase was to get up off the ground a bit. Our Prius sits very low and in the winters it scrapes all the icy ruts Saint Paul leaves in the middle of the streets. As we age, we are also a bit tired of stooping into and climbing out of the seats. Something that could float above the ruts and facilitate easier entry and exit would be a nice change.

The would-be-nice feature I hoped for was Apple CarPlay. I’ve never even been in a car with CarPlay, but as an Apple fan I trusted it would be a nice bonus.

RAV4 Prime

I spent weeks focussed on the Toyota RAV4 Prime. We have loved our Prius and find Toyota super-reliable and easy to work with. We trust them. The RAV4 Prime can get 40 miles of range as an EV (electric vehicle) before it needs to draw on the gas engine as a hybrid. We would guess that 90% of our driving is within that 40 mile range, so the RAV4 Prime could basically be an electric car for us. We also do some road tripping and the fact that this car would be a hybrid on long trips would eliminate the “range anxiety” common to full electric cars. And Toyota still qualified for tax credits, so we would likely qualify for a $7,500 tax credit after buying it. Obviously, it also would get us a bit higher off the ground.

But there was one severe problem: Toyota dealerships in Minnesota (and the whole midwest) are not getting the RAV4 Prime. Toyota is prioritizing states which have adopted the California milage rules, which Minnesota has not. So I started haunting New England dealerships on the phone and finally found one in Vermont willing to sell me the car we wanted. Then we learned that Toyota was forcing a whole slew of useless add-ons on dealerships (who needs door edge guards, side guards, or mud flaps?). We finally ordered the car we wanted in April, but it would still probably be months of waiting with our car not likely arriving until July. When it came in, I’d have to fly to Boston, take a bus to Vermont, and then drive the car home to Minnesota.

As I waited I watched every YouTube review I could find and eventually stumbled on one that revealed a fatal flaw in our plans for the RAV4 Prime. It turns out that in temperatures below 20F this car cannot heat itself without the gas engine. In other words, if you want heat in cold weather you have to drive in hybrid mode. In Minnesota this means that for many months each year the car would not be able to provide that 40 miles of EV range. This was a showstopper for us, we wanted an electric car in the city.

Tesla Model 3

A good friend of ours has owned a Tesla Model 3 for a year or so, so I gave her a call. She still loves the Model 3 but had recently traded up from the rear-wheel drive version to the all-wheel drive version of the car. I arranged a test drive of the Model 3 at a Tesla dealership in town. The Tesla dealership was a pleasure to visit and interact with. A serene experience that reminded me of an Apple store if it were not as overrun as most of those seem these days. The sales person there was the most informative sales person I met at any dealership during this whole experience.

I really enjoyed driving the Model 3 and had no problem at all with it’s sparseness. In fact, I found it a really calming experience, unlike any other car I had driven. A week later Mary test drove our friend’s Model 3 and also really liked it. But it did have a few drawbacks: visibility was worse than our Prius, we were just as low to the ground as in the Prius (maybe even lower), we found the back seats tight and very hard to get in and out of, and Tesla does not seem likely to allow CarPlay any time soon. That last was not a showstopper since their own infotainment system is first class, but it was disappointing.

While I did not really object to the feel of one-petal driving in the Model 3, I did find the car touchy at low speeds. I really had to manage my foot on the throttle to keep the car at 20 or 25 miles an hour, a speed very common in my home town. Since most of our driving would be city driving, the was a bit worrisome.

Volkswagen ID.4

Now that we had started to really consider a full electric alternative, I started really casting around for something to compare to the Tesla. I wanted to do my due diligence, to at least know what other electric cars were offering. This was harder than you might expect since there are very few EV models actually sold in Minnesota right now, for the same reason the RAV4 Prime was unavailable. Luckily Minnesota is working on fixing this, but not soon enough for us.

One car I learned was available was the VW ID.4. Reviews of the car were mostly positive (some glowing), but also pointed out how poorly VW had executed some very basic features such as navigation and charging. Still, the car was not only being sold in Minnesota, but it was available at local dealers for a test drive. We decided to give it a go.

I really didn’t expect to fall in love with this car. I’ve never owned a VW and was fully aware of some of the car’s shortcomings… and yet… it drove like a dream for me. Mary really enjoyed it too. It had a softer feel than the Model 3, a bit more isolated from the road. It was also much higher off the ground, more like the RAV4 than our Prius, but it handled more responsively than the RAV4 hybrid we had tested. And the interior was so joyful and welcoming, striking a balance between the button bonanza of the Toyota and the stripped-bare simplicity of the Tesla, falling closer to the Tesla in that balance. For me it was a really terrific experience, with a charming and helpful instrument cluster screen attached to the steering wheel and a generous center console that included wireless CarPlay.

VW had clearly made a different set of choices than Tesla, prioritizing a driving experience that would feel normal to folks who were new to EVs. The default drive mode coasts and uses the brake pedal just like a gas car would. There is a single pedal “brake” mode, though even this mode is not as aggressive as you find in a Tesla (for example, you still need the brake pedal to come to a complete stop in this brake mode). It was a car that seemed content on slow city streets. There was no “punch-it” 0-60, but the acceleration was much better than our Prius and the car felt positively nimble on the road. This agility was greatly assisted by the tight turning radius which made the ID.4 feel more maneuverable than our Prius. VW had prioritized comfort, this car felt like home, like our Prius had grown up and been rejuvenated.

Tesla Model Y

We were a bit shocked at how much we enjoyed the ID.4 and thought we should give Tesla another shot in their slightly larger Model Y. We returned to the Tesla dealer where the sales person proved himself more knowledgeable about the VW than the VW sales person had been. Tesla was hands-down the best sales experience I have had in a long while.

Still, even though the Model Y was up high enough, it fell short of the ID.4 for us in a number of other key dimensions. For one thing, the back seat was still a bit of a head-banger to get into (though very comfortable once in place). The drive was almost identical to the Model 3, this was still a car more comfortable going fast than slow. And still no CarPlay.

Finally, Tesla had used up all its tax credits, so even though the Model Y was only a bit more expensive than the ID.4 on paper, it would end up being quite a large chunk more expensive for us in the end.

Ford Mustang Mach-E

We were more convinced than ever that the ID.4 was the car for us, but due diligence called me to at least give the Ford Mustang Mach-E a chance. My dad was in town so I went for a test drive of the Mach-E with him.

I think I came to the Mach-E with the biggest chip on my shoulder. I have never been a fan of American car ascetics and the Mach-E pushed all those buttons for me. I just found it ugly in so many ways. Interestingly, it had a configuration similar to the ID.4 with a small screen instrument cluster behind the wheel and a large center console. But the interface on both was distasteful to me, I just didn’t want to look at them. And the cluster behind the wheel suffered from being attached to the dash instead of the wheel itself.

In a lot of ways the Mach-E felt like an American version of the ID.4 to me, and it suffered for that. On the other hand, even though I took my dad on a drive in the ID.4 as well, he preferred the Mach-E. I feel like this became a question of taste more than specs. I was falling for the ID.4 in a way that had gone beyond logic.

Decision

We decided to purchase an ID.4. Like I said, I am an overprocesser, so I went to two more VW dealers before I made the choice to stick with the first one we had visited. We ordered a Moonstone Gray ID.4 in the Pro S trim that would not likely be delivered before August. Then a few weeks later we got a call from the dealer saying someone had backed out of a deal for a White 1st Edition ID.4. Even though there are details about the Pro S that I prefer to the 1st Edition, the white version of the 1st Edition really worked for us. We bought it the same day in May we first saw it. Probably not the wisest move, but as I noted, I was beyond logic at that point. I just liked that car.

The ID.4 is far from the perfect car and Volkswagen is nowhere near the perfect company. Maybe future posts will illuminate some of the shortcomings. But it has taken long enough to get this post out the door, so I am going to call it a night right here.

We’ve now had our ID.4 for nearly two months and we still love it. We don’t even have a garage to charge it in yet and we still love it. I enjoy every little errand I have to run, and CarPlay has been even better than I’d hoped, a wonderful companion to this car. We tend to hang onto cars for quite a while, 100,000 miles at least. Our Prius served us for nearly 12 years and 150,000 miles. We’ll see if the ID.4 is up to the challenge.

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