Volkswagen ID 3 vs Nissan Leaf: Battle for the EV top spot

Brave new world, meet same old world. Electric cars once stood alone (dear early adopter, here is a vehicle unlike any other), but they certainly don’t any more. At the launch of the new Volkswagen ID 3, potential buyers could make a shortlist of several similarly priced, similarly specified battery-powered cars. As it is, we’ve chosen just the one to pitch it against.

Volkswagen says its new zero-emissions family hatchback heralds a third generation for the company, after the eras of the Beetle and Golf.

Like the Golf, the ID 3 is joining an established class. A legend of Volkswagen history, the Golf arrived with a transverse-front-mounted petrol engine, driven front wheels and MacPherson-strut/torsion-beam suspension – specifications that were considered sufficiently ‘so what?’ that the Citroën CX beat it to the 1975 European Car of the Year award. So joining a game rather than changing it is clearly no barrier to success.

Changing it can work too, mind, as Nissan has found since launching the Leaf in 2010. Built in Sunderland and now in its second generation, it has become the world’s most successful electric car to date. It also looks like it has acted as a strong benchmark for the ID 3. Hence it’s here, as the Nissan Leaf e+ 3.Zero (but I will just stick with Leaf, if that’s okay).

The specification sheets of the new Volkswagen and the familiar Nissan exhibit the kind of closeness that you would find in any other family car twin test. Power is about 200bhp apiece; the front seats, back seats, boot space and equipment levels are competitive with each other; and the price is £35,215 (ID 3) versus £36,970 (Leaf). This test isn’t an ‘EV thing’. It’s just car meets car.

And that’s all we can decide for now, by the way. It will take 20 years for us to know for sure whether the ID 3 has firmly established its own piece of Volkswagen heritage.

It looks new, though, yes? Beetle, designed by Ferdinand Porsche, Mk1 Golf, lines by Giorgetto Guigiaro, meet Klaus Zyciora’s ID 3: attractive, slightly familiar yet also strangely not so, as if somebody has made a squeaky dog toy of a Golf in 1:1 scale. I’m told that it’s quite aerodynamic.

Underneath is the kind of EV architecture that’s becoming familiar and has tremendous flexibility (of purpose, not structure). There’s a relatively long wheelbase for this Golf-sized hatchback, with a phalanx of batteries mounted low and level between the front and rear axles.

This 1st Edition of the ID 3 has a single motor at its rear, driving its rear wheels, but the platform can host one at the front instead or as well, and fewer or more batteries.

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The ID 3 is more engaging, though. It feels more torsionally rigid and smooths sharp edges better, so although there’s more vertical body movement and more ‘head toss’ on roads that give different inputs to each side of the car, the body’s inherent isolation and steering that’s more linear and not corrupted by power help the ID 3 provide a more isolated and predictable drive.

It’s also not without fun. It’s taller than the Leaf, so there is some body lean, despite its low centre of gravity, but it turns quite happily and then tends to push up against the grip limits of its front wheels.

I dare say that weight distribution is more even than in an ICE car, but there is a bit of rear-engined character; light steering signals that you’ve nudged up against the limits of the front tyres, then it feels good to just lean against the grip of the rears as you accelerate out. We’re talking elements of Renault Twingo or Smart Fortwo rather than Porsche 911, but still, it’s a relatively pure experience.

The ID 3 isn’t a lot more fun than the Leaf but, coupled to the small advantage it draws out with its cabin, it’s enough to make the Volkswagen the choice of the two. It’s better to be in, better to drive and competitive in other areas. Game changer, revolutionary or outstanding class leader it may not be. But maybe good enough is enough.