For more than half a century, off-roaders have flocked to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. It’s a notoriously dangerous yet exhilarating place to leave the pavement behind and explore cactus forests, forge dry lake beds, and power through sand washes. The climate can switch from blazing to frigid in a matter of minutes, and the roads can be ruts or just dust paths. It’s not a place for the weak.
At the end of April, a specially modified Volkswagen ID.4 electric SUV became the first production EV to complete the National Off-Road Racing Association (NORRA) 1000, also known as the Mexican 1000 – covering some 840 miles of Baja terrain. Driven by racer and Volkswagen brand ambassador Tanner Foust and modified by Rhys Millen Racing, the ID.4 electric powertrain proved up to the challenge.1
“The goal was to show that an electric drivetrain was tough enough to handle some the harshest, nastiest conditions on the planet,” says Foust. “If the ID.4 can handle those kinds of conditions, then you can be confident of its performance on the street.”
Only drive where it is permitted and always stay on provided roads and paths. See owner’s manual.
The Mexican 1000 is the oldest off-road endurance competition in Baja. Its origins date back to 1967 when a Meyers Manx buggy won the inaugural race from Ensenada to Cabo. The modern version, re-launched in 2010, takes place over five days with regular pitstops. Due to COVID safeguards, competitors ran stages in loops from three cities on the peninsula this year.
“It’s an ideal format for electric vehicles because you have transits between the race stages, which gives you a chance to charge an EV using a portable charger. Also, you could charge the car overnight when you stop to rest,” says Foust.
This year’s rally was 1,127 miles, 879 of which was off-road, starting in Ensenada, moving south to the Bay of Los Angeles along the eastern shore of the Baja peninsula, looping north to end where it started in Ensenada. This was Foust’s third Mexican 1000; avid off-roader and journalist Emme Hall rode along and drove two stages. Volkswagen engineer Aldrich To served as co-driver and technical expert.
The ID.4 ran without changes to its 82-kWh battery or electric motor, good for 201 horsepower and 229 pound-feet of torque. With assistance from off-road racing builder Rhys Millen, Foust replaced the suspension in the ID.4 with rally-style coil-over struts for the off-road demands. Millen also added tubular lower controls arms, boxed lower rear links, and skid plates. For more sidewall cushioning and wheel travel, the team switched to 18-inch wheels with Yokohama Geolandars tires. A roll cage bolted into the stripped-down interior, along with an additional screen for detailed battery information.
While Foust had done several tests before the event, there was no baseline for what to expect when taking a electric vehicle into desert extremes. Yet from the start, the ID.4 performed above his expectations.
“There was no question that the stock powertrain had enough torque and enough power to get the job done,” says Foust. “The question was the vehicle’s ability to deal with the extreme heat, vibration, and harsh conditions. We quickly discovered none were a problem.”
The team didn’t change any of the ID.4 traction control settings and ran mostly in “B” drive mode to maximize the vehicle’s regeneration of energy under braking. Foust said the traction control software combined with an electric motor that can change power flow nearly instantly meant the ID.4 was sure-footed across the terrain in ways that traditional vehicles can’t match. For example, despite being rear-wheel drive, the ID.4 was only stuck once, in a spot of hidden loose sand that snagged many gas-powered competitors.
The traction control “saved energy by eliminating tire spin every time the tire got in the air,” Foust said. “It just doesn’t give power beyond what the tire can handle…We didn’t have to replace or even rotate the tires.”
Climbing rocks was more manageable, too; with instant electric torque, there was no need for picking just the right gear or drive range. And the regenerative system boosted range while saving wear on the friction brakes; Foust estimated he only touched the brake pedal about a dozen times over the whole week on course.
Charging an EV in the wilderness was one of the team’s top hurdles. Foust located a biofuel-powered generator that ran a 50-kW fast charger. At a couple of points, in the transits between stages where the generator couldn’t be accessed, the team had to briefly rely on a backup method: flat-towing the ID.4 behind a chase vehicle.
But thanks to Foust’s power management, the ID.4 never ran out of energy on the course. As a seven-time veteran of the more extreme Baja 1000 race, Foust experienced another first with the ID.4 — an endurance race in Baja where his vehicle didn’t have some mechanical issue.
“I didn’t think I’d also walk away feeling that an EV drive train is more reliable than probably any gas engine I’ve driven or that I’d fall in love with the digital throttle in the ID.4, traction control, and regenerative braking features,” Foust said. “They revolutionized the driving style off-road for me, and I’m looking forward to learning more about them on future expeditions.”