PORTUGAL – At the end of day one of the international launch, I have experienced the I-Pace in stop-start city traffic, blasted along a stretch of motorway, waded through a stream of water before completing a steep off-road course and finally raced around the Portimao Circuit. This is an impressive feat for any car, let alone a full electric vehicle. My perceptions have been well and truly changed.

Background

Let’s take a step back. Many eyebrows were raised when Jaguar revealed an EV concept at the Los Angeles Auto Show in 2016. What about heritage? What about a thumping supercharged V8 under the bonnet (something that has become synonymous with the brand)? Even vehicle engineering manager, David Shaw, admitted that his team was very sceptical about the idea at first. But now all members are passionate converts, as this is clearly the most elegant engineering solution in a time when emissions regulations and powertrain complexity are putting the fossil-fuel burning vehicle's survival at risk.

The looks

Seeing the vehicle in the metal parked outside the airport, it's clearly a unique and arresting design (based on the CX75 concept car) and is larger than the pictures might suggest. Chief exterior designer, Matthew Beaven, later passionately talked us through the flowing lines, revealing that the styling and engineering departments for once agreed on the basics. The 22-inch wheels, for instance, are pushed to the corners to free up interior space. And compact electrical powertrain on each axle allows the cabin-forward design with the aggressive Jaguar grille still on the nose, but now directing most of the airflow out of the bonnet scoop to improve aerodynamics at the windscreen base.

The fact that the 90 kWh battery pack is housed underfloor between the axles raises the height of the occupant cell. Air suspension can lift the body a further 50 mm, giving Jaguar the prerogative to class it as an SUV, even if the sleek shape and low roofline point more towards sportscar. The striking but blunt rear design and the roof spoiler aid aerodynamics further and help keep the rear window clean without the need for a wiper – this was proven later when a dirt road section was completed.

Inside

In the cabin, Jaguar has taken current technology, such as the twin high-definition touchscreens plus digital instruments, and combined it with modern design elements to create a futuristic dashboard dubbed the “flight deck” by the firm. Connected car capability allows the owner to control many vehicle functions from their smartphones, including checking charge status, programming the climatic control settings to condition the cabin for a future journey and opening the doors remotely.

Although the length of the vehicle is similar to that of the XE, the occupant space is much larger thanks in part to the wheelbase of 2 990 mm. There's a sense of occasion when entering the cabin, which is not let down by the quality of materials nor the fit and finish. Jaguar could not risk any rattles in its quietest cabin to date (it is possible to hear the chatter of birds when driving in town).

Interestingly, the seating position is more sportscar than SUV as the floor is relatively high in relation to the seat squabs. This especially hampers rear comfort although legroom back there is acceptable. The fact that there is no transmission tunnel allows for a 10-litre central storage cabinet and further storage under the floating climate control shelf.

Piloting it

Starting the vehicle is as easy as hitting a button while keeping a foot on the brake. The dashboard lights up and shows the word “ready”. With twin electric motors (one on each axle) delivering a combined 298kW and 696 N.m, exhilarating performance is a given, with a claimed zero to 100 km/h time of 4,8 seconds. What the figures cannot convey, however, is the instant response to any flex of your right toe, especially in dynamic mode.

With one fixed gear ratio from standstill to 200 km/h, there is no need to wait for a transmission to kick down or a turbo to spool up. No internal combustion engine can respond in this way. The rate of acceleration defies the 2,2 tonne mass (the battery pack alone tips the scales at 600 kg) and the electric car surges to the horizon in anger. The driver can choose to either pick up speed in silence or opt for a synthesised soundtrack that can only be described as a muted, futuristic V8 burble that surprisingly suits the application.

Braking is interesting as with the regenerative effort (for charging the battery) set to “high”, up to 0,2 G of braking force is possible simply by letting go of the accelerator. The result is enough deceleration to avoid the mechanical pedal under normal driving conditions and enabling single-pedal driving that soon becomes second nature.

Off-road?

If a dirt-road section that the I-Pace took in its stride was a surprise, imagine the shock when a Jaguar guide indicated a turn-off into an off-road section, starting with a shallow water crossing. Electricity and water are usually not friends, making the 500 mm wading depth of the I-Pace even more remarkable. Next, a hill with loose dirt was waiting to be conquered. Employing the highest suspension setting and the ASPC off-road mode, the EV easily clawed its way up the slope. With precise torque control and electronic wizardry, wheelspin is limited. Hill-descent control is mostly managed by the regenerative braking effort of the electric motors, without the usual noisy brake activation as found in ICE vehicles.

Race track?

The final stop of the day was at the race track and again the group of journalists expected a few slalom disciplines at most in an attempt to showcase the vehicle's dynamic ability. This was not the case as each driver was given four laps of the circuit at maximum attack – another brave move from Jaguar to prove that the I-Pace belongs in its Big Cat family. Again, it exceeded expectations by carving up the tricky track with no signs of exhaustion. Yes, it's a heavy car and eventually understeers sets in, but its dynamic ability and especially the way that the power can be modulated mid-turn in search for the ultimate level of grip, is nothing short of astonishing.

Range anxiety

A topic not broached until now is range anxiety, or rather the lack thereof. With a claimed range (on the new WLTP cycle) of 480 km, it was never an issue, as it sometimes is with city EVs. Driving the car enthusiastically does slash the range, but this is no different to a petrol-powered performance vehicle. The fact that a 100 kW direct-current, fast-charging capability can replenish 80% of the energy in just 40 minutes, gives the car real long-distance capability if the charging infrastructure is readily available.

Summary

Running cost should be much lower than an equivalent fossil-fuel burning car. And not just in terms of the reduced energy cost, but also the fact that there are few serviceable items. Unfortunately, the technology does not come cheap (no local pricing is available yet with the vehicle expected to hit local dealers in 2019, but it sells for more than £60 000 in the UK), but it delivers in spades. The I-Pace is not just a good electric car, it is a good car, period. And purists will be pleased to hear that it is still has all the credentials of a purebred Jaguar...

Author: Nicol Louw