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JOHANNESBURG – If there’s one word the folks at Jaguar Land Rover South Africa certainly didn’t want to see splashed across the front of newspapers nationwide in the build-up to the local appearance of the new, all-electric I-Pace, it was this: “load-shedding”.

You see, launching an electric vehicle in South Africa – where the BMW i3 (its own arrival back in 2014 overshadowed by Eskom’s habitual inability to keep the lights on) sells in rather small numbers and the Nissan Leaf simply no longer features – wouldn’t be a simple task at the best of times. But add the growing frustrations of a population forced to plan their days around load-shedding schedules, and things start to become a little more complicated.

Still, it’s worth pointing out the majority of EV owners would likely charge their cars at home overnight, largely unaffected by any annoying “shedding of the load” (and, as a Jaguar Land Rover SA representative keenly pointed out, if the power’s out at a petrol station, you’d not be able to fill up a conventional vehicle anyway, unless the forecourt in question happens to run a generator).

Tiny target audience

In addition, of course, the new I-Pace isn’t exactly pitched at the average South African. No, with Jaguar’s trademark “leaping cat” badge affixed to its pert rear end and prices starting at a shade under R1,7-million, the latest addition to the Coventry-based firm’s stable is catering to a pretty narrow (read: wealthy) target audience. While the firm opted not to share how many units have been allocated to SA, rest assured the I-Pace won’t be playing the role of volume-driver for the group.
Jaguar

Interestingly, that hasn’t stopped Jaguar Land Rover SA from investing heavily in kick-starting the country’s public EV charging infrastructure, partnering with GridCars to roll out as many as 82 new stations dotted round South Africa. Many, including 22 along the N3 between Gauteng and Durban and on the N1 between Gauteng and Cape Town, have been cleverly placed in a bid to reduce the sort of range anxiety that has long been associated with EVs and encourage drivers to tackle longer distances.

Behind the wheel

But enough about Eskom’s woes and infrastructure roll-outs. What’s the I-Pace like to drive? In short, it’s utterly brilliant. Thanks to an electric motor sited on each axle (separately offering 147 kW for an imposing total of 298 kW), the low-slung crossover will whizz from zero to 100 km/h in a claimed 4,8 seconds.

As impressive a figure as that is, it doesn’t quite convey the near-silent brutality with which the all-wheel-drive I-Pace is capable of moving from standstill to, well, the wrong side of the speed limit. With immediate access to the full complement of 696 N.m – and the single-speed epicyclic transmission ensuring there’s no waiting around for pesky cogs to engage – there’s virtually no delay between throttle inputs and the electric motors’ combined reactions.

The complete lack of aural drama (further emphasised by impressive levels of overall refinement) that accompanies both full-throttle scorches away from traffic lights and more measured flexes of the right ankle – for startlingly swift overtaking manoeuvres, for instance – makes for a strange sensation since the modern South African motorist still equates hair-raising acceleration with some or other spine-tingling, multi-cylinder soundtrack (pedestrians, too, don’t always hear the I-Pace coming).

Indeed, remaining within the confines of the law when piloting this vehicle requires regular checks of the digital speedometer, since it’s exceedingly easy to find oneself well over the speed limit, so linear (and, again, hushed) is the delivery of all that oomph. In short, this thing is deceptively quick, masking its speed better than pretty much anything else I’ve driven.

Braking free

While the first few minutes behind the wheel of the I-Pace force the driver to make a conscious shift in mind-set (from an acceleration and sound point of view), it also necessitates a distinct change in driving style when it comes to braking. Like many other electric vehicles, the I-Pace employs a regenerative braking system to direct otherwise wasted energy back into its 90 kWh, liquid-cooled battery pack.
Jaguar

So strong is this effect (although it’s interesting Jaguar gives the driver the option of toggling between high and low settings) that it’s quite possible to complete a journey without once touching the brake pedal, simply by lifting off the accelerator at appropriate moments. It may sound strange, but driving with this sort of anticipation quickly becomes second nature and allows the I-Pace to flow from corner to corner.

Changing direction

And flow it most certainly does. With its substantial 432-cell, lithium-ion battery pack sited below the floor and positioned centrally between the two axles, the I-Pace benefits from both a usefully low centre of gravity and a pretty much equal distribution of mass, front to rear. The result is zero alarming transfer of weight when changing direction, which while not completely disguising the vehicle’s 2,2 tonne heft, certainly lends it the sort of dynamic talent one might not expect from an electric SUV.

Specifying the optional R16 700 air suspension system further improves the I-Pace’s ability to corner flat, while also allowing it to ride with a certain suppleness (even on 20-inch alloys shod in 245/50/R20 rubber) appreciated on the sort of patchy tarmac we encountered on parts of our route. We also spent a fair amount of time traversing gravel surfaces, where – with the air springs in their loftiest setting – the EV performed admirably.

The local arm of the British automaker furthermore allowed us to experience the I-Pace in various conditions at its freshly revamped (and mighty impressive) Jaguar Land Rover Experience centre in Lonehill. While the I-Pace is by no means a serious off-roader, it still coped well with some light rock-crawling and water wading (and later even crossed the Jukskei River as part of our drive). Still, it’s the on-road experience that really counts with this vehicle, and here the I-Pace shines.

Step inside

Inside, the five-seater I-Pace is surprisingly spacious (thanks largely to clever packaging around a lengthy 2 990 mm wheelbase), with rear passengers offered oodles of legroom and sufficient headroom, too – even if the R16 100 fixed panoramic glass roof (along with that sloping roofline) specified to our test unit took a small bite out of the latter. The luggage compartment is fairly generous, capable of swallowing a claimed 656 litres, while the minor storage space under the bonnet can hold little more than the standard charging cable. A small spare wheel is optionally offered for R2 200, but this will obviously reduce boot space.
Jaguar

The flagship HSE model (if you don’t count the limited-production First Edition derivative) boasts an interesting array of standard kit, including Matrix LED headlamps, a powered (gesture) tailgate, sports seats trimmed in Windsor leather, a Meridian surround sound system, as many as six USB ports and various driver assistance features. The group’s Touch Pro Duo infotainment – which comprises a pair of stacked touchscreens – also makes an appearance in the I-Pace (and will feature in the facelifted XE sedan, too).

Plugging in

So, what about charging? Well, Jaguar says the I-Pace's battery can hit 80 percent capacity from empty in 72 minutes using a public 60 kW DC rapid charging station. Plugging into a 7,4 kW AC wall box (a home-charging option that will cost you upwards of R25 000) will see the same charge achieved in about 12 hours, while using a conventional domestic socket takes almost double that time. For the record, a full charge provides a claimed range of 480 km, which based on our drive seems almost achievable.

Ultimately, it would be grossly unfair to dismiss the I-Pace based on the prevailing (and sustained) negative sentiment around Eskom. Locally, the seemingly inevitable migration to electric vehicles has faltered so Jaguar Land Rover SA should be commended for taking a brave step forward by introducing this model here.

Of course, with Jaguar’s EV handily beating the likes of the Audi e-tron and Mercedes-Benz EQC to market, the new I-Pace currently has no direct rivals in South Africa. Indeed, it’s quite unlike anything the country has seen before. It’s interesting to look at, surprising spacious and deceptively rapid. Sure, it’s expensive and will appeal to a select few, but it’s still a properly special machine that actually makes a strong case for itself as a luxury daily commuter … load-shedding or not.

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

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