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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-Paces 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.

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