What is it?
The Jaguar I-Pace, the British manufacturer’s revolutionary battery-powered ‘performance SUV’, first appeared as a concept at the Los Angeles motor show in 2016 – and we’ve also drive an early version – but in the 15 months since, the two most important questions about the car have not yet been answered.
First, is it a real Jaguar? Second, does it drive like one? On the outcome of these twin examinations rests the success of a huge investment in design and engineering, not to mention much of the company’s bold future strategy, namely to excite and inspire buyers with the finest modern technology, just as it 70 years ago in the extraordinary post-war period that produced the XK120 sports car and a string of fabulous saloons that led to the seminal XJ6 of 1968.
We were given the first answers to those burning I-Pace questions as a prelude to the Geneva motor show when Jaguar fenced off a piece of taxiway at the end of Geneva’s busy airport and set up what amounted to an autosolo course of ‘smart cones’ designed to indicate the desired handling course only at the last second, so drivers needed every ounce of the car’s agility to follow it.
This wasn’t a test drive per se, but it was a decent first chance to slip behind the wheel, and the kind of opportunity to test the car’s near-limit responses – conferred by a sophisticated all-independent suspension and an ultra-low centre of gravity – that you probably wouldn’t get in 1000 miles of driving on normal roads.
For the first time, a Jaguar must do without a great-looking internal combustion engine – perhaps with a heritage of its own – and the accompanying sound of combustion, in the past painstakingly engineered to please an owner’s ear. Now, the I-Pace has silent electric motors mounted at either end of a skateboard chassis, the pair contributing 395bhp and 513lb ft to give the car 0-60mph acceleration in 4.5 seconds.
What’s it like?
For a while I watch others drive, noting the reluctance of this long wheelbase, ultra low-centre of gravity car to roll its body, or slide, or do anything very much except squeal its tyres in extremis and go where it is steered. It does indeed change direction brilliantly – you can see that with the naked eye – helped by the fact that its torque vectoring system can send more than 90% of torque to the rear axle for a proper rear-wheel-drive feel.
I settle in the driver’s seat, noting the quality of the materials, double stitching here, tastefully co-ordinating colours there. The brightwork is of high quality, the switches and two prominent and all-important central rotary knobs very pleasing to touch. The interior feels less radical in detail and colour than what I remember of the concept, but the architecture is very similar.
The upper slopes of the big centre console are largely covered by two large but well integrated screens (satnav and audio above, ventilation controls below) and there’s generous space behind it for equipment plus a convenient hand-sized hatch to access it from the centre. I’m sitting in what are called ‘performance seats’ which, of three seat designs, are most reminiscent of those in the original concept car.
There are three regular trim levels – S, SE and HSE. We have the optional 22in wheels which engineering manager and I-Pace guru Dave Shaw reckons best show off the handling.
It’s time to drive. There is no noise or auto-style creep, although you can choose the latter from a huge range of driving options if you desire. We glide off the mark like no combustion car ever did, then accelerate to the first obstacle cleanly and strongly. Instantly, the extreme faithfulness of this car to control inputs is clear. This is a tight course, so very soon we’re jinking and accelerating and regen-braking constantly. You can get 0.2g of retardation from simply coming off the accelerator, and another 0.2g from initial use of the brake pedal, so in most situations you hardly need friction braking at all.
The steering wheel feels big for tight manoeuvres like these, but the driving position is perfect: a fairly high wheel, plenty of seat bolstering and under-thigh support, an ideal instrument view, and the response to lock is accurate. Even here, with tyres screeching and the car always turning fast, Shaw’s words about the I-Pace’s torque distribution ensuring “uncorrupted” steering come back to me. The weighting is just right for serious driving, not merely convenient parking, and I’m surprised how little this body rolls. That’s a function of the low-mounted battery, I’m told, and the centralisation of the major masses.
In most derivatives you get conventional steel anti-roll bars (accompanying steel coil springs) to handle things. The low centre of gravity means they need to be as intrusive as many. On air suspension models – which offer three ride heights that vary over 90mm – the quick-acting air suspension units help control roll, too. As for grip, there’s plenty on the airport’s slow, non-slip tarmac, though off throttle the car tightens neatly in bends, especially when its maximum regeneration setting is engaged. This is only a five-minute drive, albeit an action-packed one, but the impressions I take from it are the I-Pace’s accuracy and precision.
Should I buy one?
The burning question on the strength of our very short drive is: is the I-Pace a real Jaguar? It certainly feels like one. It’s different, but so most cars will be in future, and it still feels authentic. The refinement seems deeply impressive and given the decor, the seat comfort, the room and the responses I have no trouble feeling I’ve been at the wheel of a proper Jaguar.
It’ll take proper journeys – city commutes by time-poor business drivers and inter-capital dashes by discerning comfort-lovers – that will prove this car, not an engaging but slightly daft exercise like ours that no owner will ever repeat. But so far? Grace, space and pace – I’ve felt them all.
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