Electric SUV takes Jaguar into a new era, writes TONY DAVIS of the Sydney Morning Herald.

The first few hours of the global media launch for the Jaguar I-Pace included a highway, a winding B-road, an urban traffic jam, a mountainous dirt track, a deep creek fording, and a high-speed race circuit.

The intent was clear: to prove that the first fully electric SUV from a European luxury maker has few limitations, and drives like a Jaguar.

With the I-Pace, the British company has beaten the big-spending Germans to the punch. The good news is that it has done so not with an adaptation of one of its internalcombustion SUVs. It’s a cleansheet design that has made it from the spectacular 2016 concept to the street largely intact. It is based on a “skateboard” chassis with the batteries sandwiched between a double-skinned floor to keep the centre of gravity low.

This is the template first seen in the General Motors’ Autonomy concept in 2002 and put into production by Tesla when the Model S debuted as a prototype in 2009. That company’s Model X SUV is the I-Pace’s only real competitor today, though within a couple of years there will be plenty more.

The I-Pace has an electric motor at each end and a 90kWh battery pack. The total power output is 294kW (or 400ps, hence the badge saying EV400), while the mighty torque figure of 696Nm is delivered immediately, negating the need to ever change gears.

The I-Pace doesn’t have the Tesla’s ludicrous mode, but it can accelerate from 0-100km/h in 4.8 seconds. Nor does it have the Tesla’s ludicrous lift-up rear doors (slow, gimmicky, impractical). More importantly, the I-Pace handles more precisely and feels more solid, as you’d expect for a car a few years further down the development cycle.

The battery range is 480 kilometres according to a lab-derived European standard, with the usual caveat that it depends on driving style and conditions. We drove pretty enthusiastically and were on target for about 400 kilometres on the public road section.

One of many clever features is the central screen will show the route you have chosen on your sat-nav along with the percentage of remaining charge expected at stages along the way. It takes into account topography, and Jaguar says over time it will learn your driving style and further refine its accuracy.

The exterior is almost unclassifiable. The curvy lines and smooth sides make it look smaller than it is out in the traffic (at 4682mm, it’s just a shade shorter than the company’s biggest SUV, the F-Pace), and I-Pace’s comparatively low overall height makes it a modern melange of sports hatch, wagon and off-roader.

Jaguars tend to get very expensive very quickly. The base S is $119,000 (about $21K less than the five-seater Tesla Model X), but that lacks a few things almost every buyer will want. The full-house ‘‘First Edition’’ I-Pace takes the price up to $160,000. There are two models in between those extremes (SE and HSE), though all cars share the same drivetrain.

Jaguar claims there is as much room inside as in an XJ limousine, though it doesn’t feel quite that capacious. The snub-nosed “cab forward design”, for example, makes the passenger’s foot well quite short.

There is plenty of headroom all round and, in the First Edition, the full-length glass sunroof makes for a light and cheerful cabin. The interior design is more interesting than most current Jaguars, with a greater range of surfaces and shades, and something closer to the clean smartphone aesthetic found in its Range Rover Velar stablemate.

There is a generous rear boot and laydown rear seats. The nose also has storage, though only enough for the charging cable and a few other small things.

A home powerpoint will charge the car, though exceedingly slowly. An optional 7kW home charger (around $1500 installed) takes 12.9 hours for a complete charge. On a 100kW rapid charger (of the type about to be fitted at Jaguar dealerships and elsewhere), the I-Pace can reach 80 per cent charge in about 40 minutes. The vagaries of electricity are such that software stops you fully charging the batteries, or fully emptying them, to avoid damage. The maximum charge is about 94 per cent.

The central touchscreen allows the sound in the cockpit to be adjusted. You can chose from near silence (via very effective noise-reduction technology), a deep electronic whoosh on acceleration, or something halfway between. You can also engage “creep”, making the car crawl forward like it has a standard auto transmission, and adjust the severity of the regenerative braking when lifting off the throttle.

We drove the First Edition on huge 22 inch wheels, and a heavily specced S model on 20s. On the slightly Volvo-esque floating centre console, mechanical switches control various off-road settings, and give an on-road choice of Eco, Comfort and Dynamic. The Dynamic mode sharpens the throttle response, suspension and steering.

The I-Pace carries about 100kg of extra weight compared with the upcoming F-Pace SVR with its supercharged V8, though the mass is positioned lower, meaning the handling is surprisingly good. Indeed, Jaguar has created the first mainstream electric vehicle that is fun to punt down a challenging piece of road. Sure, the weight (2208 kg) is an issue, but it is well controlled by adaptive air suspension, and the steering is progressive and accurate.

Mashing the throttle gives a headrest-thumping surge, with an instantaneous throttle response that not even a large naturally aspirated V8 can match. Lifting off brings the regenerative braking into play. It is possible to cover most road situations – including high-speed driving – using only the accelerator pedal. Diving into a corner and gently lifting gives a strong and predictable retardation on all four wheels, with turn-in aided by torque vectoring.

One engineer on the launch said he believed that, if mostly driven with one pedal, the brake pads may well last the life of the car. Of course one pedal wasn’t possible on the race circuit – Portimao near Faro, Portugal – but the vehicle proved dazzlingly quick and not just in a straight line.

It was remarkably stable under braking from full speed and during quick changes of direction could belt out of corners with an urgency that delighted every time, and remained balanced and easy to control on the throttle through a very long and challenging right-hander onto the straight. The electronic log said we were pulling just above 1.2 G of lateral acceleration. Top speed at the end of the straight generally crept 6 or 7km/h above the 200 km/h electronically limited top speed.

It’s hard to know exactly which elements were having the biggest effect, but the I-Pace’s electronic driving systems can deliver – in theory at least – greater precision than any conventional all-wheel-drive vehicle because there is completely independent torque at the front and rear axles.

The body is 94 per cent aluminium, yet super stiff. The ride is generally excellent, though some long wave undulations on country roads caught out the suspension, giving a slightly floaty experience.

All cars on the launch were air sprung. Logic suggests a car this heavy will be much less impressive with conventional springs and passive damping. The air suspension is a $2002 upgrade to the lesser models, and Jaguar says almost everyone will take it.

The I-Pace proved to be hugely competent on the rough stuff, but I suspect not one driver in a hundred will do any serious off-roading (particularly on 20s or 22s). Anyway, allterrain motoring is hardly a Jaguar brand value.

The market will decide whether the pricing and options are right when the first customer cars arrive in Australia in October. Either way, it’s one mighty impressive entry into the electric-car game.

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