TARTS, sardines, cobblestones and Ronaldo Ė just a handful of images that spring to mind when you think of Portugal. But the sliver of azure-fringed earth clinging to Spainís western flank has another national treasure far more precious than all the custard-loaded pastries in the world. About an hour inland from the pretty town of Faro sits a 4.7km band of blacktop comprised of 15 corners and dizzying elevation changes, proudly wearing the FIAís stamp of approval. Itís here at the punishing Algarve International Circuit Portimao that Jaguar has chosen to cut the umbilical cord on its first foray into full electrification Ė the I-Pace.
This battery-powered SUVís arrival doesnít just mark a significant milestone for the British marque but ignites a whole new battle in unchartered territory, beating Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz to the punch. The future-defining I-Pace needs to brace its shield as other mainstream and premium brands progressively introduce their electric SUV contenders, while simultaneously wielding a sabre, proving it has the performance, dependability and class to wear the leaping-cat badge.
Itís a process that begins at the base of a towering grandstand bathed in gentle European sunshine; rarely has the start line at Portimao had such metaphorical significance. Will Jaguarís electric SUV be the car that defines the segment, gaining a lucrative head-start over its inevitable rivals, or will it be forever remembered as the EV that struck too early?
Unleashing a fleet of I-Paces at a track as gruelling as Portimao is a deliberate statement of confidence by Jaguar. If Samsung couldnít prevent a phone from spontaneously combusting when downloading a quiche recipe, howís the I-Pace supposed to keep its cool when the 90kWh battery is churning out more amps than a Marshall factory? Nearly 1200, if you were wondering.
A few full-bore laps in the I-Pace fails to produce any smoke, or a single warning message on its expansive digital dashboard displays. On the contrary, the I-Pace bites hard into the track with a stoic resolve, and accelerates with unfaltering athleticism, lap after lap.
With nearly 2.2 tonnes to haul, thereís no disguising the Jaguar EVís considerable kerb weight as its brake pedal lengthens and stopping power fades after heavy use, but thatís the only black mark against the I-Paceís track performance.
With a good chunk of the I-Paceís weight at floor level where the battery is hidden, its centre of gravity is low, translating to punchy dynamism at Portimao. Front-torear balance is excellent and lateral grip feels almost aero-sticky, though itís more likely the effect of simple mass-over-tyre. In the right hands, the I-Pace is the classic embodiment of the slow-in, fast-out technique, proving capable of lapping this serious circuit with unbelievable energy. At the end of the session, all 16 cars are successfully back in the pits, fans whirring like a panting dog but with no obvious complaints.
Itís a similar story out on the diverse roads behind this stunning circuit. The Portuguese really are obsessed with cobblestones, which provide an uncommon test for the I-Paceís NVH and ride quality. Four I-Pace variants will be offered in Australia, starting at $119,000 for the entry-level S, which wears 18-inch wheels, then progressing through SE, HSE and topping out at $159,700 for the limited-run First Edition model that rolls on huge (optional) 22-inch hoops. Yet even on its biggest wheels, the I-Paceís ride is as absorbent as Kleenex.
In more remote areas, sudden bomb-holes in the road surface make occupants wince and brace for impact at speed, but even with a rear wheel kicked into the air, the I-Paceís optional air suspension and clever torque management sort everything out with little effort.
Sweet steering that happily feels related to the excellent XE and XF complements the I-Paceís stability and grip, while the ability to squeeze on instant torque makes Jaguarís EV fantastically quick. Pin the quiet pedal midcorner and it will punt you out of bends like youíve just trodden on its tail. Thereís no turbo-lag or downshifting to wait for here. Lifting the throttle during fast corners nudges the I-Pace into oversteer, which is easily controlled. Conversely, slap-happy steering in tight corners will provoke understeer, yet the I-Pace requires no mental adjustment to get the best from it. Thank that wheel-atthe-corners stance, not just its battery location.
For its first EV, Jaguar placed almost as much importance on connectivity and artificial intelligence as the powertrain. Within two weeks, your I-Pace will know you well enough to predict your regular drive routes and cabin temperature preferences. If you normally call your partner at a particular time each day but forget, the I-Pace will remind you. Forgot your phone? The Jag will realise itís not in the car and prompt you for that too. It can also connect you to your house and allow heating and lights to be switched on before you arrive home. When you get there, Amazon Alexa will keep you updated with vehicle information including whether thereís enough charge to get you to work.
Jaguar designed the I-Pace to honour the first principles of driving enthusiasts, including the way it sounds. In addition to the natural whine from a pair of electric motors, the Digital Sound Scape feeds an artificial noise through to the cabin via the stereo system. The level of augmentation can be altered and is louder when the drive mode is switched to Dynamic. At its most vocal, the result is a weirdly appealing blend of electric motor whistle, Jetsons hover car and Freightliner exhaust brake rumble.
The I-Paceís optional Active Air Suspension can lift the body by up to 48mm above the normal height setting at speeds of up to 50km/h. Should you manage to really get out of your depth off-road, the I-Pace also has an automatic ĎExtended Modeí that will attempt to lift the body if it grounds or exceeds its 500mm wading depth.
Even the standard coil-sprung I-Pace is fitted as standard with All Surface Progress Control (ASPC), which delivers off-road cruise control and hill descent functionality.
Future developments may well involve Jaguar borrowing tech from sister company Land Rover, whose ĎCortexí is a project that aims to deliver Level 4 and Level 5 off-road autonomous technology. Cortex-developed vehicles are promised to be ďfully capable in any weather condition: dirt, rain, ice, snow or fog.Ē
Model Jaguar I-Pace S
Engine 2 x electric motors
Max power 294kW
Max torque 696Nm
Transmission single-speed epicyclic
0-100km/h 4.8sec (claimed) Price $119,000
On sale October
A quick pit stop offers a chance to digest the I-Paceís aesthetics. At 4.7m it sits between an E-Pace and F-Pace for length, yet to my eye at least, itís a handsomer brute. And with no engine to accommodate, its short bonnet is as threatening as a snub-nose .38, but unlike a Ruger, the electric Jag has accuracy and range. On a full charge, the Brits claim a maximum of 480km using the new, and much tougher, WLTP testing procedure. On the old scale, Jag suggests range would have been quoted around 600km. An 80 percent charge is possible in 10 hours from a 7kW home wall box (an approx. $1500 additional cost) or 40 minutes at a 100kW station.
On the inside, the I-Paceís tech tour de force continues. Thereís a digital screen for the instrument cluster, central display, climate-control panel; even the temperature/fanspeed dials are tiny screens. Itís roomy too, with ample space for two adults in the rear, decent vision all round, and thereís barely a squeak or rattle to report, thanks to an all-new platform and a super-stiff body structure thatís 94 percent aluminium.
Further demonstrating the I-Paceís versatility is its ability to go off the beaten track. With a quick switch to an off-road setting, the I-Pace fords a water crossing and also scales a steep and rocky hillside, with my input required only for steering. Itís evidence that electricity could be the future for all-terrain mobility too.
At this point, youíll no doubt be jumping up and down pointing at the larger, identically priced Tesla Model X and recalling its ballistic acceleration, semiautonomous drive system and comparable range because, for now, there isnít another genotype that gets closer to the I-Pace. But the Jaguar pees contemptuously on the bonfire that the Californian technology start-up lit. Yes, the Model X is quicker in a straight line but thatís where its advantage ends. Where the Tesla feels heftier and more remote during fast dynamic driving, the Jaguar is fizzing with feedback.
The I-Paceís comfortable, practical interior doesnít need fancy Falcon Wing doors to work, and it doesnít require a specialised charge point to feed its batteries. Itís also undoubtedly better looking. Alongside the striking electric Jaguar, the Model X looks like a slightly embarrassed beluga whale. Tesla has done a commendable job creating its brood hauler, but the Jag is clearly the product of a more established design ethos.
Indeed, the I-Pace is an amazingly complete car, but timing will be critical in such an unknown segment. As bountiful government incentives entice electric-vehicle buyers in Europe and the US, the Jagís arrival is spot-on, but in Australia, where alternative energy has few fans in high places, the I-Pace will face a sterner challenge when it arrives in October.
Still, one of the big manufacturers had to jump first. And Jaguar should be commended for creating an EV thatís not only comfortable, practical and genuinely desirable, but one that also offers something for keen drivers, with talented, entertaining handling and a seriously amped-up powertrain.