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Jaguar I-Pace: first drive of electric SUV concept

Autocar logo Autocar 15/03/2017 Matt Saunders

Jaguar I-Pace: first drive of electric SUV concept

Jaguar I-Pace: first drive of electric SUV concept
© Haymarket

On the ground floor of a dim multi-storey car park somewhere in East London sits what might be the most daring and important new Jaguar there has been in more than five decades.

Glowing in a coat of ‘Photon Red’ paint so vibrant you’d swear it was luminescent – and defying your every attempt at classification but for reasons that only invite your eyes to linger – the I-Pace looks bold and exciting even here amongst the striplight yellow and concrete grey.

It’s part-supercar, part utility car; somehow all-Jaguar and yet not really like any Jaguar there has ever been. By the standards of the most far-fetched show cars, it’s stunning. Except here and now, away from the motor show stand where thousands have already admired it, the I-Pace is clearly not fantasy; it looks ready to be driven. And today, it will be.

Today will be one of only a handful of occasions that the I-Pace concept will ever be driven – and, sadly, it won’t be driven widely or quickly, or in anything like the fashion that we’d like. But driven it will be. Because when Jaguar invites you to experience a car as potentially transformative as this first-hand and at such an early stage, you grab the opportunity with both hands and learn what you can.

There are only a handful of I-Pace prototypes in existence, and this very one will be whisked off towards the bright lights of the Geneva motor show when we’re done. The car’s insured for £2mil – and that’s probably a conservative estimate of its true value to Jaguar. So you drive it respectfully, with a polystyrene pad under your backside so your jeans don’t mark the leather and your shoes left on the pavement so you don’t get the carpets muddy. But sure, they say – you can drive it. And so today, the story of what the I-Pace might mean for its maker – and what it might do – can hit another gear.

Jaguar I-Pace: first drive of electric SUV concept © Haymarket Jaguar I-Pace: first drive of electric SUV concept Before all that, though, comes a chance to catch up with some of the key men involved in the I-Pace project and find out what stage it has reached, behind the increasingly impenetrable wall of secrecy that encircles Jaguar Land Rover’s Gaydon headquarters. They are Matt Beaven, Chief Exterior Designer, Advanced Design for Jaguar; Sandy Boyes, Beaven’s opposite number on interior design; and Dave Shaw, Vehicle Engineering Manager.

Under some duress, and with the understandable reticence of those working on a car that has yet to fully mature, they sketch in a few tantalising details about this mould-breaking all-electric crossover sports-car-cum-SUV.

“We’re about halfway through the development work of the production car,” says Shaw, “and we’re on time & on track to deliver against our original promises. That means we’re about six weeks away from having the first ‘VP’ prototypes (the first mules in what’s approaching a final specification) to work on.”

Sounds like life’s about to get quite exciting for Shaw and his team. The promises he refers to are the headline numbers that Jaguar committed to when the i-Pace concept was unveiled at the LA motor show last autumn. 395bhp and 516lb ft of electric power and torque from one electric motor per axle. 0-62mph in around four seconds. Just over 300 miles of usable cruising range. And a 90kWh lithium-ion drive battery than can be charged to 80 per cent full from a public DC fast-charger in 90 minutes.

If those performance figures are delivered on, they’d make the i-Pace a faster-accelerating and longer-legged car than the Tesla Model X 90D we road tested last month. And that would be a pretty stellar showing for Jaguar’s first road-going EV of any kind.

Jaguar I-Pace: first drive of electric SUV concept © Haymarket Jaguar I-Pace: first drive of electric SUV concept Shaw’s evidently so confident of achieving those targets because his engineers were involved in the I-Pace’s design from its embryonic stages. The I-Pace, as anyone inside of Jaguar will tell you, was that treasured rarity among so-called new cars: a genuine clean-sheet design unconstrained by segment norms or predecessors or the design compromises imposed by a normal combustion engine and driveline. It could have been the wildest designer’s flight of fancy any motor show ever saw – but it isn’t.

“As a company we realised about five years ago,” says Shaw, “that it saves us all a lot of pain further down the line if we all sit around a table early on to decide what’s the best we can do with what we ‘ve got. Otherwise the designers come up with a car that aesthetically meets everything they want it to do, only to hand over to the engineers who have to say ‘yeah… but actually, that bit can’t, that bit can’t and this bit won’t.’ This way we’re all in it together and we all move faster that way.”

So the I-Pace really isn’t just another show car, as Matt Beaven explains. “Design-wise, we were working on the production version of the I-Pace at the same time as the concept,” he says. “We were keen not to overpromise; that the production version shouldn’t let you down. It will end up being very similar.”

“This was a huge challenge for us,” Beaven goes on. “The I-Pace had to be recognisably a Jaguar while starting in a totally blank space. We knew from the off that we weren’t interested in the kind of electric car sub-brand that other car-makers have introduced. This had to be an authentic Jaguar, and communicate Jaguar’s traditional values through entirely new proportions.”

So where do you start designing a car like this – or even just when taking it in? It’s hard to know what to make of the I-Pace away from the pedestal motor show glare and in such a singularly untheatrical setting. Those short overhangs, aerodynamic-looking silhouette and cabin-forwards profile owe more to supercar design type than SUV design convention – so the I-Pace actually looks more like the C-X75 than it does an F-Pace.

The F-Type sports car was an influence, too. “The car’s short front haunches and elongated rear ones are like an F-Type in mirror-image,” says Beaven. Sounds like classic car-designer double-speak – but if you stand far enough back and take in the whole of the car’s shape, you can see what he means. Ultimately, while you can’t quite decide if it’s a hatchback or a sports car or some new sort of SUV you’re looking at, you can’t help but wonder if knowing really matters. The I-Pace is something new,  and nothing more or less than the very best EV that Jaguar can imagine right now.

Jaguar I-Pace: first drive of electric SUV concept © Haymarket Jaguar I-Pace: first drive of electric SUV concept We’re shoeless and ready to slide onboard at last. Heavy door, fiddly handle, “whatever you do, don’t slam it.”  Yup, this is a concept car alright – but the driving position and the cabin layout will be reliable guides of what to expect from the production version. You sit low by SUV standards, at a similar height as you might in an F-Pace, but in a cockpit that’s more sparse, airy and spacious-feeling. A high centre console makes you feel snug on the one hand, but the controls and instruments are at a lower level than you expect to find them in front of you. Maybe this is an SUV after all.

A low scuttle grants excellent forward visibility. Overall you’re seated very comfortably with very little expanse of bonnet or dashboard in front you, close to the car’s front wheels. And, while I’m not permitted access to the pristine back seats to verify as much, I’m told that the cabin-forwards layout also makes for excellent second-row occupant space on a par with that of a luxury saloon, and 530-litres of boot space.

Designed in homage to the F-Type’s asymmetric driver-focussed fascia, the I-Pace’s dashboard curves around to encircle you in the driver’s seat. There’s an LCD instrument screen immediate ahead, and a larger infotainment screen at the top of the car’s cantilevered, architectural-looking centre stack which contains a smaller second touchscreen at a lower level.

This being a concept car, none of the screens are working – one of them displaying blinking lines of programming code that bring to mind Neo’s bad dream from The Matrix. Still, I can believe they’ll do the trick when they are on song, between them consolidating enough control functions to keep the rest of the fascia fairly uncluttered.

If this is a glimpse of Jaguar’s future on cabin design, it looks to be taking inspiration from its German competitors in some ways, making more of a design feature of its ventilation controls. They look like oversized watch bezels, and all the more decorative on an interior that’s otherwise very light on switchgear and fittings. There’s more chrome decoration on the I-Pace’s steering wheel and on its column stalks than I’m expecting, too. Perceived quality has been an area where Jaguar could improve for a long while now. It looks like they’re intending to.

Jaguar I-Pace: first drive of electric SUV concept © Haymarket Jaguar I-Pace: first drive of electric SUV concept Moving swiftly on. A small, square starter button and a three-button transmission control are all you need to ready the I-Pace for the off. This one’s been performing short demonstrations all day, and the genial chaps who’re managing it tell me they’ve been struggling to charge it between runs. I’ve no idea how much charge is in the batteries, and I’m told I’ll get a couple of runs up and down the 200-yard strip of tarmac we’re standing on before they have to take the keys away again. It’s not much to go on; less still when they tell me that this car only has one of its two electric motors on board and that it’s limited to 50mph.

Even so, it doesn’t struggle to get away from standing. Like most EVs, the I-Pace responds instantly to the merest prod of accelerator and zips up to town speeds with the easy flexibility of a one-tonne supermini. Jaguar won’t say how much the car weighs, but it must be considerably less than a Tesla Model X. With twice as much instant torque on tap as this, I can believe 60mph in 4.0sec may even be a pretty conservative target.

The car’s steering is heavy, its ride noisy and firm – but that’ll be the concept car factor in evidence again. Show cars always ride like trolleyjacks – especially when they’re on 23in alloy wheels. You can hear the friction in the car’s driveline; its steering and brake pedal feel like they’ve had no tuning at all.

But this part of the I-Pace’s driving experience isn’t at all representative of what we might expect of the finished car, and all it proves is how much effort goes into finishing Jaguar’s modern cars. The I-Pace uses the same double-wishbone & integral link suspension setup as the XE, XF and F-Pace, and all of those cars handle well enough to top their respective Autocar classes for keener drivers. That, combined with the favourably low centre of gravity that a floor-mounted battery will provide, is reason enough to expect great things when we get to drive the finished car.

Until then, Jaguar devotees can look forward to the familiar dripfeed of technical titbits over the next twelve months, as the I-Pace’s engineers get closer and closer to finalising its specification. A motor show debut for the production car is expected sometime in 2018, with the earliest deliveries expected the same year. It’ll be an ambitious schedule to keep to, and who knows whether it give us a car that’ll sell in its hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands. But it’ll certainly give us a real car – that much, it seems, can be depended on – and one whose prospect is now as enticing, to this tester, as it is interesting. 

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