SAN FRANCISCO – The barbarians are at Tesla’s gate. And this one is cloaked in a Union Jack.
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Jaguar’s new 2019 I-PACE, which hits showrooms in November, is not just the first all-electric vehicle from the storied British automaker, but it’s also the first genuine challenger to Tesla’s reign as hip purveyor of luxury battery-powered vehicles.
Sandwiched conveniently in between the entry-level Tesla Model 3 (which typically runs consumers around $55,000 out the door) and the vaunted Model S and X (around $100,000), our fully-loaded I-PACE test car rang it at $88,265 replete with everything from buttery leather seating to plentiful technological wizardry.
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There is quite some irony in Jaguar being the first to rattle Tesla’s cage considering that early Jag cars were outfitted with Lucas electronics and lighting, which gave out so often that founder Joe Lucas was dubbed the Prince of Darkness.
But those tech-challenged days are deep in the past. Jaguar’s spotty track record over the decades, including one stint under Ford’s corporate umbrella, has mercifully come to an end, due in large part to infusions of capital from Tata Motors, the Indian automotive giant that bought the Jaguar Land Rover group in 2008.
Today, that means the company is capable of producing a big cat that runs nearly as silently and sure-footedly, due to all-wheel-drive, as its animal counterpart. And not a moment too soon. Audi is set to unveil its own electric SUV, the e-tron, in a few weeks, and Mercedes-Benz recently announced it would be offering an EV in the same populist category.
Jaguar knows that any electric car is still a hard sell with most shoppers; EVs represent only 1 percent of new car sales at the moment.
That’s why the company is announcing a new roadshow called the Jaguar Electrifies Experience (San Francisco is first on Oct. 3, followed by hot EV markets Los Angeles, Miami and New York/New Jersey), where rides in the I-PACE and other models will be on offer.
“Driving this car is critical, because with all the stereotypes out there about electric cars, it’s key to see that they’re really exciting vehicles,” says Kim McCullough, vice president of marketing for Jaguar Land Rover North America. “The idea with our marketing push is to get people to say, ‘Wow, this could be my only car.’ “.
And it well could be. Within limits.
What strikes you immediately when surveying the I-PACE is how different it is from its main competitor, Tesla. Sure, unlock the car and the smooth door handles pop out to greet you, just like on the Tesla Model S. But that feature aside, Jaguar engineers and designers clearly wanted to make their offering stand apart.
That means no giant TV-sized center console screen but rather more discreet infotainment touch screens that are also common in the company’s Land Rover models. Note that there’s quite a bit of navigating to do on that modest screen, from climate control to suspension settings, and most of it should be done while parked.
The quality of the leather surfaces and the general fit-and-finish of the I-PACE edge more towards the Model S than Model 3 territory, perhaps fitting, because it’s midway between the two price points. That means creature comforts such as Windsor Leather 14-way heated and cooled seats, a suede-like lining overhead and cabin lighting you can tweak to your interior designer heart’s content.
Our vehicle, the top-line HSE EV400 – which starts at $80,000, while the SE ($75,000) and S ($70,000) simply offer fewer standard features and smaller wheels – had as standard a typical driver-assist technology suite that allows the car to center itself between lanes and emergency brake when needed.
Another luxury perk, which runs $940, is a fighter-pilot style heads-up display that projects your speed and the area’s speed limit in the glass ahead of the driver. Potentially license-saving luxury.
But the key point is that the electric powerplant remains the same for the full I-PACE model range – a 90 kilowatt-hour battery pack boasting 394 horsepower that rockets the torque-crazed tiger to 60 miles per hour in 4.5 seconds.
Jaguar says fast-charging the I-PACE on a 100-kilowatt charger to 80 percent of its 240-mile range takes 40 minutes and roughly twice that on the more standard 50-kilowatt chargers.
In other words, if you’re looking for the I-PACE to get you to work or the mall, you’re more than covered. Plan a family trip, and you’ll want to get an accurate map of charging outposts along the route, although one feature of the I-PACE navigation system is that it will point out all such stations. Good thinking.
So what’s it like to drive? In a word, exhilarating. That’s because of the typically rocket-like acceleration, noiseless at that, of all electric cars. Although this car is heavy at around 4,700 pounds, the battery power combined with a light steering feel mask that heft admirably.
What’s more, slowing this car is almost intuitive with the regenerative brakes setting on high. Simply lift off the accelerator and the car starts to instantly decelerate. It takes getting used to but feels safer over time given you’re not switching pedals quickly.
Inside, front and rear passengers alike have plenty of room in this angular SUV, thanks to the batteries being underfoot. The rear hatch offers enough space for most parental or weekend sports gear needs. In our upmarket car, there were even separate climate controls for the folks in the back.
Outside, the car is sure to polarize. While Tesla quite successfully has adopted a more standard sedan design for its Model 3 and S, Jaguar’s has opted to make the I-PACE have almost a cutting-edge concept car type feel.
You’ll do a double take, then search the nose for a clue as to what it is and find that snarling big cat. For some automobile enthusiasts, Jaguar’s long racing and road car heritage will mean more than Tesla’s techie upstart cache.
No question that Musk single-handedly has made electric cars cool. But he now is dealing with a host of personal and professional headaches while the value of the company’s stock sinks.
So Jaguar is first into the EV arena to do battle with a wounded titan. Let the games begin.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava.