The petrol engine is a living, breathing organism. Just like a human being with blood pumping through their veins, the combustion powerplant ingests its daily diet — comprising unleaded fuel and oxygen — to generate seamless forward motion while the remains are spat out of its exhaust pipes.

There’s a beautiful elegance to the sophistication with which a modern petrol engine goes about its business. Depending on whether you’re ensconced within a Rolls-Royce Phantom or Lamborghini Huracan, you’re either blissfully unaware of the violence taking place within the combustion chambers, or intimately connected to it. Just like any individual you know, each engine has its own traits and personality.

However, the days of the combustion engine are numbered. It may take a few decades before they vanish, but there’s no getting around the fact that the earth’s reserves of fossil fuels are not inexhaustible. Plus, there’s the fact that petrol engines are not the optimum solution when it comes to preserving the quality of the air we breathe.

 

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Electric vehicles (or EVs, as they’re now commonly referred to) are clearly the next big thing (hydrogen fuel cells will join the fray en masse later), and Tesla has already forged ahead in this genre with its line-up of models that aren’t hamstrung by the performance and range restrictions of battery-powered cars of yesteryear. It’s taken the major manufacturers a while to get with the program, but that’s now changing, and you’ll see a rush of EVs from the big players over the coming five years.

Here, on these pages, is the first legitimate rival to Tesla’s high-performing Model X — the slightly offbeat looking Jaguar I-Pace, which this wheels scribe has just lobbed into Portugal to sample on public roads, as well as the challenging Autodromo do Algarve racetrack and a variety of off-road sections chalked out by Jag’s events team.

A bit of background about the I-Pace, which is Jaguar’s first full-electric vehicle and was conceived as such from the outset, unlike some EVs that started life as a petrol offering before being converted to electric power. Starting from a clean sheet of paper enabled the Jag boffins to package the I-Pace optimally, taking into account the fact there’s no need to accommodate a bulky engine up front — hence the ultra-long 2,990mm wheelbase within an overall length of just 4,662mm. The bonnet is stubby in the extreme — just like in a mid-engined car — and its front and rear overhangs are almost non-existent.

 

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But (and this is a big but) what the I-Pace has instead is a large and heavy 90kWh battery pack comprising 432 pouch cells that needs to be housed somewhere. The big plus with battery packs is that they can be packaged flat and low (between the axles, under the passenger cell floor), so the result is that the I-Pace has perfect 50:50 weight distribution and a centre of gravity that’s 130mm lower than the F-Pace. In addition, the battery pack strengthens the chassis structure, and this means the I-Pace is the most torsionally rigid car Jaguar has in its line-up. All of this bodes well for its cornering dynamics.

The I-Pace is no lightweight at 2,133kg, but that’s the inevitable penalty when you have a large battery pack to tote around. Those batteries, in turn, deliver power to a pair electric motors — one each for front and rear axles — that deliver combined outputs of 394bhp and 696Nm, enabling a 0-100kph sprint of 4.8sec and top whack of 200kph. As an aside, we saw an indicated 210kph on the speedo on a couple of occasions during our Portuguese launch drive, but there was a slight downward incline each time, so that may account for our extra velocity.

As with all electric vehicles, the biggest thing to get your head around is the lack of any engine noise or driveline vibration when you hit the start button. The only indication that you’re set to go is provided by the dash display coming to life. There is no transmission lever or flappy paddles to operate, just push buttons on the centre console to select “D”, “R” or “P”, depending on whether you want to go forward, back or park the car.

 

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There is a “Creep” mode whereby the car does exactly that when you select “D”, but we didn’t activate it during our drive, so the vehicle stands motionless until you depress the throttle. Once you do that, the I-Pace slinks away in almost complete silence. Nevertheless, after a brief period of familiarisation, you forget you’re in an electric car — especially as speeds climb and wind rustle and road noise in any case cancel out most of the engine din you’d get in a conventional car. The Jag’s ease of operation is undoubtedly a good thing, as dramatic change is something that frightens many consumers away.

Start exploring the I-Pace’s performance envelope and you begin to glean there is a vast reservoir of instant acceleration just waiting to be tapped — that’s the benefit of having 696Nm of torque just an ankle twitch away. Encouraged by this, we slingshot past dawdling drivers in a virtual blink, and subsequently sit at an unflustered cruise at speeds of 160kph-plus. But there is a caveat — namely, the heavier your throttle leg, the quicker you’ll see your remaining touring range plummeting. Jaguar quotes a range of up to 480km with a fully charged battery, but it’s more realistic to expect a max of 350km if you drive normally. Behave like a hooligan (as we did at times) and you can halve that latter figure.

As for charge times, the company says the I-Pace can be charged to 80 per cent capacity in just 40 minutes if you have access to a 100kW fast charger. Or you can achieve the same result in 10 hours via a 7kW AC wall box. So, the daily procedure in this case would be to plug in the charger when you get home from work, and you’ll be good to go again the following morning. As with most electric vehicles, the I-Pace has charge points pre-programmed into its navigation system and the range calculation is said to take weather, traffic and any significant hills into account.

 

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Granted, there isn’t as yet an abundance of charging stations in the UAE, but the Managing Director and CEO of Dubai Electricity and Water (Dewa), Saeed Mohammad Al Tayer, recently promised there would be 200 public charging points across Dubai by the end of this year.

The I-Pace also self-charges via regenerative braking (whereby kinetic energy is converted into battery charge) and there are two modes — “High” and “Low” — for this. We selected the former, and in this setting there’s almost no need to touch the brake pedal in normal driving as the vehicle instantly decelerates (at a rate of up to 0.4G) the instant you lift off the throttle. If you drive with a little common sense and anticipation, you can maximise the benefit of this, and it also makes for a more effortless journey as you can virtually resort to single-pedal driving.

Despite its 2.2-tonne girth, the I-Pace is an agile device — aided by its 50:50 weight distribution and low centre of gravity — so you can punt it across twisty roads or a racetrack at a clip that would more or less match a Porsche Macan. That said, the Jag delivers a more synthesised experience than the German SUV and part of the reason for this lies in the numb steering, which, although accurate, conveys very little feedback to your fingertips about what the front wheels are doing.

The I-Pace also scampered up a steep, rutted track (to the naked eye it looked almost 45 degrees in incline) with little fuss, and a small water crossing (probably about 30cm deep) was similarly dealt with.

Then, of course, there’s the lack of engine braking and revs rising and falling, which are such an integral part of driving a combustion-powered car, as we’ve been doing for more than the past 100 years. In essence, you have to slightly reprogram your brain to account for the lack of these facets. It’s not as difficult as it seems, as within two days of pedalling the I-Pace, I felt quite at home in it. In fact, flinging the Jag across a rally-stage-like gravel section that formed part of the drive route was hugely grin-inducing. The I-Pace showed a great willingness to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and kick up some sideways attitude through corners. It felt sublimely balanced and manageable — far more so than imagined.

The I-Pace also scampered up a steep, rutted track (to the naked eye it looked almost 45 degrees in incline) with little fuss, and a small water crossing (probably about 30cm deep) was similarly dealt with. In other words, the electric Jag isn’t a dunce off-road, although it’s doubtful too many potential owners will be venturing beyond the blacktop. Nevertheless, most buyers still like to know they can go off-road (at least to some degree), if they want to.

We drove two cars at the international launch — a First Edition model equipped with 22in rims and a smattering of fancy trim embellishments, as well as an I-Pace S with 20in wheels and taller rubber. Across lumpy roads and gravel there’s no doubt the latter was the better, more supple-riding, choice. The big-rimmed First Edition had a tendency to bounce and skip across sharp corrugations, although that wouldn’t be such an issue on the UAE’s predominantly billiard-table-smooth roads.

 

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The I-Pace’s cabin is a pleasant place to be — provided you’re in the front seats – as the layout is attractive, with top-notch trim materials (apart from a few hard-plastic elements) swathed across the seats and elegantly sculpted multilayer dashboard. There’s a simplicity and lightness to the design theme, most notably the floating centre console — although the latter is stronger on form than function. The rear seats serve up ample kneeroom, but the low front pews make it impossible to slide your feet under them, so there isn’t as much sprawling space in the back as one would have liked. The sharply tapering roofline also contributes to a claustrophobic feel as there’s a limited view out of the small side windows.

There’s ample luggage space though, with 656 litres on offer with four or five occupants on board, swelling to 1,453 litres with the rear seats folded flat. There’s also a receptacle for tablet and laptop stowage under the rear seats and a 27-litre ‘froot’ (front boot) under the bonnet.

Styling? Well, you can make your own mind up based on the accompanying images, but to my eye the I-Pace’s offbeat proportions gel well. There’s a clear distinction between it and the leaping cat’s petrol-powered offerings, although the family resemblance is still noticeably there. It’s aero efficient, too, with a Cd of just 0.29.

It may not be as rapid as a Tesla Model X P100D with ‘Ludicrous’ mode but, as an overall proposition, the I-Pace is a much more polished offering with vastly superior build quality. The Jaguar will also be about half the price at circa-Dh310k when it launches here in 18-24 months. We’re not expecting it to trigger a mass desertion of petrol-powered SUVs, but the I-Pace represents a fast, comfortable and realistic daily driver and it will undoubtedly strike a telling blow for EVs.