After months of teasing we're in Portugal and behind the wheel of Jaguar's great future hope – the i-Pace electric SUV. It's the first of the mainstream premium brands to take the fight to Tesla. Specifically, the Tesla Model X SUV.

Hold on a second though. Right now, you can't buy a mid-sized electric SUV. Not from Tesla, Audi, BMW or Mercedes. And seeing as the Tesla Model X is a much bigger car than the i-Pace, with more seats and a far bigger asking price, that opens the door for Jag.

The i-Pace is the size and type of car that we suspect – and Jaguar hopes – a lot of affluent, tech-savvy, early adopter buyers actually want. Without falcon doors to be seen anywhere.

Ultimately, then, has Jaguar pulled off a coup? It's first to market in a space you'd put money on ballooning in coming years...

Feast on some tech specs

It's worth a quick run through the spec sheet, before taking to the wheel. The i-Pace is a full electric vehicle (EV). There's no supplementary petrol motor, it's all battery here. It comes with a 90kWh battery pack – whichever spec of trim you choose. 

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The batteries feed all four wheels through a pair of electric motors, one on each axle, which produce a total of 400 horsepower and 696 newton meters of torque. Officially, that equates to around 300 miles of range on one charge. It'll cover the benchmark 0-60mph sprint in 4.5 seconds. Figures which tell you Jaguar isn't messing around.

The car is made mostly out of aluminium, yet weighs a not inconsiderable 2.1 tonnes. Batteries are heavy, see. It's lower to the ground than both Jaguar's F-Pace and E-Pace SUVs; length-wise it sits between the two (at 4.6m). Plus there's more room inside than the bigger F-Pace, with the boot particularly impressive at a quoted 656 litres.

A bit of an animal

Let's cut to the chase: what's it like to drive in the real world? In a word: brilliant. It's fast, exceptionally smooth, easy to drive and highly responsive.

It starts with the silence. That's unnerving at first, but you'll soon get used to zipping along without the roar of a petrol or diesel motor. And we don't think you'll miss the thrum or the rise and fall of revs as much as you might think.

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With strong aero credentials (a Cd of 0.29), the i-Pace is whisper quiet at speed. Road and wind roar are particularly well suppressed and the aura it creates in the cabin is every bit worthy of a Jaguar. It feels rarefied and graceful on the move.

But it can also be a bit of an animal. Acceleration is savage. Is 0-60mpg in 4.5 seconds classed as fast, any more, when various hot hatches can run these types of figures? It is when there are two electric motors producing full torque from 0rpm, meaning the i-Pace absolutely hurls itself off the line from a dead stop. And then just keeps on going.

Overtakes are despatched in the blink of an eye, accompanied by a The Jetsons-style hyper-drive electric whine when you're in dynamic mode (you can also turn this off). It's not Tesla P100D Ludicrous Mode fast. But the Jag always feels impressively sports-car rapid.

Take the big wheels to the race track

Helping the sporty feel is the keen and responsive steering, a body behaving as though it weighs nowhere near 2.1 tonnes, and a firm but comfortable ride.

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Caveat time: our test i-Pace launch cars all ran on 20-inch wheels. Whereas we'd take ours with the optional 22ins for the sake of the looks. But we're not sure quite how badly this will impact the ride, as bigger wheels means firmer ride.

Regardless, the i-Pace managed a couple of laps of Portimão race track quite adeptly, shortly after it had forded a river and hauled itself up a sandy mountain track to prove it can do the business off-road. Well, a little bit. Not that any owners will be crazy enough to try such things...

Like other EVs, Jaguar has set-up the i-Pace braking system to help you harvest as much energy as you can, through regenerative brakes. Rather than applying pad to disc and creating waste heat, energy is recovered into the battery as you slow down.

This means that if you look far down the road while driving, and think ahead, you start to find you don't really need to use the brake pedal at all. Simply lift off the accelerator and the i-Pace slows down.

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It can take a little getting used to, especially for the uninitiated. But we felt right at home, as our at-home getabout is a BMW i3. And should you not like the feeling, you can delve into the setup menu and turn off the heavy regeneration (braking) mode. But seriously don't. One-pedal driving is a core appeal of an EV, and after a week of familiarisation you get smoother at driving than ever before and will never want to go back. Plus you get more range out of the battery to boot.

Overall, the i-Pace drives like a true Jaguar, with the odd hint of Land Rover and BMW thrown in. It's a deeply appealing drive.

A clean sheet of paper – something special

The i-Pace design is clever and intriguing. It speaks a subtle SUV language, with a slightly raised driving position, yet it's not bulky. It has Jaguar cues – the grille, the lamps, the way that details are handled – yet it takes the brand in a very new and ultimately positive direction.

That cab-forward proportion is very new. The chopped-off tail – a product of aerodynamic requirements – with its square edges and cut-back section, is different too. There are several neat details too, such as the inner grille which rolls into the section of the car and becomes a scoop through which air is channelled up the bonnet and right over the roof.

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Black graphics break up the lower body, and you'll notice new elements of the design each time you approach it. But it does this without being as polarising as, say, a BMW i3.

The i-Pace is a bit colour sensitive (better in blue, grey or silver than the red shown here) and it looks way better and more futuristic when rolling on the flat-faced 22-inch wheels. And the recessed Range Rover Velar door handles, which shuttle out to greet you when you unlock the car, are still a clunky triumph of engineering aero requirements over good functional design. But this is nit-picking.

Step inside, and for what's not a huge car, there's plenty of space. The standard panoramic roof helps trick your eye by flooding the space with light. And the 'light oyster' interior (as per our photographs) suits the car really well. Subtle advice klaxon: please don't go for black leather and old-man brown wood on your futuristic EV.

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There's a floating lower centre console that's complete with a fantastic pair of jewel-like climate control knobs. You use these for cabin temperature, fan speed and seat heating and cooling. Hallelujah for something physical to touch (there's also an analogue volume knob), rather than all the functions being buried deep within a touchscreen menu (yes, we are talking about you, Tesla Model 3). Having everything touchscreen might sound more futuristic, but it's not always the best approach when eye-on-the-road driving should come first.

Step inside Pandora's box 

Around all this tech, there's useful and well-thought design and storage for real life use. Six USB ports, five 12V sockets, a slot at the base of the console for your phone, a 10-litre centre bin, and slots underneath the rear seat for stashing and hiding things like tablets and laptops.

The front seats are thin (the backs are from an F-Type) but comfortable and figure-hugging. The rears will take three people at a pinch, and despite the roofline there's headspace for people who are six-foot tall. The seat is set low, though, so despite decent legroom your under-thigh support in the back seat is quite compromised.

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Gear selection is controlled by push buttons on the centre console, indicators and wipers are conventional, and there's the usual pair of Jaguar Land Rover screens – a TFT driver display and 10-inch centre display.

The design and display of these will be familiar to anyone who's driven a Range Rover Velar (which is to say, it's fine if not the best). The i-Pace gets the same home screen menu tiles as a Velar, the same display graphics and same instrument cluster options... up to a point.

Moar tech

However, as with most EVs, there's much more on offer in the iPace to help you optimise for its electrifications. You get a smartphone app for remote control – preheating, locking, starting charging, etc.

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There's an Amazon Alexa skill for checking the available range and asking for preheating of the cabin, while integration of IoT technology such as Homelink for controlling your home heating system is also available. When we've driven an i-Pace in the UK, charged it ourselves and lived with one for a while, we'll update this review to reflect the realities of living with the car, something we weren't able to experience in the context of an international launch.

On-board assist technology is as you'd expect. Autonomous city braking, lane departure warning, 360-degree parking cameras and self-parking – that kind of thing. And the i-Pace has queue assist, allowing the car to steer itself as well as accelerate/brake in a traffic jam. So far, so normal.

But Jaguar has added a few, critical and well-judged EV-specific elements into the in-car interface. A power/charge swing-o-meter in the instrument cluster replaces the rev counter of petrol cars, so you can see when recovering energy. And a 'My EV' menu in the centre display features a lovely hologram of an i-Pace to show its charge status and range.

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This menu also provides EV controls such as departure pre-conditioning and time setting. Meanwhile, within the navigation, a predictive range function learns how you drive and takes into account air con use, weather, topography, traffic and other factors to predict as accurately as possible you how much charge you'll have at your destination, and where you need to charge. Pity that, unlike Tesla, Jag doesn't have a network of Superchargers it can guide you to when the time does come to charge.

Range... anxiety?

In the context of an EV, the 'what will it do?' question isn't so much about speed, rather more about range and charging times.

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All i-Pace trim levels have the same battery pack, pair of electric motors (giving it four-wheel drive) and the same charging system. So whichever version you choose, your experience of this will be the same. 

The quoted range of 480km (300 miles) is based on the new European standard WLTP drive cycle. What does that mean in reality if you go out and buy one? It's hard to say accurately. Over two days, the i-Pace we drove showed between a 320-380km (c.200-240 mile) range at about 94 percent charge.

Jaguar is quick to point out that over each 200-300 mile cycle, the car learns not only how you drive but where and in what conditions it's being driven, to build up a much more accurate range prediction. To this end, after a bit of gentle town and country driving at the start of the launch drive, we actually saw the range figure going up. 

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As a rule of thumb, unless you drive like Lewis Hamilton, budget on getting somewhere between 220 miles (winter) and 250 miles (summer) out of an i-Pace. But if you go easy on the pedal, learn to get the most out of the car, and are using it in temperate weather, then we don't see any reason why you won't be able to eke that range up into the early 300s.

The on-board interface has a sub-menu too, which shows you what features you can deactivate and techniques you can use to get more range out of the car. For now these are best guesses. We'll report back on this once we've spent more time with one in the UK.

Charging

A full charge at home, if you install a 7kW wallbox charger (available for a couple of hundred quid with a government grant) takes 12 hours 36 minutes, flat to full. You'll obviously never see that, as you never drain the battery.

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So a more realistic, 80 per cent charge takes 10 hours dead. Jaguar says that one useful rule of thumb is you'll add just over 20 miles of range for each hour you're charging at home.

Meanwhile, out in the world of faster public charging points, a 50kW fast charger can provide an 80 percent battery charge in 85 minutes. While the Motorway Rapid (100kW) chargers can manage 80 percent in 40 minutes. Which really starts to make very long journeys in the i-Pace a viable proposition. 

Verdict

In the past, Jaguar has often managed to pluck defeat from the jaws of victory with the cars its teased us with. The decision not to build the stunning CX-75 supercar concept springs to mind. With i-Pace, however, it's clear that some very smart people have seized the opportunity that was Jaguar's for the taking. The company even moved the entire engineering team to work in a single room at Warwick University, which the project leaders credit with being one of the reasons we're driving a clean-sheet car design, from a project that only got the go ahead as recently as 2014.

The i-Pace is the first product from an established premium player in this space. And it's a triumph. A joy to drive, an arresting and appealing design, all while employing logical, helpful technology. It does this without resorting to show-off doors, or jaw-dropping huge screens. That's not a dig at Tesla, more to say that the i-Pace is less of an outward statement than a Tesla. The Jag brand image very different. So despite obvious comparisons, it probably won't appeal to someone who already is a huge Tesla fan.

The i-Pace is clearly not a product of Silicon Valley's move-fast-and-break-things approach to innovation, either. But, despite our tech roots, we believe the i-Pace is a better car for that. Rather like BMW's i3 and i8, it feels well engineered and cleverly thought through – designed by people who really understand cars, but who are taking a new, ground-up approach.

Unlike those BMW i cars, the i-Pace's design is accessible, and as a mid-sized SUV it doesn't force you to adopt a compromised space package for the cause. Instead, it feels like an aspirational car for regular people. And that, among other things, is what makes it a true Jaguar. It's not techy for tech's sake. Or elitist. Yes, at a starting price of £63k it might not be the car to bring electric mobility to the masses. But it heralds a new era. 

Tesla, BMW, Audi et al should be very worried indeed, because Jaguar has just pulled off the coup of the year with the i-Pace. Right now, this is the EV we would choose to buy before any other.

Alternatives to consider

Tesla Model X

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The Tesla is bigger, bulker, more expensive. But if you're considering an i-Pace it'll probably be on your radar. The Tesla can do faster (a P100D) but for a similar price to the Jag, you're looking at a 75D which is slower and goes less distance on one charge. The Tesla brings greater drama than the Jag – the falcon doors and huge centre screen mean that, in many ways, it feels techier – especially as there's Autopilot to consider too. But the Jag is more complete, much more nimble and feels better made.

Jaguar F-Pace

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With the i-Pace costing what it does, you could stick with a petrol/diesel SUV and spec up Jaguar's rather fine large SUV offering. It's a very good car, but if you want to tick the future and tech boxes, it feels a bit last century compared to i-Pace, with a much less impressive interior, too.

Volvo XC60 Plug-in hybrid

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Our favourite mid-sized SUV, the XC60 comes in an appealing T8 format, with a small battery mated to a petrol engine, which is good for around 20 miles of all-electric range. As a stepping stone into the future, while providing you a comfort blanket from the past, it does a good job with a lovely interior. But it's not a dedicated EV, and ultimately feels like it's from a different era to the i-Pace.