I-Pace marks JLR's emergence as first-rate engineering house

The 432-cell lithium ion battery pack on the I-Pace can be 80 percent recharged in as few as 40 minutes using publicly available 100-kilowatt DC chargers.

We've covered Jaguar Land Rover thoroughly of late, charting its 10-year progress under Tata Motors and in this week's paper, exploring the marketing challenges involved with the introduction of the Jaguar I-Pace, the company's first electric vehicle.

I drove the I-Pace two weeks ago in southern Portugal for around 350 miles over two days, covering virtually every kind of terrain I-Pace buyers are likely to encounter and some they won't.

We drove up and down steep and twisty mountain roads, through a stream, off road, up the side of a mountain on a dusty road and flat out at 125 mph on a race track.

The I-Pace is the most capable vehicle Jaguar has ever engineered and developed -- a brutally fast electric sports car with a crossover body that can haul five people and their gear nearly anywhere they want to go for about as far as you'd want to drive in a day and, of course, without burning fossil fuel.

But here's the bigger picture: The I-Pace marks JLR's arrival as a first-rate engineering organization.

With JLR's powerful and efficient Ingenium engines and recent vehicles such as the Jaguar F-Type sports car, XE SV Project 8 performance sedan and Range Rover Velar, JLR is flexing some mighty engineering muscles.

But the I-Pace is an Olympic gold medal performance. The creativity in engineering on the I-Pace is impressive.

For instance:

  • The driver can set the vehicle to maintain the optimum battery pack temperature while the I-Pace is plugged in. That helps improve range.
  • Another range-improving feature is the air conditioning system that senses the number of passengers and adjusts the AC so that cold air is not directed to empty seats.
  • At low speeds, just one electric motor drives the vehicle.
  • Setting the regenerative braking to high enables one-pedal driving, which means when the driver lets off the accelerator, the regenerative brakes will bring the vehicle to a stop. Several reporters on my Portugal trip praised the feature.
  • The 432-cell lithium ion battery pack can be 80 percent recharged in as few as 40 minutes using publicly available 100-kilowatt DC chargers. Using a standard 220-volt wall charger takes 10 hours, or a typical overnight, to recharge to 80 percent.

In the 10 years since Tata Motors acquired Jaguar and Land Rover, JLR's growth has been fueled by a combination of management systems and processes put in place by previous owners Ford and BMW, funding -- without interference -- from Tata and at least one other thing: engineering talent. In the past few years, JLR has successfully, and somewhat quietly, recruited some of Europe's best engineers to work on future Jaguar and Land Rover vehicles.

JLR may be small compared with Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi, but that is an advantage. One reason JLR's global sales have grown from 186,590 in 2008 to 625,109 last year is because it has very quickly rolled out new nameplates on new platforms. The I-Pace is the latest example. It took four years to go from a clean sheet design to the showroom -- perhaps a record for an EV. And JLR designed its motors in-house. All this growth has been noticed by engineers at competitors, who might spend years toiling away designing head gaskets or door handles before they get to lead development on a major system on an important vehicle.

The seeds planted by Al Kammerer, Bob Joyce, Richard Parry-Jones, Wolfgang Ziebart and dozens of other engineering executives who played keys roles in JLR's success are blooming. Despite the political uncertainty with Brexit and potential tariffs, JLR's product development process has proved to be fast, nimble and, more importantly, creative. That's a huge asset in a fast-changing world.

We don't know how well the I-Pace will sell. The reviews have been positive but EV demand is still small. Buyers will need to be convinced. JLR's managers are taking the conservative route, targeting markets such as California, where they believe as much as 25 percent of the vehicle's total global output could be sold.

Dealers feel they have a hit on their hands. In fact, they are telling JLR to order as many I-Paces for the U.S. as the factory can produce, Andy Vine, chairman of the Jaguar Land Rover Retailer Cabinet, told me.

"The I-Pace tells the public this is really the beginning of the modern Jaguar brand. Everyone is excited," said Vine. He expects a fast start for the vehicle. At his store, Jaguar Louisville in Kentucky, Vine said he has sold half of the I-Pace allotment he will receive this year. "We will take all we can get," he said.

JLR doesn't plan to target Tesla in its marketing, although the Model X is the I-Pace's natural competitor. In fact, things could get interesting for Tesla. Not long after the I-Pace arrives in late August, Audi will launch the e-tron and Porsche will introduce the Taycan into the luxury EV utility market.

For Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who is trying to make his company profitable and become airborne before the competition arrives, the runway is about to get a lot shorter.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com

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