Why the I-Pace could radically alter Jaguar perceptions

MAHWAH, New Jersey – The battery powered I-Pace coming this fall could finally be the vehicle that changes everything in the U.S. market for Jaguar.

Despite billions in investment that has rebuilt Jaguar's lineup and has given the brand a full and fresh showroom of attractive, high-quality and high-tech vehicles, sales have yet to respond.

Through March, Jaguar's 2018, brand sales are off 29.2 percent, according to the Automotive News Data Center. Put another way: Jaguar's U.S. sales for the first quarter total just 8,049 units, down from 11,376 sold in the first quarter of 2017.

Part of Jaguar's trouble -- the massive shift from cars to trucks, SUVs and crossovers -- is industrywide and beyond parent company Jaguar Land Rover's ability to do much about it. Still, you can't easily stay in business when the F-Type, recently refreshed and given a new, lower-priced base model, sells just 207 units in March, or when sales of the new XE sedan -- a car that has won strong reviews -- accounts for 609 sales in March. Jag's other cars, XJ and XF, didn't even sell 500 units combined in March.

Even Jaguar's superstar performer, the F-Pace crossover, suffered in March with sales of 1,755 units, down from 2,187 sold a year ago and off 24.8 percent year over year. The smaller E-Pace is coming online now and has the potential to firm up Jaguar's total monthly sales, but it won't change the fact that Jaguar has four cars that are struggling.

And yet one vehicle -- the I-Pace -- could change perceptions.

During the recent grand opening of JLR's new U.S. headquarters here, I had the chance to spend a few minutes behind the wheel of the I-Pace and push it fairly hard through an obstacle course set up in the building's back parking lot.

Here's the lowdown: The I-Pace is the best built Jaguar in the 83-year history of the brand. The car is screwed together very tightly. And feels it. It's also, obviously, the most technically advanced Jaguar ever made. Coming in the fall, the I-Pace will directly challenge Tesla's Model X, which has been struggling with quality issues.

One of the most impressive aspects of the I-Pace is that it doesn't use pieces and parts from existing JLR products. It's a clean-sheet design right down to the electric motors, which were designed in-house at JLR and have several patents.

The I-Pace is light on its feet. Its acceleration is effortless -- 60 mph takes just over 4 seconds. It's nearly noiseless. You do hear tires rolling over pavement, but that is about it. The interior is what you'd expect from a Jaguar, comfortable, stylish, well-appointed and high tech.

The range is 240 miles between charges – more than enough for most daily drivers' commutes. JLR says the battery pack can be 80 percent recharged in under 90 minutes. But that likely won't be an issue for most drivers. The average American commute is between 30 and 40 miles per day, and the vehicle can be charged during the day while it is not in use or at home at night after work.

But the best part of the I-Pace is its looks. Ian Callum, Jaguar's design boss, got his team members to do their best work, and the result is the smoothest, most aerodynamically efficient regular production Jaguar ever. The I-Pace is a handsome machine from every angle.

Many times in the history of the industry, one new vehicle has been able to wake up a sleepy brand and cast it in a new light. That's a lot of pressure for one vehicle. But the early returns for the I-Pace are showing that same potential. Google's Waymo has committed to buying as many as 20,000 I-Pace crossovers – a huge vote of confidence for Jaguar. Waymo could have chosen Tesla's Model X or any of the coming German battery-powered vehicles for its self-driving fleet. The fact that Waymo engineers selected the I-Pace is a huge vote of confidence in the vehicle.

The Land Rover brand has carried the company since it was formed in 2008 when Ford sold Jaguar and Land Rover to India's Tata Motors. Jaguar is late paying its share of the bills for the company. Part of that is the lingering quality perception issue that JLR has tried to combat with its Elite Care program that gives new Jaguars one of the most comprehensive warranties in the business.

While it's unlikely the I-Pace will stop or even slow the exodus from cars to SUVs and crossovers, it will draw new customers in Jaguar showrooms, and they just might like what they see. Along with F-Pace and E-Pace, and the new XF Sportbrake wagon, Jaguar has enough of the right vehicles to prosper, even if car sales don't recover.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com

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