The hiker’s eye roll was so extreme that it was nearly audible. “Nice trail car,” she said in mocking tones that left little doubt she felt otherwise. She was among a group that was walking single file downhill as I was creeping my all-electric 2020 Jaguar I-Pace around a tight uphill bend, proceeding slowly because a sheer cliff blocked my view through the apex on this one-lane section of the Maple Springs truck trail.
Such a cautious approach is the norm up here because hikers share this fire road with mountain bikers, adventure motorcyclists and day-tripping off-roaders. But I was being extra careful because I was keenly aware that my electric all-wheel-drive machine emitted none of the engine noise an ascending geared-down truck would make. What’s more, my test car was shod with the optional low-profile 255/40R22 high performance summer tires that put the lips of the pricey 22-inch “diamond turned” rims uncomfortably close to the rocks.
Meeting a motorized vehicle wasn't the surprising bit – it was that they’d expected to see a 4Runner, Tacoma or Jeep Wrangler come nosing around the bend, not some high-falutin Jaguar styled by renowned designer Ian Callum.
I’d been up this U.S. Forest Service fire road dozens of times, most recently just two weeks ago in my own JK Jeep Wrangler. It’s easy if you have clearance and reasonable all-terrain tires, so I was prepared to take advantage of the numerous wide spots if the iPace protested. Besides, this was not really a test of the off-road prowess of the I-Pace itself. I was more interested in getting a feel for what electrified off-roading might be like.
I started grinning less than 100 yards after the trail’s narrow paved approach turned into dirt and began snaking steeply upward through dust and embedded rocks. In my own Jeep, which has a six-speed manual transmission and 4:10-to-1 axle gearing, I usually choose low-range at this point because the transmission gear spacing in high range is too wide and the engine bogs all too easily at these slow and constantly varying speeds. By comparison, the Jaguar’s power delivery was pure magic.
For starters, there was no 4x4 mode to engage, no low range to select. The dual-motor all-wheel drive system is always on, and it constantly adjusts its torque split to suit conditions. Throttle pedal response is thoroughly accurate, and I never once had to goose the pedal because electric motors deliver their peak torque at zero rpm. They’re absolutely bog-proof, in other words. Driving up this steep bumpy dirt fire road was no more difficult than traversing my driveway at home.
The above statement doesn’t account for the sharp embedded rocks, of course. This road is mostly dry, hard-packed dirt, but loose cobbles are everywhere and one must keep a sharp eye out for even sharper rocks. Even in my Jeep it’s easy to slash a sidewall if you’re not careful, but here I also had to fret about pinch-flatting 40-series Pirellis and tweaking the aforementioned 22-inch rims. I found myself swerving and straddling to find the friendliest line even more than usual.
This trail is also punctuated with water bars, which are intentionally built-up humps meant to direct rainwater that collects in shallow ditches on the upslope side to waiting drain pipes on the downslope side. Crossing one is a sequential test of approach angle, breakover angle, ground clearance and departure angle. It also happens once every 100 yards.
Water bars are the thing that will flummox a low-riding passenger car up here. The I-Pace is marketed as an SUV, but its approach angle isn’t noteworthy and the huge battery pack that gives it 234 miles of range hangs under the floor. But here the I-Pace has an ace up its sleeve: an air suspension system with an off-road setting that raises the car about 2 inches higher than normal. Water bar clearance was a piece of cake in this mode.
But the ride was hard over the cobbles, much harder than the pleasant ride the I-Pace delivers on pavement. Some of this had to do with the surface and the low-profile Pirellis, but mostly I was feeling the negative effects of running an air suspension in high mode. High mode pumps air into the pneumatic chambers, and that makes them harder. The body rises because the car’s weight can’t compress them as much, and that also equates to a harder ride when bumps hit from below.
As I was pondering this, my train of thought was interrupted by a sharp “bang” from the rear of the car. It happened as the nose tipped down over a particularly tall and diagonally angled water bar. The rear suspension had “topped out,” which, as the name implies, is the opposite of bottoming. A rear shock had suddenly and noisily reached full extension, and this was also related to my use of high mode.
A suspension has a fixed amount of travel, usually split fairly evenly between compression travel and extension travel. Any raised mode moves the neutral point up, such that there is more compression travel but less extension travel. Trouble is, air springs in high mode can’t use the extra compression travel because they’re harder, so the effect is less usable overall travel.
This can be demonstrated with comparative Ramp Travel Index measurements, a measure of suspension articulation. Off-roaders with air suspension will always earn a better score in low mode than they will in high mode. And this is what happened with the I-Pace. Its suspension flex was diminished in high mode, with the car riding closer to the upper limit of travel. The rear shock simply topped out with a sharp bang when the car momentarily teetered on three wheels as I traversed the diagonal water bar.
I altered my strategy from then on. I drove the trail in normal mode unless and until I came to a water bar that seemed tall enough to need extra clearance, at which point I hit the button to raise the car. I’d benefit from a more compliant ride on the flatter sections, but be able to clear the bumps and humps when necessary with the press of a button – albeit with the occasional top-out bang.
All of this triggered a dim memory of a Jeep Grand Cherokee trail drive in Moab several years ago. A Jeep rep was riding shotgun, and at one point I caught him lowering our air-suspended Jeep with the centrally mounted switch on the flattish sections and raising it again when we came to a place that needed maximum clearance. We occasionally noticed topping-out in high mode on that day, too.
The climb up the mountain became quite pleasant once I established this rhythm. In addition to the hikers, I got odd looks and smiles from a couple of oncoming drivers as we each squeezed to our right and folded our mirrors so we could inch past each other. A guy on a dirt bike did a double-take and gave me a big thumbs-up after I let him by.
The dust wasn’t as bad as usual because of recent rain, so I ran with the windows down. I must admit it was somewhat surreal to cruise up the mountain in near silence. It may have been my imagination, but it seemed that the wildlife wasn’t as alarmed by my arrival. Maybe it was simply because I could clearly hear the sounds of the forest instead of my own engine and the straining cooling fan that usually adds to the din on such climbs.
Eventually, I came to a broad clearing called Four Corners that offers sweeping views in three directions. It’s a false summit on a shoulder of the mountain, but I was satisfied to call this the end of my trip. The route continues up to the antenna farm atop Santiago Peak, and I was sure I could have made it but for one problem: my optional 22-inch wheels and Pirelli P-Zero high performance tires.
I knew the route ahead traversed a nasty scree slope composed of loose grapefruit-sized rocks. This only lasts 100 yards or so, and the Jag’s high-mode clearance would have been sufficient. But the wheels would have been ruined because the jagged rocks tend to envelope the tire sidewalls and once managed to gouge one of the 17-inch rims on my Jeep. I would have easily gone for it if this had been an I-Pace S fitted with the standard 18-inch wheels and 235/65R18 SUV tires, but not these giant 22s.
With my rhythm now second nature, the ride down was easy. Maybe too easy. I forgot to raise the car over a somewhat prominent water bar and heard the battery pack’s protective armor scrape over the top. A quick check revealed no visible scratches, but I was more conscious of my approach to each and every water bar after that.
As an electric car, the I-Pace employs regenerative braking. There’s a driver-selectable setting that allows it to operate when you lift off the throttle instead of activating when you squeeze the brake, and I found this to be especially useful when going downhill and easing off small ledges and water bars. It was easy to control the vehicle’s speed without consciously thinking about it much because there’s no need to move your foot from one pedal to the other.
The final surprise came at the bottom. My remaining battery range had gone down, but the number of miles by which it had decreased had not been greatly magnified by my off-road excursion. Sure, there had been steep uphill, but the I-Pace had regenerated some of that on the way back down. A gasoline-powered off-roader can’t do that. Furthermore, this is a direct-drive machine with one forward gear. Consumption had not been compounded by driving in lower gears all the time.
My electric off-roader would have to have 33-inch All-Terrain tires on 17-inch wheels like my Jeep, and I’d prefer standard coil suspension and remote reservoir shocks, thank you very much. Still, I’m rubbing my hands together at the prospect of electric off-road propulsion. I’m all in when it comes to instant electric motor torque, a direct-drive transmission with no need for low range, and the precise throttle control that comes with one-pedal regenerative braking on the downslopes.
Range will be more of an issue for an electric off-roader than it would be for a personal commuting EV. Something like the 2020 Jaguar I-Pace HSE’s 234-miles might be fine for exploring some local mountains or if, say, Moab had compatible DC Fast chargers. But more range and more DC Fast Chargers near certain off-the-grid trailheads are necessary if electric overlanding is to become a thing. That said, electric stoves and even blenders become possible accessories. OK, now I’m way in. Nice trail car, indeed.