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For seven years, Tesla has been king of the electric jungle. Now comes a challenger on silent paws.

The athletic Jaguar I-Pace crossover debuts in U.S. showrooms in September, the first of a wave of premium battery-powered challengers coming to knock the Silicon Valley lion off Simba’s Rock. The I-Pace is cat-quick, head-turning and comfortable.

But the I-Pace will also be fighting for pre-eminence within its own brand against a legacy of roaring, long-nose cats. In short, if you have $85,000 to spend on a Jag, do you want a stealthy EV, or a growling V-8 that sounds like, well ... a Jaguar?

I grew up at race tracks lusting after long-nose 1970s-era, inline-6 and V-12 powered E-type sports cars howling around vintage Trans-Am club events with Camaros and Mustangs. The English cat stood out among the American ponies, its long-nose arriving three corners before its fastback hindquarters.

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After years in the Ford zoo, Jaguar was re-energized when Tata bought it in 2008. The new owner gave Jag room to roam, and designers re-introduced the big cat to the world with the gorgeous, V-8 powered F-Type sports car in 2013. Grown men’s knees buckled.

Gone was the long hood (a victim of safety nannies), but the rest of the DNA was there: big haunches, fastback cockpit and eight-purring cylinders. It was a classic Jag for the second Golden Era of muscle cars.

The I-Pace is a new Jaguar halo car for a new century.

Throw out the rulebook, re-write the script: The electric cat not only doesn’t have a gas guzzler under its short front hood, it isn’t even a sports car. This is a “Pace”-edition Jaguar, as in E-Pace and F-Pace, the other SUVs that make up the Brit badge’s stable.

Jaguar SUVs? Crikey, what?

It’s a Jaguar aimed at a new generation of car buyers, not 20th-century dinosaurs like me. Not only is Jag hip to the new century trend of (cash-cow) premium SUVs, it sees a new generation of buyer raised to ogle at electric iPhones and Teslas.

Cruising the Palisades State Highway along the banks of the Hudson River – New York’s skyline quickly disappearing in my rear-view mirror – the electric cat pounced like a Tesla, its 90-kWh battery offering instant torque in any gear. Check that. There are no gears here, just a single-speed transmission driving an electric motor with lakes of torque.

The Jag EV provokes immediate comparisons to King Tesla’s lineup of Model X ute, Model S sedan and Model 3 sedan. Shrewdly, the I-Pace plays tweener.

It declares itself a crossover in this SUV-crazed age, but it looks and feels more like the Tesla sedans. Its $70,495 entry price splits the base $75,000 Model S 75D (that’s 75 kWh of battery) and the $64,000 top-of-the-line, all-wheel drive Model 3 Performance model.

With its cab-forward design, its stance is more Model 3 than long-nosed Model S, but its rear hatch mimics that of the latter. The Jag is prettier than its Model X ute-mate with a streamlined roof, angular lines and scalloped rocker panels.

Curiously, however, it’s the Tesla (remember when Tesla was aping Jaguar XF styling?) that pulls off the sexier rear haunches.

Jaguar spent a great deal of time trimming the I-Pace for maximum aerodynamic efficiency, including nifty touches like using aerofoil fluid dynamics to wipe the back window clean (dude, that is soooo cool).

But to keep its drag-coefficient below 0.3 – 2.9 to be exact – the Jaguar gets skinny hips. The hippy Model S manages an impressive 0.24. Hmmm.

No doubt this is because the Model S is a sedan – but then how to explain the Model X’s 0.24 drag-coefficient?

I first tested the I-Pace in March at Jaguar's North American headquarters in Jersey where it deftly sliced up a low-speed autocross course courtesy of that big brick of a battery stored in the floorboards for low center of gravity. At speed through New York’s rural twisties, the I-Pace isn’t as nimble as the lower Model S – and out of the league of the similarly sized (96 vs. 97 cubic feet of passenger volume) Model 3 which may be the best athlete in the compact sedan class.

With the Model 3 Performance model’s extra oomph, it will also beat the Jag to 60 mph with a healthy 3.5 seconds vs. 4.5.

Too much stoplight fun and the Jag eats battery. My Hudson trip took 140 miles on the odometer, but erased 195 miles of range from the battery. After zigging when I shoulda zagged, I found myself further from New York City than planned. Dreaded range anxiety crept in. The Jaguar became a docile kitten as I preserved electrons home.

Range anxiety? An hour out of America’s biggest metropolis? A reminder that infrastructure – the EV’s Kryptonite – is weak.

The Model S and Model 3 go sci-fi inside with their trademark interiors. The iPad-like screens still wow 10 years after their introduction.

Despite a clever “flying-buttress” console design (Jaguar’s signature, recessed rotary transmission-controller isn’t necessary in an EV), the Brit’s dash instruments are more conservative than Tesla's. Similar to brother F-Pace, they are digital, configurable and (regrettably) slow.

The familiarity is meant in part to re-assure EV customers who are wary of Tesla’s nagging quality issues.

The Brit may not have a sci-fi cockpit, but it offers good ol’ reliable services like 5-year/60,000-mile free maintenance and roadside assistance (Tesla does not), a longer warranty (5 years/60,000 miles compared to Tesla’s 4 years/50,000 miles) and eight-year battery warranty.

And then there are track bragging-rights.

With its racing history, the I-Pace has been flogged mercilessly around tracks. It’s what all cats must do. The I-Pace recently was witnessed doing four hard laps around Portugal’s’ Portimau Circuit without breathing hard (the Model 3 Performance claims similar performance); the I-Pace will get its own “e-Trophy” race series next year.

But the Jag is also aware that four laps in a roaring, $90,000 F-Type – its angry growls scattering prey for miles – would be more emotionally rewarding. So it has introduced an artificial "GRRR" into its Dynamic mode (the GRRR can even be programmed to stay in Normal mode should the driver desire).

Millennial fans might find it alluring, like a "Star Wars" jet fighter. Others might find it strange. Artificial Jaguar growls? Crikey!

Therein lies Jaguar’s challenge. It has produced a credible Tesla fighter for affluent EV fans. But does Jaguar have the same electric status as Tesla?

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Jaguar I-Pace

Vehicle type: Electric, four-passenger luxury SUV

Price: $70,495 base ($80,500 HSE as tested)

Powerplant: 90-kWh lithium-ion battery with twin electric-motor drive

Power: 394 horsepower, 512 pound-feet torque 

Transmission: Automatic, single-speed 

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.5 seconds (mfr.); top speed: 124 mph

Weight: 4,784 pounds

Fuel economy: 240-mile range (189 miles on battery to cover 140 miles, observed)

Report card

Highs: Handsome exterior, interior; electric performance

Lows: Slow infotainment screen; lack of charging infrastructure

Overall: 4 stars

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