Zebula Golf Estate, a near one-hour drive from Bela-Bela, is the closest you can get to the wild without actually going there.
The sprawling, 1 600 hectare property has at least a couple of hundred homes sparsely dotted among the bushveld. Each one is accessible only through a rocky, dirt road, and you can barely see your closest neighbour through the ubiquitous thorn trees. At night, only music from the loud house speakers shatters the silence.
The reception is far removed from the houses, towards the end of the premises. It overlooks a lush golf course, and features a restaurant and spa.
Wildlife roams the surroundings freely; a herd of wildebeest made no attempt to hide themselves as quad bikes grumbled past them. On another occasion, a few small buck strutted into the braai area, confidently sniffing palms for food with the conviction of an animal that had never been exposed to any predator in its life.
This was the destination at which we were testing Jaguar’s new E-Pace. And, in retrospect, you could not have chosen a better metaphor.
The E-Pace carries elements of the wildness its badge represents, but never really achieves it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but rather a warning to adjust expectations accordingly. By natural selection it can also be expected: in the British manufacturer’s SUV line-up, it sits below the stellar I-Pace and larger F-Pace.
Of course, the goal isn’t to rival those products, but rather competitors like the Audi Q3 and BMW X1. It enters the fight armed with the confidence that it can offer more luxury and sexiness than its opponents.
The judges’ scores will certainly credit it in the latter category — this is a good-looking vehicle. Ours came in a metallic azure that glistened seductively when it caught the morning sun. The body sits squat, but the curves are added to just the right places to retain a race-day feel. Up front we have sleek LED headlights, complementing Jaguar’s signature wide grill.
If there is one massive gripe about the exterior, it’s the two slits that pass off as tailpipes. This deception is hardly uncommon nowadays, but these are fake exhausts to rule all fake exhausts; they end up not looking like much of anything after more than a cursory glance.
The smooth presentation continues inside. Here it very much is Jaguar-esque, with neat finishings sitting on soft materials. Consuming the dash is the Pivi Pro infotainment system that has been much discussed recently. It takes the form of a colossal 11.4-inch HD touchscreen that pleasantly has been designed to limit the invasion of fingerprints.
You’ll also notice a grab handle next to the passenger seat, as seen in models like the F-Type. Unlike that car, however, this is not a performance vehicle and its inclusion feels superfluous.
There’s certainly pace to be found here, but it never approaches blistering. Multiple trim levels are available, but the consumer is essentially faced with a choice between a 2.0 turbo diesel (from R876 280) and a 2.0 turbo engine (from R1 009 202). With the brand’s commitment to electric cars gaining momentum, there is also now a hybrid model available (from R1 165 500).
We had the diesel, which served us nicely. The two hour 45-minute drive from Johannesburg was fluent and pleasant. As could be expected from an SUV of this calibre, the driver tech — lane assist, adaptive cruise control and so forth — all worked well and proved an asset on such a trip. Meanwhile, the advertised 5.3l/100km was never terribly far off — with still plenty in the tank when we returned home.
But before then we would park at the Adventures with Elephants tourist attraction adjacent to Zebula for a brief horse-riding jaunt. Like its neighbour, the reserve has an abundance of wild animals — and all are clearly used to humans. You can get up to most without eliciting so much as a flinch. The strongest reaction we got while trotting along was from a giraffe, which briefly turned its head away from its lunch.
These are wild animals, but this is certainly not the wild. Again, kind of like the E-Pace. It’s perfectly serviceable in almost every way, and rest assured you’ll have a good time. But rarely does it display the wild its badge is capable of.