Why the Ford Mach-E EV Is a Mustang: What Were They Thinking?

Take a peek behind Ford’s bold decision to grow the Mustang family with an EV.

What's the saying? That opinions are like . . . well, all you need to know is that everyone has them. When it comes to Ford's new Mach-E electric crossover, we imagine many, many opinions will fuel an ongoing debate over whether or not the Mustang-branded EV should be part of the Mustang family. The Mustang, you'll recall, has existed solely in gas-powered, two-door coupe and convertible forms since 1964. So how did this electric, four-door, SUV-ish Mach-E business happen?

In Ford development labs in Dearborn and Detroit, the evolution of the Mach-E to its adoption of the Mustang name unfolded almost organically, even though adding a new Mustang family member wasn't Ford's goal from the outset. Talk of a new Ford-branded electric vehicle goes back to 2014, when the company ran under the leadership of former CEO Mark Fields. Ford was going to spend billions to get a number of electric vehicles on the road, and quickly, which explains why the Mach-E project started life as a front-wheel-drive crossover based on the Fusion. Yawn.

Referred to as a "compliance vehicle," an industry term for EVs designed to meet emissions regulations, offsetting an automaker's carbon footprint, the car that would become the Mach-E was an inauspicious start for Ford's grand EV plans. It was not unlike Ford's own Focus Electric, or the Fiat 500E, affordable electric cars with meager driving range converted from regular gas-powered vehicles. In other words, nothing that would leave Tesla sweating.

Then, in 2017, Fields was ousted and board member Hackett took over as CEO. The former Steelcase furniture exec, who is not a car guy and was an acquired taste inside the Glass House, had only been on the job about a month when he torpedoed the milquetoast electric vehicle that was taking shape. Ford needed to make a statement with its new electric vehicle, and had to do it fast because the clock was ticking and the program was already underway. Jim Farley, then president of Global Markets and a well-known Mustang fan, had a solution.

Mustang to the Rescue

To get the juices flowing, Farley, told the development team behind the budding electric crossover to use the Mustang as inspiration for a more exciting design. This move clicked, said chief program engineer Ron Heiser. It clicked with the designers. It clicked with the engineering team. "We know how to engineer a Mustang, but now the trick is to do it as a battery electric crossover sport-utility vehicle," Heiser said. With a battery-electric architecture with a targeted 300-mile driving range in hand, the team flipped the developing vehicle 180 degrees both literally and figuratively. It was no longer front-wheel drive, but rear-wheel drive instead; it was no longer boring, but possibly exciting.

Ford relied on the Mustang's ride and handling team for tuning the Mach-E, and because the pivot to rear-drive and Mustang-like character was made late in the game, the team used Ford's racing simulator in Charlotte, North Carolina, for early development work. The vehicle benefitted from experts such as Dave Pericak, who worked on the last Mustang and had wrapped up a stint as global director of Ford Performance. He was moved into a new job so he could work on this important project.

Officially, the new mission was a "Mustang-inspired" electric SUV, but Heiser and his team quickly dropped the word "inspired" from their mandate. "We just treated it like it was a Mustang," he told us. When development got to a point where the team believed the vehicle was credible enough to wear the pony badge, the team went to senior management for a review.

Pericak was one of the people that Bill Ford, executive chairman, insisted sign off before the car acquired the Mustang name. Bill Ford has had a stable of personal Mustangs over the years and was not an easy sell either. To wear the badge, the vehicle needed to look and drive like a Mustang and have the soul of a Mustang, Ford said. And it is not designed to replace the Mustang, but to expand the family.

"I was not initially convinced," Pericak said. He had put the car into the racing simulator and it wasn't at the level of driving needed. "It was on the verge of Mustang but I said it's not a Mustang," he said to a gaggle of long faces. He outlined the issues he found. The team stiffened the body, changed bushings and springs, and continued to tune.

By the end of 2018, everyone was pretty well aligned. Heiser was among those who met with Bill Ford to get his blessing and it became official: The Mach-E would be a Mustang. It will go on sale in late 2020. Improvements and tuning will continue, but the car is a Mustang, Pericak said. "I stand behind it all day long."

With each pivot—from regular crossover to Mustang-inspired SUV to the latest Mustang—the excitement within the team went up, said Heiser. So did the pressure, "because you gotta live up to that pony."

Now, with the Mach-E having been unveiled amid much fanfare, it seems unlikely that Ford could have garnered so much attention if not for the car's Mustang name and flavor. Customer orders opened Sunday night, and by the end of the event in L.A. that same evening, there were more than 9,000 hand-raisers in California, and customers were placing deposits in the middle of the night—including 66 would-be buyers in Oslo, Norway.

In the minds of top brass and key engineers there is no debate—the Mach-E, the first expansion of the Mustang family in 55 years, is a thoroughbred.

"I'm 100 percent convinced it is a Mustang now," Pericak said.

Moray Callum, vice president of design for Ford Motor Company, adds that he's "always said the Mustang brand should be bigger than it is. A lot of people aspire to a Mustang. Now's their chance. It meets their needs and still has the balls of a Mustang."

So, How Does This "Mustang" Stack Up?

The Mach-E's hardware hints at an enticing drive, at least. Rear-drive Mach-Es have a large motor between the rear axles that delivers 255 horsepower and 306 lb-ft of torque with the standard battery size. Adding a small motor to the front gives it all-wheel-drive capability and raises peak overall torque to 417 lb-ft (horsepower remains the same at 255). The boost is enough such that the base Mach-E with AWD (also known as the Mach-E 4) will be quicker to 60 mph than a base-model Porsche Macan, according to Ford.

Replacing the small motor up front with one equal to that in the rear creates the GT model. On these bad boys, the GT badge replaces the pony on the back of car. As on the Mustang, the Mach-E's GT trim denotes a higher performance tier in the lineup; in this case, the E GT, with its bigger front motor, makes 459 horsepower and 612 lb-ft of torque combined. Ford says that helps the Mach-E GT scoot to 60 mph quicker than the Porsche Macan Turbo, in under four seconds. A GT Performance Edition chops that acceleration time down to about 3.5 seconds, which is Porsche 911 GTS territory. It adds MagneRide adaptive dampers, too.

There are two battery-pack options. The flat battery pack for the standard-range Mach-E is expected to deliver 230 miles of range with rear-wheel drive and 210 miles with all-wheel drive. Adding a second tier of batteries to the back of the pack, under the rear seats, extends range to about 300 miles, and the badging then gets an "X." These figures are estimates, as the vehicle has not yet received official EPA certification.

We'll have to wait and see how the Mustang connection holds up in practice until we drive the 2021 Mach-E for ourselves—although a stint as a passenger in a Mach-E definitely showed it has promise. Ford, for its part, is aware of the stakes in placing the Mustang name on the Mach-E. As CEO Jim Hackett put it, "The heart of the company's on trial here."

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