With the Mustang Mach-E, Ford brings America’s consummate muscle car into the plug-in era—and sparks fly

February 13, 2021, 1:30 PM UTC

Long known for the rumble of its high-performance V-8 engine and tire-squealing burnouts, the iconic Ford Mustang is trotting into a new era. The latest version has sleek back doors, a hatchback big enough to swallow an Ikea furniture box—and a massive electric battery. 

While it will still pin you to the back of your seat when you punch the “go” pedal—electric all-wheel drive and modern traction control will see to that—it couldn’t lay down rubber if it wanted. But it will go a good 200 miles on a single charge. And it will do so silently, with no tailpipe emissions. 

Called the Mustang Mach-E after one of the fastest barnstorming Mustangs of the 1970s, Ford’s first dedicated electric vehicle is among a new wave of affordable electric vehicles from Detroit’s Big Three automakers that don’t just aim to appease regulators and climate hawks, but aspire to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Tesla.

Detroit’s belated bet on electric has wowed investors in recent months. Ford’s share price is at a two-and-a-half-year high as the company targets 2021 as the year of its electrified turnaround. But not all die-hard Mustang loyalists are sure what to make of the new-look Mach-E.

Fortune recently got to take the car for a spin to see for ourselves what the fuss is about. Ford says the first year of Mach-E production is already sold out. If it hits its sales target of 30,000, that would pad Ford’s top line by a cool $1.68 billion, or about 5% of 2020 total revenue.

There’s more than a bit riding on this electric hotrod.

Original photo by Eric C. Evarts

The Mach-E’s value lies not in the revenue it generates in the short term,” says Matt DeLorenzo, senior managing editor for Kelley Blue Book. “What it does do is point a way forward for Ford. It shows that they can leverage iconic nameplates like the Mustang on new technology vehicles like electrics. This will be critical in differentiating their products from new competitors. The branding may allow them to derive larger margins and profits than newer rivals.”

Last week, Ford announced that it will double its investment in electric cars in the next four years, to $22 billion, in an effort to build more electric models by 2025, including an electric transit van for 2021, at least two new electric SUVs, and the previously announced F-150 electric pickup due out in 2022.

If Ford wants to keep selling profitable gas-powered pickups and SUVs in California and other big markets around the world, it will need more such cars to meet zero-emissions quotas as well as federal fuel-economy averages—especially now that the company has abandoned selling more efficient sedans and hatchbacks. And it will need to make these vehicles attractive in order to sell them. 

Glorified golf carts

Automakers have known how to sell cars for more than 100 years—with power, style, capability—and bragging rights. Their early pledges to introduce zero-emission models messed with that time honored strategy; too often the engineers grudgingly designed nerdy models designs and tasked the marketing teams to figure out new ways to sell them, such as closed-end leases and trial subscriptions.

When Tesla rolled out its quick, long-range $90,000 Model S in 2012, it made several generations of those electric efforts by mainstream automakers look like glorified golf carts. 

Today, Elon Musk’s creation accounts for nearly 80% of all the new electrics sold every year in the U.S., according to industry trackers at EV-volumes.com. Globally, the U.S. is a laggard market for EVs with plug-in penetration well below the global average, a recent report by the London-based investment bank, Liberum, points out (see chart).

The Mach-E is considered the first electric model from a mainstream automaker to follow Tesla’s proven formula. In the next two years, it will be followed by all-electric trucks and SUVs from Ford and Hummer, electric SUVs from Lincoln and Cadillac, and even a new electric Microbus from VW. General Motors announced Feb. 1 that it will stop building light-duty internal-combustion models by 2035, joining Volkswagen, among others.

This new wave of aspirational electric cars will bring a different dynamic to the road in 2022 and 2023, appealing to performance enthusiasts beyond a niche of early adopters willing to make their second most expensive lifetime purchase from a startup company. 

“Tesla has shown there are enthusiasts, and that electric cars are real cars,” says Carla Bailo, president and CEO of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. The Mach-E, she says, “is about elevating the performance aspect of an EV. Once they do that, then they’ll be freer to apply electric-vehicle technology to other cars.” A pessimist might note that EV sales amount to just 2% of the U.S. auto market. An optimist would say 98% of potential customers are there to be conquered. 

To win over those buyers, Ford has bestowed upon the Mach-E its most valuable automotive nameplate, the Mustang. Since its introduction in 1964, Ford has sold more than 10 million of them, giving rise to a whole new vehicle category: the pony car. None of its rivals have remained in continuous production since, and the Mustang still handily outsells each of them. But “pony car” sales are tailing off even as Ford and its competitors introduce special editions in rapid sequence to prop them up. Mustang coupe sales slid 16% in 2020, to just over 61,000 after years of steady declines (see chart).

From the original 1970s Mach 1 to the 5.0-liter GT and its bellowing dual chrome tailpipes, the Mustang has long been a car with attitude. It’s no wonder it’s been featured in a litany of urban movies and hip-hop songs over the years. Readers of a certain age will no doubt recall (and possibly wince at) Vanilla Ice’s hit “Rollin’ in My 5.0.” 

Now the owners of those Mustangs raise their eyebrows as they watch the Mach-E humming, not barreling, down the road. “I think they’re kind of destroying the car slowly,” says Mark “Kip” O’Hara, a member of the Seaport Car Club in Connecticut, who has owned so many Mustangs he can’t keep track. “Forty or 50, I think,” he says. His 2013 Mustang Boss 302 will gallop to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds from a standstill, about half a second quicker than the electric Mach-E, although about half a second slower than the upcoming ultimate Mach-E GT. 

“Most Mustang enthusiasts would agree,” he says. “We know it’s fast, but they should have called it an Escape.” 

Ford has heard that before. Darren Palmer, the company’s global Product development director for battery electric vehicles, who owns a late-model Shelby Mustang GT350R, traveled the U.S. to Mustang club events to take the pulse of enthusiasts and make them believers in his new electric machine. He told doubters, “Just drive it.” Once they did, he said, several put in orders. They’d say, “This is a car I could drive every day.” One club president bought two, he notes. 

“I love my GT350R,” says Palmer, “but if I drove it every day, I’d probably hate it with the noise and everything else.” 

He says the biggest complaint his team heard from enthusiasts was the name. “But if it didn’t have the name, it wouldn’t be the same, would it?” he says rhetorically. 

Rollin’ in the Mach-E

Is it the same? I drove it on the highway and around the twisty back roads north of New York City to find out. 

Our test vehicle, a First Edition, equipped similarly to a mid-level Mach-E Premium, with 385 horsepower, will sprint to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, Ford estimates—significantly faster than any Mustangs from the model’s sales heyday—though on public roads we didn’t have a chance to time it.

It certainly feels fast—much quicker than almost any gas-powered car off the line, launching you like a catapult on a roller coaster. After that, acceleration trails off (as it does with all electric cars), but it’s already delivered the thrills.

Pop the door open with its electronic button, and climb inside; the Mach-E delivers on its luxury promise with thick leather and tactile fabrics bejeweled with giant, modern touch screens that customize almost every aspect of driving. Unlike Tesla, Ford has retained some conventional control buttons and stalks that keep the driving experience safely familiar. Also unlike Teslas, the Mach-E offers the latest Android Auto and Apple CarPlay software to make connecting with your phone simple and comprehensive. 

Original photo: Eric C. Evarts

Reach for the “Start” button and an outlined horse gallops across the instrument screen behind the steering wheel; the Mach-E’s center screen welcomes you with your own preferences for apps, radio, and navigation, a route to your destination (if you’ve set that as a preference), and the best available chargers along the way. 

In many ways, Ford engineers have worked to turn the necessities of electric vehicles into performance assets for the Mach-E. 

It leaps forward on a hair trigger even when you prod the accelerator gently, and it digs in the same way when you lift off. In an effort to make the Mustang feel responsive, as well as to maximize its electric range, Ford has given the Mach-E an aggressive regenerative braking system (which drivers can turn off). You rarely have to reach for the brake pedal unless you underestimate your speed. Unlike gas- (or hay-)powered Mustangs, the Mach-E responds instantly to any inputs in each of its three driving modes: efficient and stealthy Whisper; mid-level Engage; and full-out Unbridled. Engineers have trimmed its response to the accelerator to one-third the time it takes to blink an eye, Palmer says. That’s what makes it feel even faster than it actually is.

Ten hours to recharge

Our Mach-E’s 270 miles of range falls 56 miles short of a comparable Tesla Model Y. In the few days we tested it, daytime temps hovered in the low 20s Fahrenheit, and the car’s range meter topped out at 200 miles. It takes significant energy to run the heater in an electric car, and the batteries are less efficient in the cold.

A full recharge takes about 10 hours overnight at home and a little over a half-hour to recharge at a 150kw fast charger point. That’s comparable to most Teslas, though the Mach-E can’t handle the speed of the latest 350kw fast chargers rolling out around the country. Ford says the Mach-E has access to 2,700 fast chargers across the U.S.—more than twice as many as Teslas do.

Ford offers the Mach-E with big and small batteries, rear- or all-wheel drive, and four power levels. When it arrives, the base car, with 211 miles of range from a 68 kilowatt-hour battery, will set you back $42,895, comparable to a base Model Y. (Mach-E buyers qualify for up to a $7,500 federal tax credit for buying an EV.)

Later this spring, Ford will amp up the fun with a Mach-E GT with a more potent battery and 480 horsepower driving through all four wheels. Add the Performance Pack, and it will have 634 lbs.-ft. of torque—a number unheard of in gas-powered Mustangs until recently—and will blast to 60 mph, Ford hopes, in 3.5 seconds. 

To win over die-hards, Ford would be better off pointing out that this model is like nothing they’ve ever seen before; it’s no 5.0 GT, and it’s no Tesla either.

Compared with the Tesla Model Y, its most direct competitor, “it’s a very impressive vehicle,” says Jake Fisher, director of vehicle testing at Consumer Reports magazine. “Ford is pretty good at knowing how to build cars that work. I have a little more faith in them to stand behind the product.

“I think there’s a lot [the Mach-E] is going to lack: going out on back roads and shifting through the gears, the engine noise—and peeling out,” says “Kip” O’Hara, the longtime Mustang fan. “I just don’t see that in this car.” Still, he’s willing to keep his mind open and says he plans to test-drive it as soon as he can find one. “I still want to see what it’s all about,” O’Hara reflects. “I could be totally wrong, and it could change my mind 100%.”

Correction and update: Feb. 14, 2021: Attribution in the last paragraph has been changed.