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The electric Mustang Mach-E takes Ford in a whole new direction

Will people saddle up for the ride?

To make an all-electric Mustang is to dabble in blasphemy — doubly so if you also make it an SUV. Mustangs are known for their roaring engines, not for converting DC power to AC power. And they sure as hell aren’t the kind of car you throw your family in for a trip to the zoo.

But that’s what Ford has done with the Mustang Mach-E. It’s taken an idea that’s unfathomable to many — tinkering with What A Mustang Is — and has made it the centerpiece of an $11 billion push to make electric vehicles go mainstream.

After spending a week with the Mustang Mach-E in Premium trim (which starts at $47,000), it feels like that bet will pay off. The Mach-E is solidly built, a delight to drive, and puts technology front and center in a way legacy automakers usually mess up. It’s cheaper than the luxury EVs that have saturated the early market, but it’s more functional and fun than truly budget-minded ones like the Chevy Bolt. It’s the most competent electric vehicle not made by Tesla or Porsche on the market right now.

The Mach-E requires some sacrifices. The software powering its massive touchscreen could use a little work. The cheaper models could use more range. Charging is a major headache if you can’t plug in at home, despite Ford’s effort to coalesce the disparate options on the market. And if you truly feel like you’ll miss that engine roar, I hate to say that Ford’s digital replacement is not much of a consolation.

Really, though, the Mach-E probably isn’t for people who stay up late posting about V8s. Instead, it’s the kind of car that will get a lot of new people interested in electric vehicles — even if they don’t wind up buying a Mach-E.

Pony, but make it electric

Ford could have chosen any number of options for its first mass market EV. It could have made something entirely new. It could have waited until its all-electric F-150 was ready and leveraged the popularity of trucks to reach the masses with battery-powered cars. It could have simply made a more capable electric Focus.

In fact, that last option was basically the plan until the team working on the car asked to make something more like a Mustang.

So since Ford dared to make its first mass-market EV a Mustang, let’s talk Mustang things, like performance.

The Premium model I tested was fitted with the extended range battery pack (98kWh with 88kWh of usable energy) and a two-motor setup that gives it all-wheel drive capability, which all told is good for about 270 miles. The resulting 346 horsepower is enough to go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in about five seconds despite the car weighing more than two tons.

That was enough giddyup for me in an SUV of this size, even if it’s a far cry from the heart-stopping snap off the line that Porsche’s Taycan or Tesla’s fastest performance models can do. The more expensive GT and GT Performance models coming later this year will be quicker, for sure, making the 0 to 60 run in 3.8 and 3.5 seconds, respectively. That sounds fun, though that comes at the literal expense of more money, but also range, with the GT model topping out at 250 miles on a full battery.

I was more than comfortable with 270 miles, though I wouldn’t want to buy one of the models with less. Ford is making a few of those. The rear-wheel-drive versions of the Premium and the “Select” — the cheapest model, starting at around $43,000 — get just 230 miles out of the standard range pack (which has a capacity of 75.7kWh with 68kWh of usable energy), and 211 miles in all-wheel-drive configuration.

You’ll get more with Tesla’s similarly priced electric cars, to be sure. The base Model 3 ($37,990) offers 263 miles while the long-range version ($46,990) can travel 353 miles. The base Model Y ($41,990) makes it 244 miles, while the long-range spec ($49,990) lasts 326 miles.

A major source of my comfort with the Mach-E’s range, though, was that Ford’s running estimate of miles remaining never wavered. In some EVs, the remaining range fluctuates wildly as you drive, which can ruin confidence in the figure on the screen. Not so in the Mach-E. The software — which no doubt leverages Ford’s years of experience making hybrid vehicles — displays a range estimate as reliable as a gas gauge. As a result, I left my house to start a 30-mile drive with close to 100 miles of range remaining and didn’t have to worry about scrambling to find a charger before reaching my destination.

Still, if I were shopping, I’d consider going with the rear-wheel-drive configuration of the Premium model or the RWD-only California Route 1 model, which both offer 305 miles of range, for peace of mind and a little extra help on longer drives.

Besides being reasonably fast, the Mustang Mach-E is fun to drive. There are three driving modes, dubbed Unbridled, Engage, and Whisper (think Sport, Comfort, and Eco). Unbridled offers the tightest steering and the quickest acceleration, and it’s just generally your best bet if you’re flirting with local speed limits. Whisper is, of course, the quietest and has really smooth coasting when you lift off the throttle. Engaged is somewhere in the middle, a mix of somewhat sporty driving but without the oomph of Unbridled mode.

The weight of the battery pack kept the Mustang Mach-E firmly planted through tight corners, and the SUV still felt nimble thanks to its acceleration. The battery pack also increases the ride height, meaning visibility is great, though the driving experience is much different than in a low-to-the-ground combustion-engine Mustang.

Speed and handling aren’t the only components that make up the traditional Mustang experience. For many, a Mustang is not a Mustang without the roar of a combustion engine.

The Mustang Mach-E just may not be for them. It’s, at times, almost eerily quiet. There’s a slight steady whine of the electric motors at low speeds (and a low exterior hum as well, for pedestrians). But at faster speeds there’s little more than the dull whoosh of road noise.

Ford has created a futuristic engine-like sound that can be turned on and off, but I found it lacking and left if off almost the entire time. Unlike artificial engine noises in cars like, say, the hybrid BMW i8, which I didn’t mind, the Mach E’s sound felt unconvincing and a little distracting, like someone was running the low note of a Wurlitzer through a distortion pedal.

I’m a lifelong racing fan, so I love the sound of a tuned-up performance engine. But I’m also one of those people who doesn’t need that rumble to have some fun in a car like this, let alone to use it every day. Ford can roll out as many 1,400-horsepower variants as it wants to show off what electric cars are capable of, but it’s going to have a hard time convincing some die-hards they can get by without that sound. Instead, I think Ford’s better off focusing their efforts on winning over new, or at least different customers, people like me who don’t need the sound of a V8 to appreciate the pep the Mach-E packs.

There’s one other component of the Mach-E’s “Mustang-ness,” and that’s its looks.

At first glance it looked a bit strange, especially with the grill-less design on the model I tested. But the front half of the Mach-E really grew on me. I think it’s rather striking when looking at it head-on or from the side. I’m less in love with the look of the car from the rear, where it looks like the Mustang’s iconic tri-bar lighting is trying to escape from the back of a more pedestrian SUV.

I’d also much rather have the Mach-E in the bright “grabber blue” or head-turning “cyber orange” Ford is saving for its most expensive models, as opposed to the metallic silver version I drove.

Overall, the Mach-E is just different enough to catch people’s eyes without looking too strange. I got a lot of thumbs-ups and questions while I had it and was stopped twice while driving, so Ford clearly made something that is noticeable and familiar.

That’s a good thing for electric vehicles, which up until now — Teslas aside — have either looked so different to the point of being off-putting, or so much like their gas counterparts that most people can’t tell the difference.

Interior & software

One of the only places Ford has a clear leg up on Tesla is (shocker) overall build quality and comfort. Tesla famously struggled with the quality of its early Model 3s, but problems persist and range from minor (slightly misaligned body panels) to severe (like detached seatbelts, or how one Model Y’s glass roof fell off). With the Mustang Mach-E, though, there aren’t any big seams between the exterior panels, there are no loose bits, and there’s not a lot of road noise. The Mach-E is just pretty clearly the product of an automaker that has spent a century nearly perfecting the car-making process.

The interior is especially comfortable without feeling so nice that you wouldn’t want to eat a cheeseburger in it. It’s also well-appointed with tech without feeling overwhelming, like the cockpit of a modern Mercedes-Benz.

There are a few USB-A and USB-C plugs throughout, and a wireless charging pad, which I loved in theory, but in practice my iPhone 12 Pro kept sliding around, repeatedly triggering a distracting error message on the screen. It’s the kind of issue you don’t want in a car that’s supposed to be about fun driving.

But the main draw inside the Mustang Mach-E is the 15.5-inch portrait touchscreen on the dashboard.

It’s solidly bolted in place despite the floating effect and, better yet, seems like it will withstand years of grubby paws hammering away. The quality of the panel is great, too. The graphics are crisp, the colors are bright, and you really have to go hunting to see any pixels or jagged edges.

The big silver volume knob at the bottom of the display has a satisfying thunk-y feedback. It’s also a clever bit of design: it’s adhered to the screen and uses capacitive material to essentially fake out the touchscreen. While I was happy to see something mapped to a physical control, I wound up using the volume button on the steering wheel half the time or more.

The logic of the Sync 4 interface on the main screen feels a little fuzzy. There’s a sort of webOS-style card system that runs across the middle of the display, which is supposed to surface frequently used functions. In my time with the car, though, it favored less immediately crucial information like tire pressure over other settings.

Some of the animations in the main screen lag a bit, like when switching between drive modes. There are a few other quirks in the UI design that bothered me, too. For instance, when you search for something using Ford’s mapping system, like electric vehicle chargers or the nearest Target, you can’t move the map to populate new search results — you have to scroll the list underneath the map instead. (Ford’s companion app, which is good enough, also has some UI issues — particularly when you try to pinch and zoom on the map.)

I also wish it was possible to customize the instrument cluster screen. For one thing, it’d be helpful to see how many kilowatt hours per mile you’re using there (this does show up on one of the cards on the main display but only as part of an overall “trip meter” graphic). Ford created a few different designs for the instrument cluster that change depending on which driving mode you’re in, but it otherwise doesn’t change.

In fact, I’d appreciate more information about energy consumption in general. While I understand there’s value in streamlining the experience, I’ve always found pleasure in trying to maximize my energy consumption in hybrid or electric vehicles — including some Fords — and it’s just kind of hard to do in the Mustang Mach-E.

These are all things that could be changed with over-the-air software updates, which is something Ford has promised with the Mustang Mach-E. That’s another thing Tesla has popularized over the years, but one that legacy automakers tend to get wrong, so here’s hoping Ford has better luck.

I used wireless CarPlay the majority of the time I had the car out of pure convenience and familiarity — wireless Android Auto is also available — but this new version of Ford’s in-house infotainment software Sync is perfectly competent. It can seem a little confusing and overstuffed at first. But you know what? Car menu systems have been intimidating and confusing for years now, especially as automakers transitioned to bigger screens and started to rely more and more on touch controls. I’d much rather sort through that confusion on a bigger screen like the Mach E’s than on a smaller rectangle buried in a sea of buttons and knobs.

And while there are good reasons to be wary about pouring so much of a car’s functionality into the touchscreen, especially one so large, Ford at least made the most-used buttons big and easily reachable with forgiving hit boxes. If anything, I was surprised at how little attention I paid to the screen.

There is one big thing missing on the Mustang Mach-E I wish I could have tested, which is Ford’s hands-free driving mode. It’s supposed to be comparable to what Cadillac has been doing for a few years with Super Cruise. The Mustang Mach-E will be the first to get it, though not for another few months.

In the meantime, the Mach-E has a more typical advanced driver assistance package that includes features like lane centering, meaning it can keep the car in the center of the lane even around highway bends. It’s helpful for monotonous highway driving, though like other ADAS systems, there were times where the lane centering canceled unexpectedly. It’s something you’ll want to keep a close eye on.

Even when the true hands-free driving option comes out, it’ll only be available on highways that Ford maps ahead of time. And if you purchase that option, there’s a camera behind the steering wheel that will track your eyes to make sure you’re paying attention to the road. So don’t expect the Mach-E to be even remotely close to a fully self-driving car.

Infrastructure weak

For the most part, driving the Mach-E was a really great experience. But the biggest drawback is the same one that plagues any non-Tesla EV: charging.

If you don’t own a Tesla, charging in the US is just a mess right now. There are multiple networks with different charging capacities, pricing structures, and upkeep for their stations. And it’s a real hit-or-miss experience that’s difficult to navigate even if you know all of that going in.

For instance, I took one drive to an Electrify America station, which is basically Volkswagen’s fledgling version of Tesla’s Supercharger network, and still ran into problems. The first plug I tried gave me repeated error messages. When I tried another plug, a moth flew out, and then the car charged far slower than it is supposed to. It was only after trying multiple stalls that I finally got a charging rate worth staying connected to — around 77kW, about half of what the Mustang Mach-E is ultimately supposed to get out of these fast-charging stations. (It was also somehow the only Electrify America station in all of Austin, Texas, which really needs to up its charging infrastructure game.)

What makes this hassle worse is that every time you switch stalls, you waste more time than you expected to spend charging. It’s already a drag knowing you may have to spend 30 minutes at a fast-charging station filling up your car’s battery. But it’s worse when you have to spend more time doing this do-si-do between different charging stalls.

And if Volkswagen’s charging network isn’t getting it right, that doesn’t bode well for smaller networks. And even when those chargers work well, they’re charging your car more slowly.

This is a problem, and it needs to be fixed. It’s not necessarily Ford’s problem to fix, though Ford is combining a lot of these networks into what it has dubbed the “FordPass Charging Network.” In theory it’s a really good idea. Ford makes all these charging networks easy to find in the FordPass app, or in the dashboard screen of the Mach-E, providing owners a one-stop shop for charging. The automaker’s even trying to bundle some of the services so owners don’t need an account for every disparate network or app. In theory, you just drive your Mach-E up to participating chargers, plug in, and let Ford’s software take care of all of the financial stuff in the background.

That doesn’t quite work just yet, and the problem that Ford is going to face in the meantime is that people may buy this car, use this FordPass Charging Network, still run into some of those problems, and wind up thinking that the company’s charging network is a real bummer.

I hope those various charging networks can improve their services quickly, and in fact, many of them are raising a lot of money in order to do just that. But even in a best-case scenario, it’s going to be another few years before you can buy an electric vehicle that’s not a Tesla and experience Supercharger convenience — which feels like a very big bottleneck when you consider the market legacy automakers say they’re going to be able to create with electric vehicles.

This equation changes if you can charge where you live. I was able to put about 65 miles into the Mustang Mach-E in around 23 hours at home through a regular old 120V outlet on the outside of our house — nothing to celebrate but enough of a buffer to cover most daily driving. But that wouldn’t completely remove the need to charge elsewhere. Longer trips would still be a gamble. And there are many people in this country who just don’t have the option to plug in while they sleep.

The road ahead

I don’t think people should underestimate just how important the Mustang Mach-E could be. The striking design easily stands out in a crowd, but the Mustang branding makes it instantly familiar. It’s the kind of car that, if enough of them are on the road in a few years, could really make people consider non-Tesla electric cars in a way that ones like the Jaguar I-Pace, or the Audi E-Tron, or the Chevy Bolt never have (or will).

I think Ford is tapping into something with the Mustang Mach-E that only Tesla really does well right now, which is making a truly modern vehicle and trying to bring it to the mainstream. The Mustang Mach-E is the kind of product that could make people feel like they’re missing out on something the more they see it.

There are still hurdles to clear, starting with the fact that the first batch of Mustang Mach-E deliveries has been delayed. Ford’s not the only company to face this problem — Volkswagen, Audi, and others have all run into issues getting their first mass market EVs on the road — but it’s one Ford needs to solve.

Even when it does, Ford will have other questions to answer, too, like around charging, how receptive dealers will be to this car, how Ford’s software updates will go, and how good — and more importantly how safe — the hands-free driving feature will be.

But for now, the Mach-E exists, and that’s an achievement in its own right.

Photography by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

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