The closest people on the sidewalk jumped a bit. Two men on scooters abandoned their wheels, and exploded out of the bike lane onto the sidewalk. Even people who weren’t frightened were definitely looking my way, just in case. Moments earlier, the light had just turned green, and I had used my right and left feet to unleash a monster on the streets of downtown Los Angeles. The Shelby GT350R, with its 5.2L flat-plane crank V8 engine, let out a growling sound that awakens humans’ inner fear of large, growling animals.
What people on the street didn’t know was that I was lost. I knew my way through the car’s gears, but not the streets of LA. Ford gave me the keys to this vehicle along with directions to Newcomb’s Ranch, high in the Angeles National Forest. Ahead of me was a fun canyon drive, if only I could get out of the urban canyon.
Disclosure: Ford provided transportation to Los Angeles and hotel accommodation to cover the Mustang Mach-E reveal.
The bigger question I was trying to answer was this: Is the new Mustang Mach-E a real Mustang, or is it a marketing gimmick to sell an electric crossover to unsuspecting non-enthusiasts? To find out, I decided to try both out, and see how the look and feel of the vehicles compared.
This Isn’t Just a Question for Enthusiasts, Though
It seems nearly everybody has a Mustang story, or their family has one. After 55 years on the market, it’s not just a nameplate; it’s a legend. It’s a long story that involves a significant part of the population. By putting the Mustang name on this crossover, Ford took a big risk.
If Ford does something like the Mach-E right, people will connect with their memories and the car will be welcomed. If Ford does it wrong, that would be an insult to everybody’s memories, like the new Chevy “Blazer” crossover. Even people who don’t know a dipstick from a doorjamb are smart enough to know a real effort from a phoned-in gimmick.
I haven’t owned one myself, but I can think of several times a Mustang was part of my family.
When I was a small kid, I’d visit some family that lived in Mexico. Even there, where not all homes had indoor plumbing as late as the mid-20th century, people were buying Mustangs. My great-grandmother had one that was the terror of the town, and quite possibly the whole state of Chihuahua.
She wasn’t aiming to misbehave per se, but would just point the nose where she wanted to go and put the V8 into action. This particular model of Mustang was unusually fast during a time when cars in the U.S. were generally getting slower. Not only was it completely unhindered by any emissions equipment (Mexico didn’t care at the time), but it had an unusually low rear-end gear, so it would take off rather hard. Other cars, pedestrians, produce carts, and even oncoming semi trucks didn’t seem to matter to her. Somehow (my dad theorizes that God was, in fact, really her co-pilot) people would always manage to get out of her way and not get hit.
Several other family members had them over the years. My aunt had an ’80s Mustang with a 4 cylinder, and I’d go around with her in it sometimes. Later, my cousin had a ’95 GT with a 5.0, and had a rather nasty wreck caused by a drunk 14 year-old who had stolen his dad’s Camaro.
Ask nearly anyone and they’ll have a story or two. Or more. Shown the Mustang Mach-E, nearly everyone has an opinion, even if they’re not car people.
What Makes a Mustang a Mustang?
Two wrongs don’t make a right, but three lefts do. Before long, I was back on the route Ford had set up for me to take, after terrorizing half of downtown. Great-grandma would be proud. I roared onto the 110 freeway, then onto I-5 briefly, before getting on the Glendale Freeway.
The whole time, I was thinking about what makes a car a Mustang. Over the years, the car had changed a ton over six generations, so what are the common elements that weave through all of that to define the car? Some would say it’s the V8 engine, but the first year a Mustang was available with a smaller 6 cylinder, and over the years many Mustangs came with a 4 cylinder. Clearly, it was something else, or a long, long list of something elses.
At the end of the day, it’s probably got a lot more to do with the feel of the car, which is something that a thousand different things come together to produce. Whether the factors add up to a Mustang, though, can vary from person to person.
Ford Put a Lot of Effort into This
The day before, at the car’s tech briefing, presenters gave us a lot of information. Much of it was about the car’s electric technology, which is important, but still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Mustang team members and supervisors involved in nearly every part of the vehicle’s design were there to fill in the gaps, though.
It turns out Ford took this issue dead serious. They didn’t want to bring this new EV or the Mustang brand to ruin by getting this wrong, and they weren’t going to take any chances.
The first thing they did when putting the team together for the Mustang Mach-E was load it up with seasoned Mustang veterans. Some of them weren’t interested or excited about building an EV, and others were skeptical, but they all knew what was at stake. They had to find a way to make the previous “Mustang-inspired” design for an electric crossover and turn it into a real Mustang, and that was a tall order.
Body and Interior
To do this, they started over in many ways. They had to get the shape of the hood, the roof, and everything else right, and that meant changing everything. They extended the wheelbase and lengthened the hood to get the lines right, but the need for crossover interior space complicated things. A high roof was needed, but cutting the end off like a crossover would ruin the car’s essence as a Mustang. To fix this, they came up with an ingenious workaround: make the Mustang roofline in the car’s body color while leaving the “too high” portions in black.
Throughout the rest of the car, preserving the Mustang experience took priority. Despite not having a transmission tunnel, the front seats still have a sizable center console that keeps the closed feel of a Mustang interior while leaving plenty of room and flexibility. Headlights, tail lamps, and even the front grille all had to be right, too.
Looks can only take you so far, though. If the mechanics and driving feel aren’t there, it’s just a look-alike. Ford knew that, and did a number of things to make it happen.
Drivetrain and Suspension Tuning
First, they looked at the basics. Mustangs, apart from some prototypes and custom builds, have always been rear wheel drive, but it’s so simple to offer all wheel drive with an EV that it’s stupid to not offer the option. To get this part right, Ford engineers focused on keeping the rear-drive feel by still giving it most of the power to the rear, and by programming the control units to not betray the Mustang feel.
The exact details for this weren’t released to us, as they’re probably still a work in progress, but the way they got there was no secret. Ford used an advanced (and expensive) simulator in North Carolina.
When deciding how to program the drive units, what suspension components to use, and and how to program suspension components themselves (yep, that’s a thing now), they were able to simulate the feeling and response in the simulator without buying or building anything. When test drivers felt it was wrong for a Mustang, they changed it. When they felt it was right, they kept things. That way, even the first prototypes would have the most “Mustangy” feel possible.
Finally, there was the sound. EV drive units make a certain sound, and there’s no way to make that sound like a combustion engine. Or is there? It may sound like a cheesy thing, but they decided to add some supplemental sounds through the sound system and the pedestrian warning system’s speakers.
This wasn’t just a matter of recording some audio of an old 5.0 and playing it back at the right time, though. That would have been too fake and cheesy. They actually spent a lot of time with sound engineers and sound designers to make a sound that adds some Mustang soul without being overly intrusive or out of place. They had to come up with sounds that harmonized with the existing EV system’s sound, the required frequencies for pedestrian warning sounds, and were true to the Mustang’s legacy.
Even with finished-looking prototypes, Ford’s engineers are still working on fine tuning the vehicle, and making sure it’s a Mustang. They’re still working on the look, the drivetrain, the suspension, the interior, and the sound to get it all right, and are paying a lot of attention to our opinions on this.
How Did All This Add Up, Though?
After Ford’s technical presentation, they gave journalists a ride in the prototype cars. First, the professional driver took us out on the streets of Hawthorne for a few blocks, passing SpaceX’s rocket, going over some railroad tracks, driving up a main road, and then back to the runway. They then took us on a quick slalom course and took a 0–60 MPH run before dropping us off.
While I didn’t get to drive it myself (there are only a handful of Mach-Es in existence today), I did get a good idea of how the vehicle was responding to the driver and the road. I got that “seat of the pants” feel.
Then, Ford lent me the GT350R to drive through Los Angeles, up several canyons, and to Newcomb’s Ranch. I took it on city streets, up the freeways, and into the hills. I pushed the car HARD around more sharp corners than I could count, ripped up some straight sections, and even passed a minivan driver who refused to use the pullouts. After lunch, I did it all in reverse, but this time in a Bullitt package Mustang.
Finally, after the premiere, I got to take another ride in the Mach-E. I guess you could call the whole experience an electric-ICE-electric sandwich.
My verdict? Yes, the Mach-E is a real Mustang. It walks like a duck, smells like a duck, sounds like a duck, and feels like a duck. It’s a duck, even over the screams of the traditionalists who don’t think an electric vehicle will ever be able to have “soul.”
Through hard work and careful thinking, Ford managed to give this EV the soul of an American icon.
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