2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E AWD first ride review: Monster electric donut machine
Ford's mold-shattering electric SUV is a legit drift weapon in the white stuff. Here's why.
"That's a Mustang. We would never have been able to do that if we didn't put a 'Mustang' badge on this car, so that's why I'm very happy." The "that," friends, is an epic, rooster-tail-inducing powerslide in Ford's new electric SUV. The driver smiling and chatting at the wheel is Adam Deibler, a calibration engineer for the Blue Oval. He and I are drifting around an ice-and-snow-covered test loop in Michigan's frigid Upper Peninsula in an early prototype of the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E, the automaker's biggest gamble in many years.
Due in dealers late this year, Ford's first battery-electric SUV was already a bona-fide lightning rod of attention before it debuted on the eve of the 2019 Los Angeles Auto Show. Simultaneously one of the most hotly awaited and controversial new models in years, the Mach-E doesn't just shatter the pony-car mold, it electrocutes whatever's left into a fine powder. Whether that's a good thing or not depends on your perspective, but there are few more interesting cars entering production this year.
Me? I'm genuinely excited about Ford's iconoclastic new model. So excited, in fact, that when I got a last-minute opportunity to hop in the passenger seat of an early Mach-E, I wrangled Roadshow's ace videographer, Nick Miotke, and the two of us made a beeline for the frozen wilderness that is Smithers Winter Test Center, a secure, 800-plus-acre cold-weather test facility used by automakers and suppliers to evaluate their future products in remote secrecy.
It's still too early in the Mustang Mach-E's development to expect Ford to let me pry a key fob from its hand, but the company is still eager to show off the capabilities of its new through-the-road all-wheel-drive system, and Smithers is an excellent place to do it.
We've only been in the Rapid Red Metallic test car for a few minutes, and already, we're getting sideways in the best possible way. Another Ford engineer, Ashok Rodrigues, development lead on the Mach-E's AWD system, is making big slip angles look easy, summoning them with a minimum of steering input and a gentle roll on and off of the accelerator. As it turns out, the 2021 Mustang Mach-E is a monster electric donut machine.
This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Ford has acknowledged expertise in AWD systems, and electric cars that power all four corners are known to be particularly controllable in the white stuff -- just ask our editor in chief, Tim Stevens, who barreled around Alaskan proving grounds in a Tesla Model 3 last year.
As Deibler hinted earlier, it wasn't always going to be this way. Ford had originally been working on a new electrified crossover that was to spin off hybrid, plug-in hybrid and battery-electric variants; a front-wheel-drive chassis with a different name and mission in mind. When the decision to totally rework this project into an all-electric Mustang came down from on high, that's when Deibler and Rodrigues' jobs got a lot more interesting.
Carp all you want about Ford using the Mustang name and styling on something distinctly different than a pony car, but the company seems to know the Mach-E must perform and be fun to drive. By adding a galloping horse badge on the nose of its young project, Ford knew it had to develop a chassis with a distinctly athletic bent and rear-wheel-drive feel -- even on AWD models like this one.
According to Rob Iorio, Mach-E's program engineer, once it was decided this model would be a horse of a different color, the team went down to North Carolina to use Ford Racing's NASCAR simulator. In Charlotte, they digitally replicated the base vehicle they had been working on, then simulated a traditional gas Mustang for comparison. Switching back and forth between them, the team then developed a digital performance mockup of a third model where they thought a Mustang SUV could go. "The base car was not where we wanted it to be in terms of steering precision, in terms of ride stiffness and feedback. We wanted to take the base somewhere and the GT somewhere (else)," Iorio says.
Along the way, Ford decided AWD had to be part of the mix -- Iorio says it became necessary "as we started to see the market change." When his team had what would become the performance envelope of the Mach-E sketched out, in the course of developing the new AWD setup, it became even more pivotal than normal to work on the hardware and software cross-functionally, with the powertrain group talking to the brake team and the traction experts, too. With no mechanical connection between the front and rear axles, the electronic controls management part of the equation took on central importance.
The AWD system features two different motors front and back, with the larger rear motor outputting 210 kilowatts and the front chipping in a further 50 kW. (The late-availability GT, which wasn't present for ridealongs, will feature even more powerful motors.) This AWD test car nevertheless displays plenty of grunt: 332 horsepower and 417 pound-feet of torque.
With the promise of fine motor control, additional AWD traction and a hefty extended-range, 98.8-kWh battery pack slung low in its frame, engineer Rodrigues takes our Mach-E on a few laps of a tight, snow-covered road course. Once again, it isn't long until we're hanging the back end out and grinning like idiots: left, right, left, right. There are times when the nose plows wide, but more power brings the back end around reliably to help shepherd us through corners. Eventually, we get a bit carried away, curtailing the fun before well and truly binning Ford's expensive prototype.
As we switch to a similar Space White tester in a different state of tune, engineer Adam Deibler takes the wheel. This prototype, I am told, features a more up-to-date traction management package and drive modes. (Side note: The 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E will feature over-the-air update capability, so it must be even easier to test out different software versions on the road to production.)
Our white model is visually tired, bearing the marks of removed camouflage, mismatched panels and so on. While the Blue Oval PR team isn't exactly keen to show off a vehicle in this state, this sort of condition is 100% common for early testers. In fact, I love getting the chance to sample early testers like this -- their scars give them character and only serve to underscore just how much work goes into a model before the all-new, consumer-ready shiny-shiny can make it onto showroom floors.
Making the grade
In any case, we roll out to a new corner of Smithers, where a series of inclines await, some covered, others not. Deibler approaches a tunneled, 20-degree incline that reminds me of my treacherously steep driveway (albeit without the latter's diabolical side tilt). This split-mu surface is iced on one side and features limited traction on the other -- a properly tough test for a crossover on half-worn, all-season Michelins (an intentional move to better replicate typical consumer cars).
Deibler starts at the bottom from a dead stop, rolls slowly up, then pauses halfway to prove the vehicle won't backslide like a lapsed Catholic upon restart. Indeed, when the accelerator is applied, the rear end squirms momentarily, but the Mach-E climbs up the hill obediently and otherwise without drama. According to Deibler, the Mustang performs this particular feat better than any other EV on the market. Sadly, no rivals were standing by to compare, so until I can get a Mach-E and replicate this test on my home driveway, I'll have to take his word for it.
Don't call them drive modes
The Mach-E will feature three so-called "Drive Experiences:" Engaged, Whisper and Unbridled. The modes cover the usual driving hardware presets, including steering heft, pedal response mapping and safety-gear thresholds. But they also introduce different levels of powertrain sound in the cabin and involve different ambient lighting and gauge cluster themes. It's a bit like Mercedes-Benz's Energizing Comfort option group, albeit without the massaging seats and perfumed air. The goal, I'm told, is to deliver a full sensory experience.
In truth, it's hard to say just how different these Drive Experiences feel without getting behind the wheel. With limited in-car time, snow kicking up in the wheel wells providing a blanket of literal white noise and a steady conversation happening, I wasn't able to devote proper time to focus on these modes.
That said, I can tell you that our day's most impressive, sustained powerslides came in the Mach-E's default Engaged mode, not in its more athletic Unbridled setting (which you'd expect would offer the loosest electronic safety nannies). In other words, a lot more than the name changed when Ford decided to remold this vehicle in the style of its iconic pony car. "We also suddenly got all of our best dynamics engineers on it. We have a chassis we never would've had if they didn't call it a Mustang. It's a double-edged sword, but at the end of the day, we're bringing the Mustang experience to people who wouldn't have ever had it… and I'm very thankful for that," says Deibler. For engineers like Deibler and Rodrigues, making this vehicle a Mustang has made their day jobs way more entertaining.
There's no dedicated Winter/Snow mode, which I found curious in light of our testing. But perhaps it isn't necessary, especially with a single-speed transmission.
I've driven just about every EV on the market, and one thing I find particularly important is the efficacy of a car's one-pedal driving mode. When properly calibrated, heavy-regenerative braking modes can not only greatly improve efficiency and range, they can make driving fun in a whole new way. Conversely, when done poorly, they can turn a car into a lurchy puddle, yielding particularly unpleasant low-speed experiences, as when coming to a stop.
This is something that has to be experienced firsthand -- or first foot -- to properly assess, but it's worth noting Ford's interesting approach here. There's a driver-selectable One Pedal setting that operates independently of whatever Drive Experience is running. Both functions are accessed via the massive, portrait-oriented infotainment screen, and One Pedal is an absolute -- it's on or off, though the rate of deceleration actually varies depending on Drive Experience. For instance, maximum retardation comes in Unbridled, while Whisper (which is not an eco setting) offers the least. I'll have to try this for myself, but I'm tempted to say that I'd rather be able to select my amount of regen, as people's tastes for such things vary greatly.
Me? I like strong regen where you can drive 90% of the time without actually stepping on the brake pedal, but others I know prefer a more subtle approach. Perhaps Drive Experiences will vary the feel enough to cover all the bases.
There's still a lot left to know. Will the Blue Oval be able to deliver on the Mach-E's promised range (up to 300 miles in RWD trim and 270 miles with the bigger battery)? Just how good is that new infotainment setup? And exactly how many people want a smooth-nosed Ford Mustang crossover with an electric heart, anyway?
Ford isn't saying how many have plunked down $500 to reserve a Mach-E, but the company recently revealed it has orders from all 50 states, and the First Edition model is sold out. Additionally, Ford tells me AWD is proving quite popular, with almost 75% of buyers in cold-weather states opting for the tech. In New England, the figure jumps to 90%.
As for the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E's consumer appeal, Ford says roughly six in 10 reservation holders are conquest shoppers, meaning they haven't bought a Ford or Lincoln in 15 years. That's almost 10% higher than the corresponding rate for other Blue Oval models, and yet, I'm actually surprised it's not significantly higher. In any case, when it comes to brand loyalists, one in four reservation holders have owned a Mustang previously.
Clearly, not all of the pony car's fans are self-anointed purists.
Based on my early wintry ridealong, those with open minds and open wallets are in for a good time.