Why Ford’s New Electric Car Is So Important

A Ford Mustang Mach-E sits at the Shanghai auto show.
Getty / The Atlantic

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The Ford Mustang Mach-E is, at first glance, what a new car is supposed to be in 2021. On the outside, it applies iconic Mustang styling to a family-friendly but sporty crossover, the fastest-growing car segment in the United States. On the inside, it takes after Tesla’s Model 3, with a full-body moonroof and a glowing screen, larger than an iPad, mounted in the dashboard. And underneath, it’s all electric, offering 480 horsepower, 305 miles of EPA-estimated range, and zero greenhouse-gas emissions. With essentially instantaneous acceleration, a smooth ride, and a roomy back seat, it’s ideal for young families and adventurous retirees—

Wait—is this a car review in The Atlantic? No, an august magazine like The Atlantic doesn’t do car reviews. This is what we in the biz call an “ideas piece,” a story that articulates an important new idea that’s changing our world. It will also tell you whether the car is any good or not.

Phew. What’s the idea? Well, there are two of them, actually.

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The first is that this is an important car—not only for Ford, the fifth-largest automaker in the world by sales, but also for the Biden administration and the United States. The Mach-E aspires to be the first mass-market competitor to Tesla, according to Jim Farley, Ford’s CEO. The Mach-E’s price agrees: Although a Tesla Model 3 with 263 miles of range starts at $40,190, a base-model Mach-E with 230 miles of range costs $35,395 after federal tax credits. To put it in terms that might resonate with some Weekly Planet readers, that’s only 50 bucks more than a new Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid.

But the Mach-E is more than its sticker price. Today, every mass-market automobile is built on top of what’s called a “platform,” a term for the chassis, drivetrain, and general mechanical guts that remain the same from vehicle to vehicle. Many different cars in an automaker’s lineup will have the same platform. The Mach-E is our first look at the first of Ford’s two EV platforms, “Global Electrified 1,” which will underpin its EVs for the next, crucial years.

Over the coming decade, the Biden administration aspires to drop $174 billion on electric vehicles to finish bringing the technology into the mainstream and help decrease emissions in the most carbon-intensive sector of America’s economy. But for that plan to work, consumers must want EVs; the market must offer a variety of compelling, athletic, non-nebbishy, downright attractive electric vehicles. Biden, a lifelong Chevy man, has staked his policy to the popularity, the drivability, of EVs from Ford and others.

And the second idea? Yep. So when consumers buy their first EV, they’re going to discover that this is a different technology than an internal-combustion-engine (ICE) car. When you purchase an EV, you are actually buying a new package of things. The bytes, the bits, the battery, even the balance of weight is different from most ICE vehicles. Those changes aren’t bad, but they are worth talking about.

Back to the car—did you like driving it? Yes … yes. By the third day, my driving companion and I had decided that our current cars would be the last gas-powered vehicles we would own. The Mach-E offers near-instant pickup and an enthusiastic ride. It simply never broke a sweat: Even when merging onto a highway from a full stop, I didn’t have to depress the pedal more than halfway to quickly bring it to the speed of traffic.

At times, this athleticism became a problem. Like other EVs, the Mach-E runs almost silently; Ford gives you the option of piping an ambient whir into the compartment that mimics an engine accelerating. Yet even with that feature enabled, I still found myself cruising above 80 miles per hour without quite knowing when I had sped up; I once passed someone on the interstate and realized I was kissing 95. And that’s, you know, fun—except that the car’s languor made me think I was going closer to 60.

The Ford Mustang Mach-E in front of the US Capitol
Not quite a coupe, not quite a crossover (Robinson Meyer / The Atlantic)

Okay, so how is this different from an ICE car? Here’s an example. The Mach-E is capable of “one-pedal driving,” a common EV mode in which merely lifting your foot from the acceleration pedal activates the brake. Like the Priuses of yore, the car recaptures some of the energy used in braking and transfers it back to the battery. But the Mach-E’s regeneration is so aggressive that it takes practice to stop the car without giving passengers whiplash. Eventually, though, one-pedal mode makes stop-and-start city driving more comfortable.

Ford hasn’t rolled out its autonomous driving mode yet, but by combining the Mach-E’s adaptive cruise-control and automatic lane-keeping features, you can get pretty close. Adopt all these features at once and you have a new kind of driving experience. If you use one-pedal drive for tooling around town, and the semi-autonomous features for highway driving, then you can essentially always drive the Mach-E through a software intermediary. That’s nice, but it’s very different. The only thing I can compare it to is Mario Kart’s smart steering.

What is it like to plug in your car instead of getting gas? Fine. Totally fine—even as a city dweller who doesn’t have anywhere to plug in a car. Charging was never a serious issue while driving, every big parking lot had spots with chargers, and DC fast-charging worked as advertised, adding about 80 miles of range in 20 minutes. Essentially, I parked the car at a lunch place, plugged it in, and by the time I was seated, it had completed charging.

That said, if more people buy EVs, we’re clearly going to need a lot more chargers at public places.

What didn’t you like about the car? Because the Mach-E lacks traditional door handles, you can’t open the rear doors from the outside when the vehicle is without power. The vehicle is also very heavy, because batteries are heavy. It is a much denser car than many drivers might expect, which means it will coast for longer on no power than they expect. (Which is one reason one-pedal mode is so important.)

Final thing: The onscreen user interface is somewhat laggy. This lack of fleet-footedness is especially noticeable because it’s presented on a tablet that is otherwise essentially identical to an iPad. As cars electrify further, and come to be judged more on their software, these kinds of pauses and delays will become less acceptable.

My other problem comes down to bits and my general theory of culture, though.

What do you mean, “bits”? So glad you asked! Recently, people online have started talking about “bits,” by which they mean a “bit” in the way a comedian might “do a bit”—a gag, a joke, a moment of knowing artifice. When Robin Williams’s Genie in the original Aladdin does a three-second William F. Buckley impression, that is a bit. The question-and-answer format of this post is a bit (an awful one).

Every human craft and art, without exception, is built on a pile of accumulated bits, but some media entail more bits than others. A telephone call, for instance, doesn’t require many bits: There are some niceties about how you greet someone on the phone or hang up, but otherwise you just have a conversation. A podcast that records a phone conversation entails more bits: You wouldn’t play your theme music, for instance, at the beginning of a normal, two-person phone call, but it’s a normal part of a podcast. And at the high end of the spectrum, you have, say, the song “Telephone Hour” from the ’60s musical Bye Bye Birdie, which ostensibly documents a set of phone calls but is, like all Broadway musicals, completely mired in bits—starting with the ur-bit that when characters experience an intense emotion, they burst into song.

How on earth does this relate to the Ford Mustang Mach-E? What I’ve realized is that cars have a lot of bits. For decades now, many sporty mid-market cars, in addition to a standard drive mode, have a sport mode, which tightens the car’s steering and increases its pickup. The Mach-E has three driving modes that tinker with the acceleration and suspension: “Whisper,” “Engage,” and “Unbridled.”

But the funny part is that, when you switch between modes, the car’s interior ambient lighting changes too. So when you shift from “Whisper” to “Unbridled,” the ambient lighting goes from light blue to burnt orange. The graphics of the user interface, including the dashboard display, change too. It’s like a Windows XP skin for the car.

And—let’s be clear—it is a bit. An enormous bit, pure artifice. I balked at it at first. But then, after about a day, I got used to it. The Mach-E is not the only EV that has bits: The Tesla has its “Ludicrous” mode.

One last bit: The Mach-E projects an image of its pony logo off the side of a car when you approach it at night. I find this mortifying, but apparently many cars do this type of thing now.

Other thoughts? To a degree that I didn’t fully anticipate, when you buy an electric car, you are buying a battery. You are spending $35,000 (give or take a subsidy) on a battery, albeit one with a few motors, four wheels, and some chairs attached. That’s really what an EV is. And that means that Americans will soon become intimate with the vagaries of lithium-ion battery maintenance. They will learn that batteries charge the first 30 percent of their capacity quickly and take forever to get from 80 to 100 percent. Folk theories will develop about the best way to prolong the life of your battery, and some of them will even be accurate. We are going to become experts at the care and feeding of lithium-ion cells.

Why should I care about any of this if I don’t drive? Well, you probably don’t need to worry about the bits. But cars and light trucks alone are responsible for nearly 20 percent of U.S. climate pollution, and Biden’s climate strategy depends on people seeing their lives improve in concrete ways while emissions decline. And electric cars are simply the biggest consumer good that is also central to decarbonizing: Most Americans don’t own a steel mill or a wind turbine, but they do own a car.

And that gets at one of the biggest mysteries of the next few years: We really don’t know what the EV mass market will look like. Among best-selling EVs today, Tesla’s sporty four-doors dominate, and there are physical reasons—mostly having to do with the big, heavy battery that sits low in each EV’s body—to think that EV sedans and coupes will be the most fun to drive. Yet since the Ford Explorer debuted in 1990, SUVs and their diminutive siblings, crossovers, have gobbled up the U.S. car market; they now outsell sedans 2 to 1. When Americans buy their first EV, will they want something that looks like a Tesla—or will they want the same burly trucks they’re already buying? Or maybe they’ll want something else: Engineers have dubbed some EV platforms “skateboards” for their mechanical simplicity—they’re really just a battery, two motors, and four wheels—and EVs might permit a much wider range of car designs than older ICE platforms could admit.

I mentioned at the top of this piece that the Mach-E tries to combine low-slung sports-car styling with family-friendly crossover utility, but that’s in part because Ford needs to square a circle of still-unknown dimensions. Will the cars of 2030 look like SUVs, traditional four-door sedans, or something else? It will depend, in part, on how Americans react to this car—whether it is judged a new Model T, or one more PT Cruiser.

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