A Classic American Car Is Having an Identity Crisis
Ford’s electric Mustang, the Mach-E, is attracting an unusual bunch of drivers—including me.
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Earlier this month, a brand-new Ford Mustang rolled into my driveway and hummed itself to a halt. The scene was a straight shot of Americana concentrate: The dirt crunched beneath the car’s tires; the sun glinted off the red paint on its aptly equine-esque snout, helping it easily outshine every other vehicle on the block. Then the front driver’s-side door opened, and out emerged not a middle-aged man who’d bought into the brand’s bid to be “cool, clever, and tough,” but instead … me.
Me, with my herbal tea and cat-fur-covered Patagonia backpack, my wallet full of Trader Joe’s receipts. Me, an Asian American woman in her 30s who hates roller coasters, who’s never finished an entire serving of beer, and whose ideal car for the past two decades has been a Toyota Prius. “You are the last person I would expect to buy a Mustang,” one of my colleagues told me after recovering from a laughing fit.
I do have an explanation for this discrepancy, and it’s not one that die-hard Mustang fans will necessarily like. My new car is a Mustang—it’s just a Mustang Mach-E. It runs on electricity, and the motor, rather than the brand, is the main reason I, and so many others like me, are now in the driver’s seat. Which means that nowadays, when a Mustang pulls up, “you just have no idea who’s coming out of that car,” says Kashef Majid, a marketing expert at the University of Mary Washington, in Virginia. Classically branded electric vehicles are undergoing a battery-powered identity crisis that’s changing not just their engines, but potentially their passengers too.
A mere two decades ago, when a new class of hybrids were being bought up by people who were sort of, well, crunchy, electrification seemed antithetical to flash. Those cars appealed primarily to people who prioritized minimizing pollution over maximizing acceleration, says Nathan Wyeth, a clean-energy expert who previously worked on EV adoption. Their fully electrified successors inherited the hippie hype. Early commercials for the Nissan Leaf, which debuted in 2010, featured bummed-out polar bears hugging car owners in gratitude for their planet-saving choice. And as innovative as the vehicle was, the Leaf was hardly the sort of car you’d spot trying to outgun every other vehicle on the highway just because it could.
EVs since have upgraded their rep, thanks in large part to Tesla’s massive push into the market about 15 years ago, on the strength of the cars’ luxury-caliber acceleration and sleek, sporty look. Aficionados began to get behind battery-powered vehicles in ways they hadn’t before; reviewers began to note just how “alarming” it was “to jam the accelerator of such a big car and have it surge forward so quickly and so quietly,” without spending even “a lick of gasoline.” Nowadays, the street cred of some EVs is arguably on par with that of their less climate-friendly kin. Several of the world’s fastest-accelerating cars run on ions alongside, or in lieu of, gas; several of this year’s Super Bowl ads crowed about just how rugged, sexy, and downright fun battery-powered cars can get. A good chunk of the EVs could now be called muscle cars, as long as you’re okay with a pretty quiet flex.
As the perks of EVs have expanded, so has their consumer base. Buyers are still largely white, educated, and well-off. But some stats have budged: Alan Jenn, a researcher at the Plug-in Hybrid and Electric Vehicle group of UC Davis’s Institute of Transportation Studies, told me that the first wave of EV buyers was about 90 percent men; more than a decade later, the proportion is roughly 75 percent. And the socioeconomic brackets investing in EVs seem to be expanding too, as average prices continue to drop.
The sway of electrification even seems powerful enough to be breaking brand stereotypes. Ford’s electrification of the Mustang was a fascinating gamble, Kelly Fleming of the Institute for Transportation Decarbonization told me. The car is very obviously nothing like its gas-guzzling predecessors, and not just because of its power source. Put it side by side with a conventional Mustang, and apart from the galloping-pony logo, the two bear hardly any resemblance. When the first version of the model debuted a few years ago, there was a serious bit of blowback. The Mach-E, many traditionalists insisted, was not a real Mustang.
I suppose I can’t blame them. A crossover as long and girthy as your average SUV, the Mach-E comes with four doors, a hatchback, and tons of cargo space; you could make a pretty compelling argument that it’s more family-friendly than flashy and fierce, as Mustangs are supposed to be. Reviewers have, since the model was announced in 2019, called its ’Stang branding heresy; it’s just not wild, temperamental, or, frankly, impractical enough. One aficionado described the experience of driving the Mach-E as “about as exhilarating as shopping for chest freezers.” My car doesn’t even emit the brand’s characteristic gas-powered vroom vroom when I rev it. At best, it whimpers out an ionized whoosh whoosh.
Still, the Mustang makeover does raise existential questions about what a brand is supposed to do when the circumstances in which it operates begins to rapidly shift gears. Brands are identities, designed to attract and deliver consistently to a specific consumer base. But as the planet changes, its technology is getting a necessary makeover too—along with some people’s purchasing priorities. The Mach-E sure isn’t attracting only the Mustang’s stereotypical audience of yore: “me,” as my older, white, male Ford dealer put it. Ford, which didn’t respond to a request for comment, might argue that’s part of the point. The brand isn’t hurting for new customers right now. And several experts pointed out that there are some decades-long Mustang fans who have enthusiastically ponied up (sorry) for this model.
I, honestly, ended up with a Mustang on a close-to-last-minute whim. My partner and I wanted a new car, and we wanted it to be an EV. But many of the models we initially considered—a Chevy Bolt, a Hyundai Ioniq 6—were too small or too boxy to suit our needs or taste. A Tesla was off the table: “I’d rather die,” my spouse explained flatly, and that was that. We looked at Ford’s inventory next and found a Mach-E available only a few miles from our new house—et voilà. We could drive it home that day. It’s a bit of a zany thought, considering that in decades past a specific kind of person tended to land a Mustang as a deliberate choice, not because it just happened to be what was on the lot.
Jenn, who’s also a new Mach-E owner, admitted that a nearly identical story got him his Mustang. “It was an availability thing,” he told me. “I had Hondas and Nissans before that.” That’s simply the EV market right now, especially with the IRS’s tax credit continuing to grease people’s car-buying wheels. When supply gets low, people sometimes have to break brand loyalties. There are others out there like us, buying electrified versions of classic brands more for the E part of the name than the Mustang.
To be clear, I do really like my new car. It’s the nicest vehicle I’ve ever owned—fast, sleek, and safe. And “any car that accelerates quickly, silently, and totally smoothly is just a great drive,” Wyeth told me. The Mach-E, in particular, comes with top-of-the-line trim, snazzy features, and plenty of vigor and vim; it is nowhere close to fully shedding the Mustang cool. And for all the fussing and squabbling about ’Stang authenticity, the Mach-E’s popularity is proof positive that Ford’s gamble worked. Not all brands, even within the Ford family, took the same tack: The F-150 Lightning, Fleming noted, is a much closer remake of its gas-powered predecessors. “You can’t quite tell that it’s electric, unless you really know what an F-150 looks like,” she told me. But perhaps that’s part of the point. In radically departing from its lineage, the Mach-E is refusing to be ignored—acting just as a Mustang might, by announcing that it is not a typical Mustang at all.
It’s possible that a few years from now, all Mustangs will be electrified. Maybe they’ll be the new Volvos or Subarus, a safe and suburb-ish choice overflowing with 2.5 kids and a tangled mess of soccer gear. Or maybe not. The face of the Mustang might be changing, but I’m not sure that the Mustang is changing me. We’ll be keeping the Mach-E, but I’m still hoping to eventually replace our other car, an old-school gas-guzzling Ford Focus, with a hybrid Toyota—something much more my speed.