The Mustang Mach-E is the exciting shape of the electric future

Removing a headphone jack doesn't take courage; making a four-door EV and calling it a Mustang takes courage

Ford just unveiled its first EV, and it’s stunning. Called the Mustang Mach-E, it appears to get a lot of things right. From the branding to little surprises, the Mustang Mach-E looks to be a hit.

“We knew we had to do something different and something exciting and something only Ford could do,” Kumar Galhotra, president of Ford North America said at a press event prior to the Sunday unveiling. I think he’s right. The Mustang Mach-E is the ideal shape of the mass-produced electric future. Henry Ford would be proud. This is an electric car for the masses.

It’s a Mustang

It starts with branding. I hate it. The car guy in me is sad that a Mustang will soon be available in a four-door version. And electric. And lifted. That’s not a Mustang, I want to say. A Mustang is a sports car. And yet a Mustang is an affordable, reliable vehicle, and that’s exactly why Ford is calling its first EV a Mustang.

Branding is critical for the electric future. Ford is using an established brand that resonates with buyers. Look for this again and again as car companies unveil an electric version of current and past vehicles. An electric Ford F-150 and an electric Jeep Cherokee.

Instead of inventing a new model line, like Chevy tried to do with the Bolt, companies will look to convert familiar models to electric. The switch should make for more comfortable transitions. With the Chevy Bolt, consumers understand it is electric, but are still left with new questions. How does the driver sit in a Bolt? Is a Bolt a low-end model? What will the resell value of a Bolt be in three years. With an established model, say a Chevy Cruze, Buick Regal or BMW 3 series, a lot of the questions are more easily answered. Consumers are familiar with the branding and the meaning behind the model.

With the Mustang Mach-E, Ford is addressing many questions with just the name. The Mach-E will be fast (it is), it will be smallish (it’s a small crossover) and it will be competitively priced (at $40,000, it is).

For example, other companies like Jeep, Honda and Subaru will likely follow the same scheme. It’s easier for the consumer to rehash current brands. An electric Jeep Cherokee would be a capable, mid-range vehicle with a tall ride height, sophisticated all-wheel drive system and seating for five. An electric Honda Civic would be a small, affordable car, while an electric Subaru Impreza would offer an electric powertrain on a car-based AWD platform.

Likewise, unnecessary questions arise if Jeep or Honda or any other car company bring an EV to market under a new name.

There is risk in using a legacy name. It can be offensive to die-hard and vocal enthusiasts. Ford is getting backlash with the Mach-E name. I find it offensive on a car-guy level. That’s not a Mustang, I want to yell. Taking a step back, it’s easy to see Ford’s justification.

Chevrolet re-released the Blazer last year and experienced a similar revolt. A Blazer is supposed to be a beefy off-roader, not the small, sporty crossover of the current version.

The Mustang brand is arguably one of the most valuable Ford assets. It’s been around for more than 50 years. Car companies invest fortunes in building and marketing brands and models. It often takes generations to get consumer buy-in, and, at that point, car companies treat them with careful consideration. With the Mustang Mach-E, Ford must have abundant data that shows a projected success.

The simple interior

The Mustang Mach-E follows the Tesla Model 3 design language: Big screen in the middle and not much else. The Mach-E builds on the Model 3 to make it a bit more palatable by including an LCD screen in front of the driver. The Bolt did this, too, but the Chevy didn’t go far enough. With the Mach-E and the Model 3, Ford and Tesla are utilizing smart manufacturing techniques, which will likely be replicated across the automotive industry — for better or worse.

Each car maker manufacturers switches and dials and screens that are installed throughout its models. A part bin, in car lingo. Often, switches are shared between brands. A switch in Audi could find its way into a Lambo, as both brands are in the VW family. This is done to reduce costs. Why make a different window switch for each brand when a window switch is a window switch?

The Model 3 and the Mach-E do not have any physical buttons in their center stacks. A massive screen handles climate control, media playback and more. Instead of making and installing gobs of little switches, Ford, Tesla and other automakers are using a single screen to do the same functions. This makes scaling across brands and markets easier. Suddenly, without buttons, car companies can reduce to a single device the number of parts, working hours and troubleshooting. This also makes building a car for different markets easier. Instead of building in a different language or for driving on the other side of the road, car companies only need to rejigger the software.

This single-screen setup needs the right software, and the Mach-E is the first to demonstrate Ford’s Sync 4 system. It looks great to me, with persistent controls for climate and a logical layout. Is it functional? I haven’t used it yet.

Thankfully, there’s still one physical knob: volume control. Volume should always be controlled by a spinning knob instead of a sliding bar. Always.

These screens allow car companies to integrate branding into the vehicles further. Expect Lincoln models to use similar software, but with a different design scheme from Ford models. Likewise, Acura software will be similar to Honda’s, but with a more sporty, upscale feel.

The little surprises

The Mach-E has several surprises, and that’s thanks to the electric platform.

The majority of the vehicles on the market right now run electric systems based on a decades-old system. It’s limiting, though carmakers are pushing it as far as it can go. The move to electric opens countless opportunities to designers and engineers. Features and details that were fantasy are now possible.

The Mach-E doesn’t have traditional door handles. Instead, it has small buttons that release the doors. What happens when the battery dies? For the most part, that’s highly unlikely, as the Mach-E’s electrical system doesn’t rely on a traditional battery and alternator.

The Mach-E has a front-based storage area — a frunk if you will. These are standard features on most electric vehicles. Ford did something novel, though, and made the Mach-E’s frunk out of plastic and added a drain plug. This lets owners pack it full of ice and store drinks in the frunk.

With electric vehicles, carmakers can open their playbooks and implement brand-specific features. Jeeps should get more Jeep-ie. Lexus models should be able to stand apart from their Toyota counterparts, and so on. The electric platforms are fundamentally more simple than internal combustion systems, freeing engineers and designers to be more creative with creature comforts.

The downside of these new features based around a new platform will come in a couple of years when repairs have to be made. It’s unlikely that most owners will be able to diagnose and fix systems, like with current vehicles. Instead, owners will have to rely on auto repair service centers that will look more like IT shops than garages.

Right now, this is an issue I have with my aging Chevy Volt. I live in Michigan, where the Volt was designed and built. I take it to one of the largest Chevy dealerships in the country for service, where there is only one technician certified to work on the vehicle. Repairs take much longer than I would like, and this issue will likely compound as more complex vehicles come to market. Vehicle techs will have to be retrained, and lower-cost third-party service centers will likely lag behind expensive dealerships.

It’s an electric future

The Mustang Mach-E is an EV done right. Ford took lessons from Tesla, Chevy and others with its first mass-produced electric vehicles. The Mach-E naming is unconventional at first glance, yet a closer look reveals its logic. The interior is exciting and yet scalable, and the model is full of surprises that will delight and could frustrate owners.

Eventually, the automotive landscape will be filled with similar models to the Mach-E: recycled branding, higher ride height and unique features around simple interiors.

It’s been said that the move to electric will produce stale, lookalike vehicles. That’s likely the short-term result as carmakers look to capitalize on familiar shapes and brands to get consumers onboard. Once consumers are comfortable with electric, that’s when the real fun begins. Expect the next generation of the Mustang Mach-E to be something more worthy of the Mustang name.