Eric Adams

Words/photos for Wired, Gear Patrol, PopSci, The Drive, Men's Health, Air&Space, more

Dec 15, 2020
Published on: WIRED
3 min read

The electric version of Ford’s legendary sports car is a lot of fun to drive. But road trips can be derailed by an underpowered charging network.

Electric Ford Mustang
The Mustang Mach-E resembles a small SUV.

There comes a moment, while driving any new electric car with sporting pretensions, where you settle in, take a shifty glance around you, and pin the throttle. Electricity races from the battery to the motors, which spin the wheels with startling ferocity. You feel that seamless torque surge and enjoy the brief hints of instability, the little wiggles as the car feels like it’s about to break traction, yet always recovers instantly, as though nothing were ever wrong.

I had many such moments driving the new Mustang Mach-E over the Thanksgiving holiday, when roads were much quieter than normal for this time of year, allowing plenty of room to evaluate the racy steed. The new car debuts this month, a little more than a year after its reveal. We’ve already gone over the technology in detail, so now it’s time to try it on actual roads. The key questions: How is it as a car? How is it as an electric car? And how is it as an electric Mustang?

First, a refresher: The Mach-E comes in both standard and extended-range variants, in either single-motor rear drive or dual-motor all-wheel drive. Its permanent magnet motors deliver, in the AWD First Edition version I tested, 346 horsepower and 428 pound-feet of torque. It has an EPA-validated range of up to 300 miles with the 88-kWh extended-range battery pack, or as low as 211 miles with the standard 68-kWh pack with all-wheel drive. The First Edition model delivers 270 miles of range, and a 4.8-second 0-60 time. The GT Performance version, expected next year, will arrive with 480 horsepower, 634 pound-feet of torque, and a 0-60 time of 3.5 seconds.

Starting at $42,895 (the First Edition is $58,300), the car is unmistakably a crossover, with a roomy back seat, plenty of storage space in the trunk, and a bit more in the “frunk” underneath the hood. It features the sultry lines of a car modeled after an aggressive street machine that’s been reenvisioned for smooth aerodynamics and minimal wind noise. The look won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s distinctive and it avoids the trap of trying to look too much like the model that inspired it. It’s very much its own thing, which is to Ford’s credit. The grille treatment is particularly successful, solving a tricky problem of how to make the front of the car look appropriately performance-oriented absent the need for voluminous air intake. The pony logo looks just fine on there.

The Mustang is plenty comfortable and easy to be in, with a smartly designed interior, though with slightly unintuitive button/handle combos in place of conventional door handles. People have to stare at them for a second to figure them out. The new SYNC 4A infotainment system is, honestly, a revelation, offering one of the best and most user-friendly interfaces on the road, with a 15.5-inch screen and a tile system that dispenses with the multilayer menus that can drive people insane. It adapts to each user’s preferences, including suggestions as it learns your routes, and it will be updated over the air repeatedly.

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Of course, it also has EV-specific functions baked into the infotainment system. These include options to schedule charges during less costly off-peak hours, battery status and charge rate intel, and controls that can prep the cabin temperature while charging to minimize the battery drain once the trip starts. Most features can be controlled remotely via the smartphone app. The system also includes an efficiency analysis. On one 200-mile trip on both highway and suburban streets, I achieved 2.7 miles per kWh, shy of the 4.1 the Tesla Model 3 is capable of, but consistent with many competitors and reflecting my fairly aggressive driving. Under light use, I routinely saw 3.2 miles per kWh.

Images from the app that can control some features of the Mach-E.

Courtesy of Mustang

Which brings us to its overall success as an electric car. Scoring a successful EPA range rating is a big deal these days, as many cars tend to fall short of their early estimates, usually due to powertrain inefficiencies. Ford managed to keep the Mach-E well above the range-anxiety threshold of 200 miles. We’ll get to some charging challenges in a moment, but the Mach-E comes with access to the FordPass Charging network, with more than 13,500 stations nationwide. Its peak charging rate of 150 kW means it can add up to 61 miles of range for every 10 minutes on the pipe, and reach 80 percent charge in 45 minutes. (Charge speed diminishes as the battery nears capacity, as with other EVs.)

Ford also delivered a car that’s fun to drive, with three distinct driving modes, including “Unbridled.” In a sequence of informal comparisons against a comparable Tesla Model Y Performance on a closed course, the Mach-E came up predictably short in overall thrust, with the Tesla hitting 60 mph in a brisker 3.5 seconds, which would be more directly comparable to the Mach-E GT Performance coming later. But in a simulated slalom, the Mach-E more than held its own against the Model Y, with comparable speeds and only slightly more body roll, another thing that will be addressed in the GT version. It felt sure-footed, smooth, and quick, with crisp steering feel and surprisingly good wind- and tire-noise levels—a potential gremlin for whisper-quiet EVs.

The final question, of course, is whether the Mach-E lives up to the Mustang logo affixed to its minimalist grille. Keeping in mind that there have been plenty of actual Mustangs that haven’t exactly lived up to the Mustang name, the short answer is yes, it does. Ford had a choice of whether to make the Mach-E its own thing, or to skew it toward one of its existing models—whether that be on the side of pure efficiency or performance. It chose the latter, and likely wisely. Doing otherwise would have set a low bar for both the engineers and potential customers, whereas aligning it with the Mustang forced them to think hard about the driver experience and the mystique of the car.

Visually, it’s definitely more Mustang than, say, Ecosport, the company’s tall, intensely awkward entry-level multipurpose vehicle. The Mach-E has a dramatically long hood, strong proportions, and high rear haunches, without looking like it’s trying too hard to be cool. Mine came in a Grabber Blue that’s a bit over the top, but the other color options are more complementary to the design.

The drive experience is exceptional. Ford decided late in the game to put the subframes intended just for the GT models into all the Mach-E’s, giving them much more latitude while tuning the suspension, and dialing in a rear-drive bias that performance car enthusiasts crave. When unleashing the torque, it feels confident and manageable, with those brief white-knuckle moments to keep things lively and interesting for drivers capable of safely pushing cars to their limits. Its low-mounted battery, with its low center of gravity, helps you carve up the turns all day, and the battery always seems able to deliver the acceleration you desire. So no, it’s not a literal Mustang, but in my book, it earns the badge.

My days with the Mach-E weren’t without struggle—though it wasn’t necessarily the vehicle’s fault. My wife and I had planned to drive the car from eastern Pennsylvania to Syracuse, New York, and back in a single day. The three-hour, 200-mile drive each way should have been a snap for the Mach-E, with its 240-plus-mile range and several charging options along the way, including one free DC fast-charger just south of Binghamton, New York.

However, when we pulled into that station, at the Southern Tier Welcome Center—a rest stop on I-81—the device refused to pump electricity into the Ford. All indicators implied compatibility: The CCS/SAE plug was the appropriate one; both the FordPass Charging Network app in the car and the PlugShare charge-station finder app indicated it worked, and the station itself seemed functional. But nothing happened. After considerable back-and-forth with Ford personnel over text message, email, and telephone, we determined that the charge station there, installed by Efacec Power Solutions, lacked a necessary upgrade to make it compatible with the Ford’s state-of-the-art battery. My only option in the area would be 240-volt slow chargers with the J1772 plugs.

Finding one of those wasn’t easy either. Several units operated by independent companies or the well-known ChargePoint network either didn’t work or required accounts I didn’t possess. Furthermore, I didn’t realize until it was too late that many of the FordPass stations were discreetly labeled “Coming soon!” The best charge experience I’d had to that point, at an Electrify America station near my home, wasn’t an option since they didn’t have any installed in that area. I finally found a free, open, working 240-volt charger, and we settled in for lunch and to evaluate our options. They weren’t good.

Given the charging challenges in Binghamton, the prospect of the return trip was worrying. We decided, sadly, to bail on the Mach-E. As a result of this, I have pretty strong words for those in charge of developing the (non-Tesla) EV charging network in the US. Given the still microscopic proportion of EVs on the road, charging should be made as easy and painless as possible. But it’s not. In fact, it’s far from it. It’s confusing, thanks to ridiculous code names for the plugs—I mean seriously, CHAdeMO?—and the uncertainty around charge speeds and how they can vary depending on factors including the presence of other vehicles or the temperature of a car’s battery. The vagaries of charger compatibility and vehicle technology are also a mystery. How, for instance, did Ford not know the station I visited wouldn’t work? Few chargers accept credit cards for payment, and the 240-V chargers now feel uselessly slow.

Ford’s director of charging and energy services, Matt Stover, says the company is working with charge station providers and operators to ensure the devices are compatible with the Mach-E. He says Efacec has issued a software patch to correct the compatibility issues between the charger and the car. “Unfortunately the charger you came across was not updated or within the Ford Pass Charge Network.” Stover says. He says Ford is adjusting the database to ensure that drivers are only directed to compatible stations, and says the company expects most users to do most of their charging at home.

That’s likely true, but it doesn’t move the ball forward for EVs as a whole, especially when any excursion still exposes drivers to anxieties about charging. Overall, my time with the Mustang Mach-E was engaging, exciting, and fun, But I felt a sinking feeling of dread as the charge level sank inexorably toward zero. That has to change. Charging should be free and easy—and the public should no longer tolerate the argument that the industry is building a network at roughly the same pace as EV adoption. If people have experiences similar to my own, the Mustang, as good as it is, may fall victim to a woefully unready world.

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