Ford Is Right to Brand Its Electric Crossover A Mustang

Let me acknowledge that calling an electric crossover a Mustang, officially Mustang Mach-E, is Ford seeming to drop a huge steaming pony poop in the lap of their most enthusiastic fans. An EV (and a crossover at that!) has no mechanical connection to the long-loved internal combustion muscle car. Ford is saying: “We will use the name you have cherished for more than half a century on a product that to you is anathema to all you hold automotively dear.”

To some it is a blatantly cynical piece of marketing as if Ford could not have trolled harder if they tried (that was my first reaction). Except that wasn’t Ford’s intention. I’m pretty sure the naming is sincere as well as accurate, but more on that later. Ford is willing to risk torching the legacy of its most celebrated model brand because cars are going electric. In twenty years give or take it won’t matter what we combustion engine diehards think. Climate change and rapid improvement in battery efficiency will force EV adoption. Ford may have only two major product cycles to get EVs right or they will be gone. The product will be the most important thing but if leveraging the beloved Mustang name can help, Ford has decided to do it, risk to the pony brand be damned.

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Slowly, car makers not named Tesla are learning what buyers of EVs want and Ford’s marketers showed this week that they get it. Whether the product developers get it is yet to be seen. I had a wide ranging conversation with a friend who is a financial advisor to companies in the auto industry. He’s not exactly an enthusiast. He doesn’t quite understand guys like me who insist on manual transmissions and naturally aspirated engines. It isn’t important for his job that he understand guys like me since my tastes represent a negligible part of the market. We briefly argued over whether the Mustang GT is turbocharged. (It is not.) Just the same, he knows a ton more about the industry, even if I know a bit about a few cars. Given the knowledge difference, I decided to let him talk while I mostly listened. I brought up electrification. (He had a lot to say that I might share another day.) I had the unoriginal insight that Tesla got some things right that none of the carmakers understood before. EVs could be fast. EVs could be aspirational.

All the hybrids and EV experiments from major car companies before Tesla had been about efficiency, economy, saving the planet, or just doing alternate energy stuff to keep legislators off their backs with token projects to feign that they cared about saving the planet. Almost a decade after Tesla’s introduction of its Roadster and a few decades after GM’s failed EV1 project, America’s largest automaker still didn’t get it. The Bolt may or may not be a decent car (I’m agnostic not having driven one), but it is a sales failure and I think that’s down to it being designed for utility. Raphael Orlove, got it right on the Bolt vs the Mustang Mach-E, This Could Have Been You GM. Based on price a Bolt can be crossed shopped with entry level cars from BMW and Mercedes. Or if you prefer a more direct comparison based on shape, then put the Bolt against a well optioned semi-luxury hatch like the Golf GTI. GM styled the Bolt to maximize interior space like an entry level hatchback, hence it looks just like the Honda Fit, which is to say the Bolt looks cheap. That shape may work well for Honda’s least expensive new vehicle in the US, but it is not going to work for many buyers at $30k out the door. Yowza, a quick check on Autotrader and the 2019 Bolts are listed at $28.9k with an MSRP of $44k!

My friend said something I thought was insightful about Tesla buyers: It is a sports car for people who don’t want to show they want a sports car. I would tweak that a little and say Teslas are cars for people who want sports cars, won’t admit it and don’t know what a sports car is—which should be light, handle well and above all be engaging all around, not just with the gas pedal or throttle pedal or whatever it’s called on a Tesla since it has no gas or throttle. Sports car is not only or in some cases even about 0-60 mph. Whether you agree with my assessment of the dynamic properties of Teslas or whether you like my definition of sports car, Tesla has built a brand on aspiration and sportiness—and they’ve succeeded (or at least convinced financiers they will succeed). GM has not yet. Ford may be on the brink.

Teslas are certainly fast. My dad gave me the honor of having the first drive off the lot in his new P85D. I floored it onto the highway and my dad banged his head on the headrest and nearly passed out. Internal combustion engines don’t have the throttle response or torque of a Tesla.

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So imagine you’re a marketer at Ford and you’ve learned from Tesla that your EV brand must stand for aspiration and sport. You could try to build a brand from scratch but that’s hard, especially today. The media landscape is so fragmented you’d have to spend gazillions on ads to do that (you’re going to spend gazillions anyway) but there are only so many football games on Saturday and Sunday and only so many breaks in the action to showcase automobiles, razor blades, and ED pills. EVs are hard enough to sell, despite the hype and predictions, they are still 1% of new car sales. (Tesla the manufacturer, as opposed to the market capitalization, is tiny, selling just about one quarter of million cars in 2018. Ford sold ten times as many vehicles just the in US. Today, the stock market values Ford around half of Tesla). So you look at your brand portfolio. One Twitter commenter said Ford should name the EV a Coronet since its closer to these crossovers. Another said Falcon. I’m not young; I’m 45 years old with a strong interest in performance cars and I’ve heard the Coronet and Falcon names a couple times and have no idea what either is. To the Coronet brand fans, OK Boomer! Your goal as marketer is sales, not some ethereal tether across time to the old car most like the new one. Ask Porsche how well the 718 name is working for their four cylinder Boxsters and Caymans. Admittedly the problem is the engine not the name... I digress. Another tweeter suggested Fusion, at least its something Ford still makes(!), because of connotations of power generation. Unlike the Coronet, Fusion is a known brand at least a little today but it is hardly aspirational. Matt Farah suggests Lincoln Mark-E. I think he is being facetious but people are saying stuff like this seriously. The Mark may be closer to the spirit of the new EV crossovers (I’m vague on what is a Mark), but neither Lincoln nor Mark are things car buyers have cared about for decades. If new brand building is hard, resurrecting a crap one is harder. Those of us old enough may remember the ad campaign, “This is NOT your father’s Oldsmobile.” If you haven’t heard of Oldsmobile that shows you know exactly how well that worked. Lincoln sales represent less that 5% of Ford’s vehicles made per year. I’d be shocked if Ford’s consumer focus groups show any affinity to the brand from anyone under 65, and even among AARP card carriers the brand is probably staid.

Back to our Ford marketing honcho. The F-Series trucks are your bread and butter with over 900k vehicles sold every year in the US but it’s a brand tied trucks and is the golden goose and it doesn’t fit and you don’t risk it. “But what about Mustang? Isn’t Ford risking that?” Yes, the are. So what? The Mustang has loyal fans. The car magazines feature it ad nauseum against the Camaro. There are countless videos on Youtube. If you were lucky to take a vacation to some warm spot Mustang rental cars seemed ubiquitous. And yet, Ford sells about 125,000 units per year. Today that’s great for a sporty car but only enough to be even with moribund Lincoln and just a bit more than the number of trucks Ford sells in a month, to say nothing of the various full-size SUVs and crossovers that are where the non-truck market is at.

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To summarize, Mustang stands for the things that Ford needs it EVs to stand for. It needs existentially for EVs to be a success. And last, offending current Mustang owners isn’t that big of a deal because there just aren’t that many relative to the size of the auto market. It’s not the ‘60s or even ‘70s anymore.

Ten years ago, Tesla put batteries in a Lotus Elise chassis and made the pure EV Roadster. It may not have had great dynamics but it could nearly beat an Elise at autocross. The holy trinity of La Ferrari, McLaren P1, and Porsche 918 proved sports cars could be hybrids. The BWM i8 and Acura NSX followed the same formula though to mixed reviews. The Corvette C8 has plenty of room for batteries in its front trunk, at some point a hybrid is possible while a manual may not be. The Porsche 911 may have a pure EV variant coming. Reviews of the Taycan are not out yet but all indications say its gonna be fast. The combination of improved fuel economy and low end torque will make at least partial (hybrid) electrification irresistible for the Mustang. And while we are discussing the inevitable march of progress, Mustangs have embraced supercharging for its high end models and turbos for the low end models. The purity of the naturally aspirated V8 went the way of the Coronet a long time even I don’t know when the Coronet went.

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Ok, you say, but this isn’t just about electrification. The Mach-E is a damned crossover, a thing the normies love just so they can sit higher and a higher center of gravity ruins driving dynamics. This is true for internal combustion cars, but a crossover EV like the Tesla Model X with its light motors and heavy batteries in the floor has a lower center of gravity than many sports cars. I believe I heard a reviewer say that driving a Model X felt like driving a Porsche Panamera while sitting on a phonebook. He was higher but it felt like a sedan.

Now here comes the part where I put on my flame suit. These new Mach-E may not share much mechanically with the legacy Mustang but the public will look at them similarly and the Mustang brand will carry weight with them. To some enthusiasts this may seem wrong but, in fact, Ford and the public are right.

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A few weeks ago friend said on Facebook that he wanted something sporty: Nothing real fast just a car that could go 0-60 under 5 seconds and carry the kids. He was thinking of something like Kia Stinger GT or Porsche Macan. It has taken me half century to learn that in certain situations I should hold my tongue. My car tastes make me a freak. If it’s got no stick, don’t care. Normals cannot understand why anyone would daily drive a Honda almost 20 years old unless they had to. I do so by choice. First, under 5 to 60 is fast—to me at least. That was an E46 M3. Today its not that fast and to the public straight line speed is a crucial ingredient for their recipe for sports car. For me, a sports car is about being nimble before having a fast 0-60. The Stinger and Macan are too big for my definition of sport. Also for me, having engagement with the transmission, preferably manual, but if not with a quick shifting dual clutch in distant second. Steering should feel accurate and engaging. These are the definitions of sportiness, to me anyway. So the public may not have a great understanding of what makes a sports car or maybe they just have a different definition but they aren’t wrong to believe that these new EVs will be like the Mustang or sporty in the ways the Mustang is. Ford knows how to make a sports car. The made some of the best sports cars of the last five years: Ford GT, Fiesta ST, Focus ST, and Focus RS. They know how to make a Mustang sporty and they hand it to a group which changes just about everything including engine, transmission, suspension, brakes, wheels, and tires. And they make lots of chassis changes too. Those Mustangs earn the Shelby brand.

The Mustangs from the GT on down have a lot more in common with these crossovers and Kia Stingers. Granted, the Mustangs look great which is another aspect of “sporty” to most of the public. They’re fast going straight and yet...the steering is uncommunicative and inaccurate. Here’s Jason Fenske of Engineering Explained showing a lag between turning the steering wheel and the wheels on the ground turning. When the current generation Mustang came out, I had seen a lot of reviews gushing about the new independent rear suspension. I remember seeing Mr. Fenske’s review in 2015 and feeling reassured that I wasn’t crazy. By the standards of sports cars, it sucks. (In the video he says it handles well despite the issues. I hope I don’t offend Mr. Fenske when I say he is polite. Here he does a comparison with a real sports car and again has some measured praise for the Mustang but makes clear his preference.)

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The lack of connectedness doesn’t stop with the steering. Most Mustangs are sold with slow shifting torque converter automatics. According to reviews the manual trans is a cheap Chinese thing with terrible shifter feel. The four cylinder makes good power and is thriftier on gas but has considerable turbo lag. The Coyote 5.0 V8 in the GT is brilliant. I’ll give it that. Its outshined by the Shelby’s high revving Voodoo but there may not be a better engine in a car that costs the as little as a Mustang GT. Chevy and Ford fans can debate.

I have not owned a Mustang but I’ve rented them at least a half a dozen times in coupe and convertible forms and with the 4-, 6-, and 8-cylinder engines. Top down they make for lovely cruisers. The seats are like La-Z-Boys and hopefully your rental is spec’d with heated and ventilated ones. I’m now spoiled. If you don’t like convertibles you probably haven’t driven one through through the Blue Ridge Parkway in the summer. The ‘Stang has a special place in my heart. My wife and I rented one when we went to Virginia to get married.

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They look stunning, best looking car on the market I think. I received more thumbs up and “nice car, man” in those four days than I have in any other car. I believe that was a four cylinder and it had some scoot despite its small displacement and near two-ton weight. What it did not have, emphatically, was any sense of sportiness in the curves. I have tried in vain to make Mustangs canyon carvers from the Blue Ridge mountains to the Big Island of Hawaii and points in between. Cinderella’s carriage turns to a pumpkin at midnight. At the sight of a turn, the pony turns into to a pig.

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As I said above Ford knows how to make sports cars and they know how to make Mustangs into sports cars. They choose not to. For the same price they could make a Camaro if they wanted but they don’t. They could give the GT the good Tremec transmission that’s in the Camaro SS. It is a choice and they know what they are doing. They put styling and engines and comfort above sport and feel and they are outselling Chevy year in and year out despite having the older platform.

The Mustang Mach-E will be comfortable, straightline fast and they look, for crossovers, pretty great. The Mustang is Ford’s best design language and they translated it well. It will take some getting used to but pictures of the Mach-E look like the work of designer Rain Prisk, who delightfully turns your favorite sports cars in shooting brakes and and rally cars.

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To angry Mustang fans I say a few things. This is like when Porsche introduced the Cayenne, upsetting 911 fans. Admittedly the analogy is a little off, Porsche didn’t call the new SUV a 911 Mach-E. Then again, the current Mustang is going to drive a lot more like the Mach-E than the 911 did like the Cayenne. Just the same, by any name the 911 went on, even if it was cooled by water. For at least a decade or longer, Ford will continue to make internal combustion Mustangs.

Also to the Mustang fans I say, take solace. Even if the honchos in Detroit don’t care much about internal combustion Mustangs, there are hundreds of people at Ford developing Mustangs and they care a lot. Be grateful especially for the team making the Shelby’s. And be grateful that Mustangs as you know it is still in production. Imagine being an S2000 fan which lived one glorious generation, never to return. Today Honda could be mid-cycle through the third generation S2000 and if they want to call electric crossovers S2000's so that I could still get an improved roadster, then that’s a trade I would make right now. The Mustang Mach-E name might be crass. It might dilute the brand. Or it might be right on the money. At least the Mustang is going strong enough to be exploited.

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Personally I don’t care if Ford discontinues the internal combustion Mustang as long they still make a convertible I can rent.

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