Ford pins electric future on new Mustang Mach-E

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Fifty-five years after Ford Motor Co. introduced the first-ever Mustang, the automaker plans to again leverage that nameplate to propel itself into the future — but this pony car will be an electric SUV.

Officially named the Mustang Mach-E, Ford's first-ever fully electric SUV debuts in Los Angeles on Sunday night nearly two years after the Dearborn automaker first teased the "new all-electric performance SUV" at the 2018 Detroit auto show. The vehicle is expected to be a four-door crossover that borrows design cues from Ford's most iconic model.

Ford Motor Co.'s Mustang Mach-E SUV, targeting a 300-mile range, is set to launch in 2020.

But more importantly, experts say, the Mach-E marks a critical inflection point for Ford. Since the senior leadership team was shaken up two-and-a-half years ago, CEO Jim Hackett and his lieutenants have offered investors and analysts little evidence the automaker is ready to brave an uncertain future.

"This is the most significant vehicle of the Jim Hackett regime," said Karl Brauer, an auto analyst with Kelley Blue Book. "It's all-new. It's supposed to represent the future of the company. It is leveraging the most powerful brand name in the history of the company. It's carrying a lot of firsts and a lot of forward-thinking on its shoulders. And a lot of that can be laid right at the feet of Jim Hackett."

Hackett and other company officials have said for two years the Mustang Mach-E would be the first new vehicle launched under his tenure that was directly influenced by the CEO, his vision and the new practices he's instilled at Ford. 

Ford has launched several new or updated vehicles since Hackett was appointed to the front office by Executive Chairman Bill Ford and the Board of Directors to be a "change agent" bent on preparing the automaker for a future of new technology and electric vehicles. But the vehicles to date have been holdovers from the prior leadership team.

And after a fumbled launch of the all-new Explorer, one of Ford's profit pillars, Hackett and his team need the Mach-E to live up to the hype and execute a flawless product launch when they start building the vehicle in Mexico early next year.

"This vehicle shows that under this leadership team, they have figured out a clearer vision for where they want Ford products to go," said Sam Abuelsamid, industry analyst with Ann Arbor-based Navigant Research. "They have to knock it out of the park on execution. No screw-ups."

A new push

The Mustang Mach-E is the first product to be overseen by Hackett from start — or restart — to finish. Within weeks of being appointed CEO in summer 2017, Hackett and Jim Farley, then president of global markets, decided to pivot plans for the electric vehicle: Instead of building an electric vehicle to help Ford meet emissions standards around the globe, it would develop a performance-oriented electric vehicle and still meet its 2020 launch deadline.

Hackett drafted Ted Cannis, global director of electrification, to assemble Team Edison, the anchor of Ford's budding Corktown campus, to remake Ford's electric vehicle plans into what would become the Mustang Mach-E. 

The vehicle would be the cornerstone of a new push into electrification, and Ford would push further there than it ever had before — because it had to. Global automakers expect electric vehicles over the next few decades to become more capable, viable stalwarts in lineups. Ford alone plans to invest $11 billion and bring 40 new electric products to market by the early 2020s — and it needs to set its vehicles apart from competitors.

"It's critical," said Mark Kaufman, Ford global director of electric vehicle marketing. "This product is our first proof-point out the door. This sets the tone for what we're capable of delivering. This sets the tone for what to expect from Ford going forward."

The Mach-E stands to deliver a premier electrified product that could propel the automaker into the next generation of the automotive industry, experts said. It also stands to establish a product and a new electrified trend at Ford that meshes with the green vision for Ford that its executive chairman has been preaching for most of the last decade.

"I'm really excited about the Mach-E," Bill Ford told employees gathered to celebrate his 40th anniversary with Ford in mid-October. "If that could sort of be the exclamation point on my career, that would be awesome."

Ford officials have said they plan to lean on the performance expectations and equity built into the Mustang brand to sell the new electric SUV as a powerful and innovative machine that doesn't skimp on capability. 

The automaker has promised a nearly 300-mile range for the Mach-E. It's also expected to be blisteringly fast and packed with new technology. The Mustang nameplate is aimed at establishing the vehicle as something other than the mostly uninspiring compact electric vehicles that currently dominate the marketplace.

"Mustang is probably the most powerful and passionate brand name within Ford's 116-year history," said Brauer. "The leverage that energy on an electric vehicle will kind of be unprecedented."

But that also leaves the automaker open to criticism. Namely, that it's risking one of its two most powerful, most enduring brands — F-Series pickups and the Mustang — to satisfy regulators more than paying customers.

"Mustang enthusiasts are going to be howling," said Abuelsamid. "They've going to hate this. But Ford isn't killing the classic Mustang. The Mustang that people have been buying for 50 years is going to live on, and this will be adding to that. It does run the risk of diluting the brand, and that's where it's going to come down to the execution."

Watershed moment

Ford plans to open online reservations for the Mustang Mach-E at 9:30 p.m. Sunday, which will allow customers to make a $500 refundable deposit. They will hit U.S. showrooms in late 2020 and will also be sold in Canada, Europe and China.

The pre-orders will allow Ford to gauge interest. Electric vehicles still aren't strong sellers for most automakers. Analysts argue that Tesla, often credited with shattering performance and design expectations for electric vehicles, lacks on dependability.

Ford has been criticized by investors and industry experts in years past for a lack of investment in electric vehicles, despite the fact that the automaker sold an all-electric Focus compact from 2011 to 2018. The automaker sold 1,964 of those in 2014, its peak sales year for that model. General Motors Co. has the Bolt electric vehicle which, though not a strong seller, served as evidence that the automaker and CEO Mary Barra are preparing for the future because it was built on a dedicated electric platform.

Ford has a chance to set a new precedent with the Mach-E, say Abuelsamid and others, both for the company and the segment. It's moving to position the Mach-E among "first movers" in the electric vehicle segment, which are typically thought of as more affluent, often younger customers who want to be the first to experience the newest technology.

And introducing the Mach-E in 2020 could put the vehicle, and the brand, at the cusp of a watershed moment for electrified vehicles.

"Aside from Tesla, especially in the U.S, nobody's really had success selling EVs in any significant volume," Abuelsamid said. "If they get this right and they follow it up with a bunch of other products in the next couple years, it’s going to be hitting the market as EV demand is starting to grow."

The timing mirrors that of the first Mustang. The affordable sports car became an instant icon in 1964 for an automaker trying to re-establish itself with a younger, more hip crowd.

"Coming out with a new product too early is just as bad as being too late," one-time Ford President Lee Iacocca wrote in "Iacocca: An Autobiography," explaining the creative process that enabled inception of the first Mustang in the 1960s.

"The normal procedure in Detroit was to build a car and then try to identify its buyers. But we were in a position to move in the opposite direction — and tailor a new product for a hungry new market."

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau