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Los Angeles — Tesla CEO Elon Musk has long patterned his company after the Ford Motor Co. If the Model T introduced the 20th century to affordable personal transportation, then Tesla’s similarly named Model 3 is bringing electrification to the 21st.

So it’s only fitting that Ford is introducing a competitor against the Silicon Valley upstart.

The 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E electric SUV is Detroit’s most direct answer to Tesla’s pioneering Model 3 electric compact sedan and forthcoming 2021 Model Y crossover twin. By challenging the Model Y from footprint, to performance specs, to online ordering strategy, Ford is daring buyers to compare the two — and then assess whether the Tesla is a match for the Blue Oval’s superior dealer network and manufacturing quality.

The Mustang Mach-E is a testament to how Tesla has disrupted the auto industry. Once regarded as rolling roadblocks piloted by tree-huggers, EVs were reinvented by Tesla as the cool car on the block. With seatback-flattening acceleration, sleek looks and sci-fi technology, Tesla’s $70,000 Model S became one of the world’s most coveted performance sedans. The $40,000 Model 3 expanded the appeal.

Ford Chairman Bill Ford wants a piece of that action.

►MOREFord takes the wraps off the $45,000 Mustang Mach-E electric SUV

►MORE: 10 cool things about the Ford Mustang Mach-E

It’s fair to say this is personal – not just because Bill Ford wants his great-grandfather’s brand to remain relevant in a new century, but because he shares Tesla CEO Elon Musk's vision: that the planet is in crisis and EVs can help save it.

Approved by Chairman Ford himself, Ford’s new EV is adorned with the company’s most valuable performance badge, Mustang. Spending that name-equity on a battery-powered EV is an acknowledgement that it must have sex appeal.

The Mustang Mach-E closely follows the Tesla game plan.

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The Mach-E, which starts at $44,995 including destination fee, can be ordered immediately online with a $500 deposit. Similarly, the Tesla Model 3 could be reserved for $1,000 when it was introduced in 2016. The Model Y down payment is $2,500. 

Like those Teslas, the Mach-E’s simple dash will be dominated by a big touch-screen. Both the Mach-E and Model Y are rear-wheel drive biased for better handling —that's rare among SUVs, much less EVs. Both come with all-wheel drive variants and performance models. Both feature panoramic glass roofs.

And both have short- and long-range battery options of about 230 and 300 miles with pricing starting at $40,200 for a standard-range rear-drive Model Y and about $45,000 for a standard rear-drive Mach-E. The huge lithium-ion batteries are stored in the basements of their "skateboard" platforms, allowing for increased cabin space and “frunk” storage under the hood.

Their big-hipped, coupe-like silhouettes will be hard to distinguish, but they will differ dramatically coming and going: The Mach-E adopts Mustang’s pouty grille and tri-bar tail lights. Teslas once featured a faux plastic grille like the Mach-E, but abandoned it for a blank face to emphasize that its battery pack doesn’t require a grille.

And the Mach-E is keen to include features Tesla buyers have found wanting: Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, Sirius XM radio, an instrument display behind the steering wheel, and multiple wheel choices.

Most significantly, Ford hopes the Mach-E will benefit from Ford’s inherent advantages — primarily, its dealer network.

Tesla has tried to reinvent the dealership model with its own company stores. But it has run into roadblocks in states like Michigan where legislatures have enforced dealer-supported franchise laws. Ford will sell the Mach-E through its nationwide 3,020-dealer network. Where Tesla has struggled to service cars in states where sales are banned, Mach-E service will be as close as the nearest Ford dealer.

“We think this combination of digital (technology) plus our dealers' hands-on ... is a big advantage for us,” said Ted Cannis, Ford’s global chief of electrification.

Ford production is backed a century in the business. Tesla production has been plagued by bugs, and its Bay Area factory has struggled to keep up with popular demand.

But the Mexican-made Mach-E will face brand challenges of its own.

Ford has never used the Mustang badge to sell anything but gas-engine sport coupes. The company hopes to translate Mustang’s success as the world’s No. 1-selling sports car to a battery-powered sport utility.

Made-in-America Tesla has become synonymous with EVs much like Toyota’s Prius dominated hybrid sales. While automakers including Ford — with ill-fated badges like Ford C- Max and Fusion Hybrid — tried to replicate Toyota’s success, buyers just wanted the Prius.

Jaguar has tried to match Tesla’s top-of-the-line Model S by leveraging its own historied name to make a sleek electric SUV. The Jaguar i-Pace has received rave reviews from the automotive press, and the company has emphasized its robust dealer network and superior reliability. No matter. The Model S outsells the i-Pace 8-to-1.

Tesla's ace-in-the-hole has been a proprietary web of superchargers that no other automaker can match. Ford hopes to counter that with its FordPass Charging Network, which brings together America's patchwork of 12,500 non-Tesla stations under one recharging app.

The Mach-E and i-Pace represent refreshing attempts to create exciting performance-EVs instead of tired electric mules intended to meet government fuel-efficiency mandates. In fact, Ford has been unusually candid about its past government-compliance strategy (including initial drafts of the Mach-E program, intended to be more like a Ford Focus).

“The design team was invigorated after working on a compliance play for two years,” said Ford EV brand director Jason Castriota. “Mustang is our sexiest, most inspired product. Why Mustang? Because we own it – there can be only one Mustang.”

When the Tesla Model 3 debuted in 2016, thousands put down deposits to buy it. Ford hopes history repeats itself with the Mach-E.

2021 Ford Mustang Mach E

Vehicle type: Rear- or all-wheel drive, 5-passenger SUV

Price: Select $44,995, including $1,100 destination charge; Premium $51,700; First Edition $61,000; California Route 1 $53,500; GT $61,600

First model available: Standard-range RWD Premium, fall 2020

Power: 255 horsepower, 306-pound-feet torque (RWD standard-range battery); 255 horsepower, 417 pound-feet torque (AWD, standard-range battery); 282 horsepower, 306 pound-feet torque (RWD extended-range battery); 332 horsepower, 417 pound-feet torque (AWD extended-range); 459 horsepower, 612 pound-feet of torque (AWD GT) 

Transmission: Single-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph target, mid-5 to mid-6 seconds (RWD to AWD); mid-3 seconds (AWD GT)

Range: 210-300 miles

Rear cargo room (seats down): 59.6 cubic feet

Charging: Up to 150-kW with 400-volt system

2021 Tesla Model Y

Vehicle type: Rear- or all-wheel drive, 5- or 7-passenger SUV

Price: Base $40,020, including $1,020 destination charge

First model available: $48,000 long-range RWD, fall 2020

Powerplant: Lithium-ion battery pack (kWh NA) mated to electric motor(s)

Power: 283 horsepower, 307-pound-feet torque (RWD standard-and-long-range battery); 412 horsepower, 376 pound-feet torque (AWD, long-range battery); 473, 471 pound-feet torque (AWD Performance model)

Transmission: Single-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph est, 4.8-5.5 seconds (RWD to AWD long-range battery); 3.5 seconds (AWD Performance model)

Range: 230-325 miles

Rear cargo room (seats down): 66 cubic feet

Charging: Up to 150-kW with 400-volt system

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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