First drives: Ford and Porsche challenge Tesla with new EVs

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Los Angeles – Navigate California’s clotted highways and there is no doubt which electric brand reigns supreme. Teslas — particularly the compact Model 3 sedan — are ubiquitous.

But as the Los Angeles Auto Show opens this week, the Silicon Valley electric-vehicle maker is under assault as never before. Mustang and Porsche, two of the industry’s most formidable performance names, are debuting battery-powered cars that are Tesla's equal in speed and brand appeal.

First drives in both vehicles reveal that the hounds have caught up with the fox.

The 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E.

Beginning at $44,995, the 2021 Mustang Mach-E SUV takes on the heart of Tesla’s lineup: the $39,490 Model 3 and its forthcoming crossover clone, the $40,020 Model Y. At the luxury end of the electric market, the 2020 Porsche Taycan performance sedan, starting at about $106,000, wants to poach buyers who might have gone for a $79,990 Tesla Model S.

The 2020 Porsche Taycan.

The squeeze at both segments of the market is hardly coordinated, but the threat to Tesla’s manufacturing and capital infrastructure is real. Porsche and Ford are backed with deep resources that will allow them to keep improving and expand their offerings.

In a cheeky move, Ford gave journalists rides in the Mustang Mach-E on Friday at Los Angeles County's Hawthorne Airport, home of Tesla’s design studio.

Riding along in the back seat of a pre-production Mach E driven by race driver Kai Goddard (journalists will drive the Mustang in 2020), the all-wheel drive, big-battery version of the Mach-E launched from stoplights like a Model 3. Zot! Zero-60 comes in the mid 5-second range.

With the power unit over the rear wheels like the Teslas, the Mach-E puts down its 417 pound-feet of torque seamlessly compared to lesser front-wheel drive competitors from Nissan and Chevy. Around a slalom course, the Mach-E is not as nimble as the low-slung Model 3 sedan, but exhibits little body roll for an upright SUV.

The Mustang replicates the Tesla’s interior cool-factor with a big center-touchscreen and easy-to-use icons to negotiate EV staples like regenerative braking and Mach-E’s Unbridled driving mode – a close cousin of Tesla’s Insane and Ludicrous modes.

The creators of the the Mach-E are also acutely aware of what customers have found wanting in the Model 3.

Some Tesla drivers have pined for a head-up display. Voila! The Mach-E places a small instrument display behind the steering wheel with driving essentials like a speedometer.

Tesla has lagged in the infotainment game as it has tried to develop its own proprietary services. In contrast,  the Ford brings familiar industry options – AM/FM, Sirius XM – as well as consumer favorites like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

In short, the Mach-E matches Model 3 and Model Y innovation while maintaining popular traditions.

For Porsche, what is lacking in a Tesla is what's lacking in anything that is not a Porsche: more horsepower, more torque, more athleticism.

Despite a truck-like curb weight of 5,200 pounds (some 45% more than a Porsche Cayman coupe) the all-wheel drive $185,000 Taycan Turbo S sedan handled like a sports car on a 175-mile test drive through California’s challenging Angeles Crest curves.

Where other European premium brands have focused on Tesla’s interior and design amenities, Porsche girded for raw speed. The Taycan has accomplished the improbable by making an electric car handle like a Porsche.

The Taycan nearly matches the Tesla Model S P100D’s blistering acceleration with neck-straining, sub 3-second launch control starts. Through mountainous roller-coaster curves, Porsche uses all the tools in its toolbox — all-wheel steering, electronic limited-slip differentials, 12-inch-wide tires — to keep the electric beast planted.

So quick is the Porsche that it set an electric-car lap record around the famous 12.8-mile Nürburgring race track of 7 minutes, 42 seconds – a feat that got Elon Musk’s attention. Tesla has been testing at Nürburgring to take the record back.

Interestingly, both Ford and Porsche feel the need to pipe artificial sound into the cockpit to mimic a gas engine. The low growl is meant to satisfy customers who expect a roar from their legacy automakers, unlike electric-only Tesla.

The challenge of prying Californians away from their native Teslas will be greatest when it comes to charging. Tesla is a synonymous with its own supercharging network, whereas Ford and Porsche (and other automakers) are dependent on a patchwork of third-party charging stations – most prominently Electrify America, which aims to rival Tesla’s network over time.

Tesla’s visionary CEO Elon Musk is a cult-like figure that rival automakers can’t match. Like Steve Jobs, the late Apple founder, Musk’s product reveals are like rock concerts attended by the Tesla faithful.

Ford’s Mustang Mach-E launch here Sunday was a glitzy but familiar automaker product intro complete with an Idris Elba celebrity endorsement.

Even Musk weighed in with kudos, tweeting: "Congratulations on the Mach E! Sustainable/electric cars are the future!! Excited to see this announcement from Ford, as it will encourage other carmakers to go electric too."

It’s not the first time a Detroit automaker has had high hopes of dethroning Tesla. The Chevrolet Bolt debuted to much fanfare in 2016, armed with a fresh battery architecture and innovative interior. Like the Mach-E, the Bolt’s five-door hatchback style targeted the sweet spot of the U.S. market.

The Bolt's low center of gravity and instant torque make for thrilling bursts out of stoplights. Invading Tesla’s California backyard, the Bolt even won plaudits from West Coast celebrities like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak who traded his Model S for a Bolt.

The Bolt beat the Model 3 to market by a full year ... but has made barely a dent in the EV market, selling some 1,500 units a month compared to the Model 3’s 12,500.

The Mustang – like the Porsche – brings rear-wheel-drive performance moxie to the fight that other automakers have lacked. But can brands developed on growling gas engines translate in an electric space?

As more competitors from Audi to Volvo enter the premium EV space, the question will be whether they can become volume-sellers like Tesla – or just low-volume alternatives.

California sales will be the test of whether the tide turns.

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