Payne: Ford Mustang Mach-E goes toe-to-hoof with Tesla Model Y

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

A 1910-era Model T sits on a farm just off North Territorial Road outside Unadilla, Michigan. I pulled my battery-powered 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E alongside for a picture.

A century ago the Model T buried its electric-car competition with superior range and affordability — and revolutionized 20th-century transportation. At the dawn of the 21st century, the Mach-E SUV wants to bring EVs back from the dead.

To achieve its goal, the Mach-E not only must prove itself superior to more affordable gas-powered Ford sport-utilities — it also has to catch the Tesla Model Y. Silicon Valley’s EV king deliberately pays homage to the Ford Model T’s nomenclature as it seeks to revolutionize transportation.

Rather than beat electrics again with its gas-powered haymaker, Ford wants to be an EV maker. The ironies make your head spin.

Pulling back out onto twisty North Territorial, my path was blocked by a slower car. A brief passing zone appeared. I pounced. Zot! With instant electric torque, Mach-E was past.

Glorious. Just like a Model Y.

Yes, the Mustang Mach E is as good as a Tesla. And that’s a compliment. For the last decade Detroit automakers have tried to outsmart Elon Musk’s EV pioneer. GM made a $65,000 Cadillac ELR. Claiming superior hybrid plug-in technology to overcome range anxiety, the ELR was pummeled by the Tesla Model S.

Then along came the $40,000 Chevy Bolt EV hatchback. It claimed superior build quality over the similarly priced Tesla Model 3. It even beat Model 3 to market. Tesla stomped it in sales.

The 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E (left) tracks the Tesla Model Y spec-for-spec. 300-mile range battery, 15-inch center screen, AWD SUV, with a starting price in the high-$40,000s.

Ford has recognized that like BMW’s compact 3-series in luxury performance, you don’t beat the segment standard with different technology, you match it with another powerful brand. The Audi A4 and Mercedes C-class have thrived under that theory. They baseline to BMW, and the cars are strong sellers.

Acknowledging that the Model Y is a very good performance SUV, Ford has used it as the baseline for its own EV ute. And they badged the challenger with the automaker's most formidable brand: Mustang.

Tesla defined green luxury with face-flattening performance. Mustang — not Cadillac, not Chevy — is one of the few Detroit legacy brands that has immediate performance respect. And Mach-E (that badge itself conjures the ferocious, 1970s Mach 1 coupe) milks that legacy for all it's worth while going toe-to-hoof, spec-to-spec with the Model Y.

Rather than reinvent the electron, Mach-E is a Model Y doppelgänger.

Model Y has 300 miles of range? So does the Mach E. Model Y has a 15-inch screen. Mach E’s is 15.5 inches. Both have frunks. Remote app for Y? Same in E. Panoramic roof? Check. High-performance model? Check.

Audi stands out from BMW with all-wheel drive and a mega-grille. Mercedes has a superior interior. Having matched Model Y’s specs, the Mach-E aims to beat it by being less radical.

The "frunk" of the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E comes with storage dividers.

Tesla’s blank face makes the point that EVs don’t need grilles to cool radiators. But it’s a bit off-putting. Mach-E traces the outline of a familiar Mustang grille. The ute isn’t pretty (is any SUV?), but it’s got Papa ’Stang’s DNA.

The yuuuge center touchscreen is quick and easy-to-use. “Navigate to Unadilla General Store” I barked, and the screen filled with turn-by-turn directions. But Mach-E helpfully adds a second instrument display behind the steering wheel etched with essentials like navigation, range and speed. More traditional than radical Tesla, but some might find it more workable.

Familiar touchpoints abound. The Mach-E's mirror controls are on the door rather than in the screen like the Model Y. Cruise-control buttons are on the steering wheel. A giant knob controls radio volume. There's a good ol’ Ford rotary gear-selector.

To get to, say, Charlevoix from Ypsilanti, Michigan with 207 miles on the battery (300 is full charge), the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E Extended Range model will have to hopscotch between EV chargers. Ford offers a holistic plan that allows Mach-E owners to pay charging costs under one umbrella plan.

Hustling along East Territorial, I selected the Unbridled performance drive mode and the Mach-E started to growl like a ... well, Mustang. Grrrr. The piped-in sound can be muted, but it’s welcome pony brand reinforcement.

Ford hopes that familiarity will carry over into choosing a reliable, legacy automaker. After all, for every Tesla convert there’s a story about a rear bumper falling off. Or month-long waits for a mobile repair unit. Buy a Mustang EV and help is as close as the neighborhood Ford dealer.

But these traditional backstops are also a reminder the Mach E lacks some of the derring-do that has made Tesla stand out. Model Y’s Apple-simple dash, for example: Big screen aside, the Mach-E feels less luxurious with common dash contours and cloth trim inserts. Tesla has playful features like whoopie cushions and a crackling fireplace.

The 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E interior is dominated by a 15.5-inch screen that offers navigation as well as "pages" for different features like trip info, music, and Apple CarPlay connectivity. Familiar Ford features include a rotary shifter.

But most significantly, Tesla has the nation’s best fast-charging network. It’s the brand’s secret sauce, and it’s intimidating to contemplate trips without it.

Ford relies on third parties like Electrify America, EV-Go and Chargepoint. It’s bundled them like a cable service-provider under the FordPass app so you can pay with one account. But the patchwork of stations is a crazy quilt compared to Tesla’s uniform, multi-stall superchargers.

For example, I charted a path from Ypsilanti (where I picked up Mach-E) to Charlevoix with 207 miles of range left on the ’Stang. It would require a game of hopscotch to travel the 275 miles: The Mach-E charted course to three chargers at a Chevy dealership, Consumers Energy station and a Gaylord public charger. Total time to arrival: 6 hours, 42 minutes. E-gad.

By contrast, my Tesla Model 3 (a Model Y in sedan clothing) would need to stop twice at Tesla Superchargers. Total time of trip: 5 hours, 20 minutes.

Compared to the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E, the Tesla Model Y has a more Spartan interior with a single-screen and minimal dash lines. The torquey, AWD performance, however, is similar.

Mrs. Payne hates charging on long trips. She pointedly notes that her Subaru hatchback (no matter how much gas she has in the tank) could make the same trip in 4 hours and 40 minutes with one 10-minute gas fill-up along the way.

Such are the things that keep EV makers up at night.

Not to mention the competition in Ford’s own showroom like the peppy, $34,000 400-mile range Ford Escape Hybrid Sport — $15,000 cheaper than a comparable Mach-E before EV tax credits. But for those willing to brave the charging challenges (including the expense of installing a 240-volt charger to your home), the Mustang Mach-E is a torque-tastic treat.

Smooth power. Quiet cabin. No stop-start mechanisms at stoplights. Wrapped in sheet metal with clever design cues like button-handle doors and Mustang rear lights, the Mach-E fit this 6-foot-5 reviewer easily front and back.

Powered by electric motors, Mach-E doesn’t require the usual maintenance of oil and filters. But EV powertrains have their quirks and can interfere in AM-radio frequencies. The Model Y offers FM radio only. AM news junkies will be pleased to hear that Mach-E does offer AM/FM radio, along with Sirius XM, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (unlike Tesla).

On such attention to detail does the Mustang Mach-E makes its claim to a broader EV audience.

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E

Vehicle type: Rear- or all-wheel drive, four-door SUV

Price: $43,995, including $1,100 destination charge ($56,200 AWD, extended-range model as tested)

Powerplant: 68-88-kWh lithium-ion battery driving single or twin electric motors

Power: 266 horsepower (standard range, RWD or AWD), 290 horsepower (extended range RWD), 346 horsepower (extended range AWD); 317 pound-feet of torque (RWD), 428 pound-feet of torque (AWD)

Transmission: Single-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.8 seconds (mfr.); top speed, 14 mph

Weight: 4,394-4,890 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA est. range, 230 miles (standard range, 68-kWh battery), 300 miles (extended range, 88-kWh battery as tested) 

Report card

Highs: Techy interior; gobs of torque on demand

Lows: Busy dash materials; hopscotch charging network

Overall: 3 stars

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