Ford's electric Mustang is just the beginning for high-performance battery vehicles

“If you wanted to be green you had to give up performance, and if you wanted to be fast you had to give up being green. That doesn’t have to happen anymore,” said Ford Chairman Bill Ford Jr.
Image: Ford reveals the Mustang Mach-E, the brand's first mass-market electric car, in Hawthorne, Calif., on Nov. 17, 2019.
Ford reveals the Mustang Mach-E, the brand's first mass-market electric car, in Hawthorne, Calif., on Nov. 17, 2019.Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images

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By Paul A. Eisenstein

The Mustang Mach-E electric SUV that made a splashy debut on Sunday night is one of a broad range of new “electrified” vehicles that Ford will roll out as part of a program that will see it invest $11.5 billion through 2022. Going forward, virtually every Ford product will be offered with some form of electrified option, each tuned to the specific needs of that vehicle’s buyers.

In the past, “If you wanted to be green you had to give up performance, and if you wanted to be fast you had to give up being green,” Ford Chairman Bill Ford Jr. said at the Mach-E debut. “That doesn’t have to happen anymore.”

Ford was an early pioneer of electric propulsion. But its original mix of hybrids, plug-ins and pure battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs, primarily focused on boosting mileage — and meeting increasingly stringent government mandates — at the expense of what could be called the “fun-to-drive” factor. The Mach-E, on the other hand, can sprint to 60 in as little as 3.5 seconds while still yielding up to 300 miles range.

When Ford launched development of an all-electric vehicle, it originally expected to build just another “compliance car” designed to meet the demanding zero-emission vehicle, or ZEV, rules put in place by the California Air Resources Board. But several things started to shift thinking inside Detroit’s second-largest automaker.

First, it saw how buyers flocked to Tesla for sporty — and long-range — products like the Models S, X and 3. It also helped that the underlying battery technology was improving rapidly, with battery prices falling over 80 percent since 2010, even as lithium-ion cells became smaller and more powerful.

The third critical factor was the management shake-up that saw Jim Hackett become Ford CEO. Hackett was already serving on the Ford board, where he had become a major proponent of electrified vehicles.

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As CEO, Hackett not only ordered a sharp increase in spending but also ordered Ford’s product development team to tear up the original electric SUV plan and start almost from scratch. Ford’s new strategy is apparent in the Mach-E.

“Ford has taken a lot of heat for being behind on EVs, but the Mach-E could be just the thing the company needs to quiet the naysayers,” said Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst with Edmunds.

Unlike some key rivals, notably General Motors and Volkswagen, which are focusing almost exclusively on BEVs going forward, Ford will offer a mix of conventional hybrids, plug-ins and BEVs. Not everyone is ready — or able — to go pure electric, Ted Cannis, the automaker’s global head of electrification, told NBC News.

“This way we can help more people get there…by having a broader portfolio of solutions,” he said. At the same time, “It’s important that (future products) aren’t compliance-car fuel-sippers,” Cannis stressed, promising that upcoming models will offer “a lot of excitement.”

The recently launched Lincoln Aviator PHEV is a case in point. Earlier hybrids from the luxury brand were designed to deliver better mileage, even at the cost of performance. Not so the Aviator, whose “base” 3.0-liter Twin-Turbo V-6 makes 400 horsepower and 415 pound-feet of torque. The plug-in hybrid pumps that up to 494 horsepower and 630 lb-ft — while yielding about 20 miles of all-electric driving range and better mileage than the base engine.

Ford also will start rolling out more all-electric models, including a BEV version of the F-150 due out around 2022. One of the advantages of electric motors is that they can generate massive amounts of stump-pulling torque, another potential plus for commercial pickup buyers. Along with the F-150, American motorists will see at least one more all-electric SUV in the near term.

And other BEV programs are in the conceptual stage — including a version of the classic Mustang coupe — though the company may opt for one of several hybrid alternatives that could improve fuel efficiency even while boosting the performance Mustang has long been known for.

Even with $11.5 billion, having so many irons in the fire simultaneously would be a stretch, so Ford has formed a variety of partnerships. Two BEVs it is building for the European market will use the same all-electric platform Volkswagen has developed for dozens of its own battery-cars, after the two companies formed an EV alliance earlier this year. Ford also has invested $500 million in Detroit-based battery-carmaker Rivian, and will use its new platform for the new SUV and possibly other products.

A Mustang coupe prototype, unveiled earlier this month at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas, was developed by a key Ford supplier, Webasto. It has been described as a “test bed” for future EV programs.

“We can’t do everything alone — and we won’t,” Bill Ford told NBC News. By teaming up, he explained, Ford will have access to more — and more varied — electric drive alternatives while benefiting from greater economies of scale that could overcome another roadblock, helping drive costs down to where battery-cars can compete in the mainstream automotive market.