Ford is mortgaging its future on the value of its past

The new Mustang Mach-E.
The new Mustang Mach-E.
Image: Quartz/Mike Murphy
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Some 55 years have passed since the first Mustang debuted. Today, the Ford Motor Company unveiled a risky new iteration: An electric SUV crossover that evokes picking up the kids at soccer as much as it does The Fast and the Furious.

The full force of the American car maker’s storied history was on show for the launch event, which was held in downtown Los Angeles just ahead of the city’s auto show. Actor Idris Elba, who once worked in a Ford factory in London alongside his father, and Bill Ford, the great-grandson of the company’s founder, were both on hand. So was the press, influencers, Ford employees, and dealership owners.

The new vehicle, the Mustang Mach-E, will go on sale in about a year. It will start at about $43,000 and have a range of about 300 miles on a single charge. It’s a price that clearly takes aim at Tesla’s entry-level Model 3 and forthcoming Model Y. Many of the new Mustang’s design flourishes, too, seem to reflect the design language of Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Ford has done away with fidgety knobs and dials on the interior, replacing them with large touchscreens, much like Tesla’s (barring a single tactile dial at the bottom of the center dashboard). Even the shape of the car, from a distance, could be mistaken for a Model 3.

It’s not surprising that Detroit would look to Tesla when designing an electric car. Tesla has done more to spur growth in electric vehicles than any other single car company. Musk even congratulated and welcomed Ford’s entrance into the high-end electric market, suggesting it will hopefully inspire other automakers to follow suit. By leaning on Tesla’s success, but making it accessible to anyone who’s driven a Ford Fiesta, F-150, or Fusion, the company hopes to bridge the past and the present as it shifts from being a car company to something more grandiose.

Mustangs at the launch event
The Mach-E was brought in, supported by its more traditional Mustang brethren.
Image: Quartz/Mike Murphy

To get there it’s leveraging one of the most popular names in automotive history to sell a crossover SUV that looks far more suited to a grocery store run than a racetrack. It’s less muscle car, and more clean-eating-and-regular-yoga car. Ford said the new Mustang GT model will be able to go from 0 to 60 mph in around 3.5 seconds. But in a test of the regular model at the event, which can hit 60 mph in about 5 seconds, our driver failed to reach anywhere close to that speed. (Perhaps that’s something that’s still being worked out before the car goes into production.)

Mustang Mach E interior
The spartan interior.
Image: Quartz/Mike Murphy

Ford is leaning on its history—coincidentally releasing the new Mustang after the film Ford v. Ferrari debuted to strong reviews—to sell its modern car. But is that going to be enough to convince prospective Tesla buyers to drop their preorders and wait for this instead? Is it going to be cool enough to swap a truck or a full SUV for a Mustang crossover? And would you want to spend $45,000 to have some annoying group of people tell you that you’re not driving a real Mustang every time you leave the house?

Ford made a conscious decision to release its first crossover vehicle under the Mustang name, rather than anything else. It’s likely presuming that this car won’t sell in high numbers, much like the Mustang itself, and aspects of the design will eventually trickle down into other electric models it produces in the future. The company is setting a tone that it now has to live up to, and by calling it a Mustang, it’s under a far higher level of scrutiny than it would’ve been otherwise.

The first time I drove a Chevrolet Bolt, the company’s first all-electric car, I took it for a short test drive around CES in Las Vegas. After it was over, a representative turned to me and asked me what I thought and I said somewhat reflexively, “Well, it’s a Chevy!” They seemed disappointed in my response.

Ford is using a different strategy, choosing to elevate this vehicle with new design language, new controls, and a big marketing push. The world is going electric, but only time will tell if this is the Samsung Galaxy to Tesla’s iPhone, or if it’s more of a Blackberry.