Back Story: How a ‘Compliance Car’ Turned into the Mach-E

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As the media preview wraps up and the public days at the 2019 Los Angeles Auto Show are set to begin, no new product is generating near the buzz of the Ford Mustang Mach-E.

Set to charge into showrooms next autumn, the long-range, all-electric SUV could become the first challenger to give Tesla a run for the money in the emerging battery-car market. But it might not have gone that way, certainly not if Ford had followed its original plans. Considering how slowly battery technology has been catching on with consumers, the Detroit automaker originally planned to roll out an innocuous and admittedly boring vehicle just to meet the zero-emissions mandates set by California.

“This could have been any other SUV,” one of the many “compliance cars” the industry has rolled out to satisfy California regulators, said Kumar Galhotra, president of Ford North America. “But we knew we had to do something to stand out.”

Ford tore up the original “compliance car” design and started almost from scratch. (Image: Ford)

That moment of reckoning didn’t come until almost three years into the project, following a May 2017 management shake-up that replaced CEO Mark Fields with Jim Hackett, a proponent of autonomous and electrified vehicles. Under Hackett, Ford laid out plans to invest more than $11 billion in “electrification” by 2022, including conventional and plug-in hybrids, as well as pure battery-electric vehicles. In the process, it became clear that the all-electric SUV it was developing had to have far broader appeal.

The shake-up led Ford to reorganize new mobility efforts, bringing them together as Team Edison, and relocating them to a new campus in the resurgent Corktown neighborhood of Detroit.

Ted Cannis, the global director of electrification, told Ride it became apparent “there are a lot of amazing things an electric vehicle can do,” among other things providing tremendous, instantaneous torque. At the same time, the decision was made to “build on an iconic nameplate.” So, despite some early, internal misgivings, the potential match with Mustang quickly became apparent.

But you couldn’t badge on the original car Ford had developed a Mustang, said chief designer Chris Walters. Team Edison had to go back to the drawing boards – or, more precisely, new design and engineering technologies needed to keep timing on track. Despite tearing up the original plans, Ford management still wanted the final product to debut by autumn 2019. A project normally requiring at least four years would have to be finished in half that time.

Bill Ford at the Michigan Central Station that, after its complete renovation, will become the heart of its new mobility campus in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. (Photo: Ford)

One thing carried over is the skateboard-like platform, with batteries and motors mounted below the load floor, but even this has undergone a major tear-up. The primary drive was shifted from front to rear axle, the front of the vehicle stretched 50 mm, the rear by 20 mm. That approach allowed for a bigger passenger compartment, a larger battery pack – and a more sporty design.

That, in itself, was a major challenge. Not only would Mach-E be all-electric but it would be an SUV. Designers had to come up with all sorts of tricks to retain the key visual attributes of a Mustang, including the flowing roofline. There, they opted for a sort of double roof to trick the eye while delivering great headroom, front and back.

Tesla had already shown that electric vehicles could be quick, but Team Edison also wanted Mach-E to be nimble. There, while the battery pack added plenty of weight, it also meant an extremely low center of gravity. Still, it has taken extensive work to get the suspension tuned just right – especially for the GT model that will adopt the same Magneride system – which uses a fast-responding magnetic fluid for its dampers – as on the new Shelby GT500.

One of the keys to the project was having “a very small team which allowed use to work fast, something Ford doesn’t do very often,” said Phil Mason, the project’s customer experience chief.

2017 Ford C-Max in WhiteEarlier Ford battery cars, such as this C-Max, failed to generate much interest due to issues like range, design and other challenges. (Photo: Ford)

But, as the Los Angeles Auto Show debut has demonstrated, it paid off.

Looking forward, Ford hopes to replicate what it has learned on the Mach-E program as its electrification efforts move forward.

In an exclusive interview, electrification chief Cannis told Ride that Ford’s approach to future battery-cars will be flexible. In some cases, it will turn to unique “architectures,” as was the case with Mach-E. In other instances, the automaker will design more flexible platforms, as will be the case with the upcoming version of its big F-150 pickup. It will be offered with a variety of drivetrain options, including gas, diesel, plug-in hybrid and all-electric.

“We will focus on our iconic nameplates,” said Cannis, rather than coming up with unique compliance cars, leveraging those in a bid to move electrification into the mainstream.

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