Let's Take A Deeper Look At The Design Of The 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E

The big news this week is, of course, Ford’s first mass-market battery electric car, the Mustang Mach-E, and their decision to call that car a Mustang. Whether you think the branding and styling of this electric crossover as a Mustang is a brilliant strategy or something close to a war crime doesn’t really matter, because it’s done. So let’s take a look at the the styling decisions Ford made, and try to get a sense of what we think of this new electro- “’Stang.”

I may as well address how I personally feel about Ford’s branding of this as a Mustang: I’m okay with it. That doesn’t mean I don’t think it wasn’t in some sense, a cynical marketing decision, and it doesn’t mean I actually think this has very much in common with Mustangs as we know them, but if you think about the Mustang identity as having grown into a sub-brand, it makes sense.

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I mean, it’s not like carmakers haven’t tacked visual styling cues from their more successful or iconic cars onto their other, unrelated cars before. Look at the Jeep FC series, for example.

These were an entirely different design from the original Jeep, but Willys decided they can just slap a whole Jeep face on it and boom, it’s a Jeep.

The Mach-E isn’t exactly the same, but it’s similar. Brands have always taken their best-known cars and tried to get their shine to rub off on other cars. Besides, it’s not like the Mustang brand is that pristine or sacred: there’s the Mustang II, of course, and the first-generation of Fox bodies in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s rejected almost all of the original styling cues.

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Today, though, Ford certainly is very aware of the value of the Mustang brand and by placing their new EV in that space, they’ve given it some heritage and identity without having to do the hard, time-consuming work of developing that from scratch. Fine, have at it.

By looking at the design of the Mach-E, I think we can determine what Ford appears to believe are the crucial elements of design that define a vehicle as a Mustang:

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I think these five elements are what Ford feels are required for Mustanghood, and I think these could potentially be applied to pretty much anything: cars, vans, truck, boats, whatever. I’m not saying it’ll always be successful, but it could be done.

Looking at these elements, I think one of the most interesting ones is the “grille” element, since this is the first time Ford is having to translate the grille design without the benefit of its fundamental functionality or purpose.

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The result I think basically works, though I do look forward to a time when our reliance on the visual presence of a grille can be overcome and new ideas forged for the faces of cars.

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Until then, I think the moustache-like upper border works reasonably well, but I much prefer the version with the radially-aligned vent-like pattern that’s inset into the bodywork (seen on the Select and California Route 1 versions) as opposed to the protruding ridge-like element used on some of the other variants.

The protruding one feels stuck-on, like an afterthought, while the one that appears to be a cutaway shape just gives the front end a more coherent look.

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I’m not crazy about the full fake grille of the GT, because conceptually these sorts of fake grilles just don’t feel right to me. I understand why they chose to do it, especially for the GT version, but I feel like we’ll look back on these with the same amused derision that we look back on the massive chrome bumpers or huge tailfins of cars of the 1950s.

One very interesting visual trick the Mach-E designers employed can be seen here:

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Notice how on the lower car, without the panorama roof, you can clearly see that there are two large black areas along the roofline that follow the arc of the roof all the way to the rear window?

That’s a visual cheat to let the Mach-E get more rear headroom while maintaining the dramatically-raked fastback roofline they wanted. You can see this most clearly in profile, and I’ve taken the liberty of recoloring the roof section with the body color in the lower image so you can see how much of the roofline it’s actually hiding:

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It’s not a colossal difference, but it does change the look of the profile of the car noticeably. The extra headroom is important, and I think this is a pretty clever design solution to getting that room while maintaining the look the designers wanted.

There’s a number of other interesting details as well that are worth addressing:

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The (mostly) hidden door handles are interesting, and appear to be integrated into the B and C pillars, with the front handle having a little door pull. Our own David will be doing an in-depth look at these handles, so for here I’ll just note that novel door handles seem to be almost a requirement for status-heavy EVs, and I’m not surprised to see Ford took a stab at their own variant here.

When the iconic three-bar taillights aren’t illuminated, they’re smoky gray instead of red, which is a choice I’ve always been conflicted about. We’ve seen it before—the last Saab 9-3 wagons used this design element, albeit more white—but part of me still is unsettled without some obvious red in rear lamps.

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I’m not yet ready to say I don’t like them, and it’s growing on me, but it may take some time. I’m of a similar mind about the front turn indicators—I’m not sure where they are, though I suspect the linear DRL in the upper section of the headlight unit turns orange when indicating a turn. I just like knowing ahead of time where to look for the indicator? Maybe that’s just nuts.

One element that I am sure I don’t like are the wheelarches, with their sort of double-arch/pillow emboss/body-colored-lip effect. It just looks fussy and overdone to me, and the lower spec versions that have the inner arc in black plastic instead of body-colored I think look much better.

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I’m also very pleased that the Mach-E has a front trunk. It’s not the first Mustang to have a frunk—the original Mustang I concept car had a mid-mounted V4, and also a front storage compartment mostly occupied by the spare tire, but that counts as a frunk, in my book.

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The presence of a frunk on EVs suggests to me that a lot of care was taken in the packaging stage to maximize usable volume, and I appreciate that. Also, the inclusion of a drain is a brilliant idea, and I’m sure these will be soon filled with ice and beer, or perhaps piping-hot chowder, or, in a pinch, used as a camp toilet.

Overall, I think it’s a pretty handsome design, regardless of its Mustang-ness. The underfloor battery housing means that a certain amount of tallness is to be expected, and I think Ford’s designers managed it well, arguably better than Tesla did with their upcoming Model Y or the existing Model X.

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I’m not sure how much the question of “is it really a Mustang” matters; if we think of Mustangs as a broader family of vehicles with certain design cues, certain specific attitudes and concepts, and a baseline of performance abilities, then, sure, the Mach-E can be part of the Mustang family.

Besides, it doesn’t even have Ford badges on it, just that horse. I guess if you really can’t deal with it being a Mustang, you can just buy one and re-badge it as a Probe, since that’s what Ford did last time people freaked out about something they weren’t used to being a Mustang.

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About the author

Jason Torchinsky

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus • Not-so-running: 1973 Reliant Scimitar, 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!)