Ford tweaks Tesla on Twitter as Detroit carmaker plans 'Mustang-inspired' all-electric SUV

Key Points
  • Ford quietly teased the prospect of an electric version of its iconic Mustang "Pony car" during Tesla's Model Y launch last week.
  • The timing was intentional, designed to hint at big things coming in its own electric car program.
  • President of Global Operations Joe Hinrichs told CNBC the company is moving quickly toward producing what it previously described as a "Mustang-inspired" all-electric SUV.
Ford tweets out an electrified look at its famed Mustang logo on March 14, 2019 while Tesla was hosting its Model Y launch.
Paul Eisenstein/CNBC

With all eyes trained on Tesla last Thursday awaiting its highly anticipated unveil of its Model Y crossover, Ford quietly teased the prospect of an electric version of its iconic Mustang "Pony car."

With its big V-8 engine and retro-tinged design, the Shelby GT500 is a throwback to another era, the most powerful muscle car Ford has ever produced, borrowing a name first introduced decades ago. But the Shelby is just one of several versions of the Mustang coupe that Ford is working on and the one the automaker teased on social media last week hints at a very different future.

"Hold your horses," Ford said in a tweet not so coincidentally released at 11:02 p.m. ET, minutes after Tesla's scheduled webcast unveiling of its newest entry, the Model Y battery-electric sport utility vehicle. The post, which featured a blue version of the classic Mustang logo on a black background, was a clear reference to a terse announcement Ford made 14 months earlier when — at the 2018 North American International Auto Show in Detroit — it said it was working on a project codenamed Mach 1.

Ford declined to comment on the tweet, but an executive who asked not to be named because the plans aren't public yet said they timed it with the Tesla launch to hint at big things coming in their own electric car program in the coming months.

Indeed it does have some big things in the works. President of Global Operations Joe Hinrichs told CNBC that the company is moving quickly toward producing what it previously described as a "Mustang-inspired" all-electric SUV that will be in showrooms next year, about the same time Tesla begins to deliver the first Model Y battery SUV.

Jim Farley, Ford Motor Company Executive Vice President and President of Global Markets, reveals the 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT 500 at the 2019 North American International Auto Show during Media preview days on January 14, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan.
Bill Pugliano | Getty Images

Ford was one of the first automakers to start electrifying its lineup, with a mix of hybrids, plug-ins and all-electric vehicles. But the original wave of battery-based models had mixed success. The plug-in and pure battery-electric vehicles, in particular, generated relatively modest demand, critics pointing to their limited range and designs that sacrificed cargo and passenger space to make room for their batteries.

The Mustang-based SUV will mark a major shift for Ford, the automaker migrating to the same sort of skateboard-like platform that Tesla, General Motors and several other manufacturers have adopted. This approach places the batteries, motors and other key drivetrain components below the load floor. That not only lowers a vehicle's center of gravity and enhances handling, but it means the engine compartment can be radically shrunk in size, increasing space for passengers and cargo.

The production version of the Mach 1 will be a crossover, rather than a coupe. The decision to go with a sport utility vehicle body, instead of another battery-powered sedan, such as the current Ford Focus Electric, reflects the broader shift in the market from sedans and coupes to SUVs and CUVs. Ford is by no means alone. The all-electric Jaguar I-Pace is one of the brand's three utility vehicles. The upcoming battery-electric Audi and Mercedes-Benz models will also be SUVs.

Critically, Ford's upcoming battery-electric vehicle, or BEV, will be its first long-range model. But the fact that it's being so closely linked to the Mustang reveals that the automaker will be putting as much emphasis on performance as it will on the vehicle's environmental benefits.

"Selling electrification on just fuel efficiency is not going to pay out when gas is going for $2.50 a gallon," Ford Executive Vice President Hau Thai-Tang said during a briefing at Detroit's Cobo Center convention facility last year.

While the first generation of battery cars tended to be slow and often ponderous when it comes to driving dynamics, manufacturers have begun putting more of a premium on performance. That's because electric motors, given enough current, produce gobs of instant, wheel-spinning torque. The Tesla Model S with optional Ludicrous Mode can hit 60 mph in a mere 2.3 seconds and the planned performance version of the Model Y will get there in just 3.5 seconds – about 40 percent faster than a similarly sized Porsche Macan SUV. Ford is widely expected to target similar numbers.

The Porsche Macan introduced at the New York International Car Show at the Javits Center on March 23, 2016 in New York, NY.
Ashlee Espinal | CNBC

After attempting to take an early lead in electrification, Ford is now something of an also-ran. But it hopes to make up for lost time.

"Electrification is a really important part of our future," Hinrichs told CNBC, and the automaker has announced plans to invest about $11 billion in battery-based propulsion. Part of that will go to the creation of a new engineering complex in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood that will also serve as headquarters for its autonomous vehicle efforts.

Ford has been vague about its long-term electrification plans, beyond saying that the Mach 1 project will just be the first of many BEVs. There's a wide disparity within the industry, each automaker carving out a unique strategy. Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, has said the cross-town rival is on a "path" to an all-electric future.

While Ford will offer all-electric versions of models as diverse as the Mach 1 and even its F-Series pickup, it plans to continue offering a mix of other powertrain options. That includes fuel-stingy turbocharged Ecoboost engines, ultra-high-performance engines in models like the Shelby GT500, and conventional and plug-in hybrids.

Ford's tease of its "Mach 1" first showed at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January 2018.
Paul Eisenstein/CNBC

The Mustang, in fact, will cover pretty much all those bases. A hybrid model is expected to debut about the same time as the Mach 1.

While that model could use the technology simply as a way to boost mileage, much as Ford has done with other models, company executives hint the Mustang Hybrid also will put a premium on performance. That's a path a number of automakers are taking, including high-line brands like Aston Martin which showed off a hybrid-supercar, the AM RB 003, at the Geneva Motor Show earlier this month. Ferrari is also developing high-performance hybrids and Daimler's Mercedes-AMG unit is moving in a similar direction.

"Getting the timing right" is one of the critical challenges for Ford as it prepares to launch its second-wave electrification strategy, said Hinrichs. So is coming up with the right sort of product, and Ford is betting that using the Mustang as its foundation will help it plug into the emerging market.

Correction: Joe Hinrichs is Ford's president of global operations. An earlier version misstated his title.