DETROIT – Tesla cars and SUVs are often compared with an iPhone on wheels. Tesla's four models — the S, 3, X and Y SUV — literally spell out the word "sexy."
High tech and sex appeal are not things most Fords are known for, but that's something the 117-year-old automaker hopes to change with the all-electric Mustang Mach-E crossover. It's the company's first EV under an $11.5 billion investment plan in electric vehicles through 2022, and it's Ford's first shot at Tesla.
"This was intended to be a tech-forward car," Darren Palmer, global director of battery electric vehicles at Ford, told CNBC at a press briefing. "It's nothing like anything we've ever had before."
The importance of this vehicle for Ford can't be overstated. Its success won't solely be defined by sales alone. Ford is trying to create some Tesla-type buzz and convince Wall Street that its EV plans are headed in the right direction.
"This is Ford's statement on EVs on where they are today and sets the tone of where they can go tomorrow," said Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst at IHS Markit. "This isn't their ultimate EV development because there's more coming, but where they put their foot down to begin with is important in setting them up for the future."
Ford has been slower than others like General Motors to fully commit to EVs. It's something Ford's new CEO Jim Farley has been very involved in as the automaker focuses efforts on electrifying its money-making commercial vehicles and versions of its most iconic brands, namely the F-150 and Mustang.
The Mustang Mach-E, which is hitting dealer showrooms now, is aimed squarely at the Tesla Model Y crossover — so much so that Ford unveiled the Mustang Mach-E next to Tesla's design center outside Los Angeles.
The vehicle has a Tesla-like interior with a large 15.5-inch center screen as its control center. Pricing, performance and technologies such as over-the-air updates and driver-assist technologies are comparable to the Tesla Model Y.
Palmer described the functionality of the Mach-E's infotainment system much like an iPhone, which can learn habits or owners and preemptively prioritize features. It also offers digital driver profiles like "Netflix where you've got profiles for each person of the family," he said. Owners also can program the car to precondition the cabin daily based on driving schedules.
Despite the Mustang Mach-E's similarities to the Model Y, Palmer said the target market isn't Tesla owners — a group famously loyal to their vehicles and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Ford is going after new EV buyers.
"The typical buyer is the 99% of people who don't buy EVs today. Our job at Ford, what we do, is bring cars to the majority. And so this one is to bring people into electric cars and show them what they can do," he said. Palmer added if the vehicle does attract current Tesla owners, that's fine as well.
About 65% of Mach-E preorder owners are new to Ford, according to Palmer. Many are from coastal areas of the country, where the Detroit automakers typically underperform.
Henry Payne, a Tesla Model 3 owner and auto critic at The Detroit News, believes the Mach-E may attract some Tesla buyers "who want something different" — specifically in California, where Teslas have become more prevalent than other areas of the U.S. He described the Mach-E, including its driver-mounted information screen, as a balance between a traditional cars and new Tesla models.
"They're clearly looking at customers and saying if a Tesla is too extreme for you with just one screen, we're going to give you an instrument display as well so the car's a little more familiar," he said. "They've made touches like that to make the car more familiar."
Pricing, performance and EV range for the Mach-E are comparable to the Model Y. Top performance models of the Mach-E will achieve 0-60 miles per hour in the mid-3-second range with an estimated 459 horsepower and 612 foot pounds of torque. That makes it faster off the line than a Porsche Macan Turbo and in line with the Mustang Shelby GT500 and Tesla Model Y. It has an EPS-estimated range of up to 300 miles.
Payne said although the Mach-E is "really good," he won't be trading in his Model 3 anytime soon. One major reason is Tesla's exclusive Supercharger network. Ford and other automakers are using chargers from third-party companies that they don't have as much control over regarding pricing and functionality.
One advantage Ford will continue to have over Tesla for the foreseeable future is an up to $7,500 federal tax credit for EV owners. Both Tesla and GM reached a cap that limits the tax credit to a company's first 200,000 EV buyers.
Starting pricing — excluding the federal tax incentives — ranges from about $44,000 for the base Select model to $60,500 for a performance GT, which is expected to go on sale in next summer. The Model Y starts at roughly $50,000 or $60,000 depending on the model.
Many were surprised by Ford using the Mustang name and its iconic galloping pony badge on a crossover. It marks the first time in the car's 56-year history that Ford has used the name on anything but a two-door pony car.
Aside from its badging and performance, the Mach-E includes Mustang design aspects such as a long hood, rear haunch, aggressive headlights, and trademark tri-bar tail lamps. The "grille" of the vehicle also is cut out to resemble the pony car.
"We had the performance icons team work with us in tuning, when we made the decision that this product is going to be full on Mustang," said Mark Kaufman, Ford's global director of electrification.
Before the decision to make it a Mustang, Ford was benchmarking the vehicle as a "compliance" EV, according to company officials. But that changed after former Ford CEO Jim Hackett took over the automaker in May 2017 and tapped Farley to lead the company's EV plans.
"Our idea was we didn't want to create a commodity product. We wanted to put emotion into electric vehicles," Farley said this month on CNBC's "Jay Leno's Garage." "That's why we started with a Mustang."