The virtual development process of Ford’s Mustang-badged EV is going very well.
It’s very easy to see an electric car and get wrapped up in minutiae on its battery size, number of motors, charge rate, or even the electrical infrastructure that underpins the system. With respect to EV folks, this is overly complicated, especially when you consider just how special electric vehicles can be to drive.
Instant torque and blistering speed from the electric motors conspire with the (hopefully) low center of gravity from putting the batteries in the floor to create some compelling driver’s cars like the Porsche Taycan and upcoming Tesla Roadster. But despite these qualities, there are plenty of uninspiring EVs, with ho-hum dynamics and an emphasis on efficiency. Which will the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E be?
To find out, we did not drive the eagerly anticipated Mach-E. Instead, we ventured down to the heart of NASCAR country to experience Ford’s latest electric car and first Mustang-badged crossover on the same advanced driving simulator engineers use for development tuning.
Based at the 33,000-square-foot Ford Performance Technical Center in [Concord, North Carolina], this sim is where Ford engineers for both the consumer and racing sides of the business fiddle with the brand’s cars. The rig uses a carbon-fiber tub with a Shelby Mustang’s seats, steering wheel, and dash fitted to provide some familiarity for drivers.
That tub rides atop a pair of full-motion platforms, while multiple pieces of software covering everything from movement and visuals to audio, environment replication, and results analysis to accurately render how a vehicle will respond in the real world. Your iRacing setup has nothing on this arrangement.
Seemingly as proof of that, when we arrived a NASCAR driver was just finishing up a session. He was nearly matching his real-world lap times with a simulated version of his car. This was a good sign as it spoke to the true use case and realistic nature of these units.
Ford Racing engineers and race drivers were the first to use the rig for testing, development, and track familiarity. Now it’s common practice on Ford’s road cars. Both the Shelby GT350 and GT500 benefited from heavy sim development and that has led Ford to take the same approach with the Mach-E.
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The sim rig’s background in racing and in the development of Shelby models is further evidence that Ford wants the Mustang Mach-E to feel and drive like a proper Mustang, a perception the company has tried to reinforce since the car’s November 2019 debut. Based on our sim experience, which you can see in the video above, there seems to be plenty of Mustang in the Mach-E experience.
With Ford’s simulator supervisor, Louis Jamail, helping from the control room, we were able to request on-the-fly changes to the driving environment or the vehicle being tested (just as Ford engineers would in normal testing). Also along for the ride was Hether Fedullo, the vehicle dynamics supervisor for the Mach-E, who was able to talk us through the calibration process and the different settings.
Coming to terms with the sim was no easy experience, of course. Ford representatives warned us ahead of our drive that the sim has a way of making even experienced pilots queasy, suggesting that it takes several hours of seat time before your body comes to grips with the experience. All we’ll say is that the reps were 100 percent right about that.
On The Track
Our first impression of the sim, which put us on the track at Ford’s Dearborn, Michigan, Performance Development Center, was how realistic the suspension felt coming through to the cabin. The car moves around, soaks up small bumps, and jolts hard when you hit a sharp object like a curb, exactly as you would expect in the real world. After getting used to driving the simulator in a gas-powered Mustang, Jamail moved us into a pickup truck loaded to maximum capacity at the push of a button.
There was a drastic change to the driving behavior of the vehicle. We could feel the suspension squat under load and dive under braking, feeling the tension and sway in the corners. The vehicle reacted slowly, as you would expect from any loaded-down truck – just like in the real world, corners took some planning to bring the speed down.
Many SUVs have a tendency to understeer on corner entry for safety. The Mach-E remained controllable but was still very eager to turn.
Switching to the Mustang Mach-E, the first thing we noticed was the reactivity of the accelerator pedal. Punching the accelerator resulted in the usual instant and strong torque associated with performance EVs. More impressive, however, was the Mach-Es cornering ability.
We were flying into corners on the tight handling circuit, reaching and exceeding the grip of the tires, and the car remained neutral. Many SUVs have a tendency to understeer on corner entry for safety. The Mach-E remained controllable but was still very eager to turn. Leaning in on the front tire resulted in predictable and quick weight transfer to the outside of the car, allowing us to get on the power early exiting a corner and then using the outside rear tire to help drive the car forwards.
Drivetrain tuning, at least in the sim, was responsive and direct, and the Mach-E had a nice balance of front to rear power distribution. While we don’t know the exact power distribution of the system, we’re sure it’s dynamic; the car prioritized rear motor torque on corner exit to really work the rear axle for a little fun.
All that said, the sim didn’t simulate thermal derating, regenerative braking, or the behavior of the Mach-E’s ample safety suite, which will include Ford’s first hands-free driving aid. It was just us, the powertrain, and the chassis ripping through some virtual corners. With that in mind, drawing conclusions about a spin in an unfamiliar simulator with an unfinished car is a tricky business, but based on our experiences behind the wheel, there’s plenty of reason to be excited about how the Mach-E drives.
In The Real World
The Mach-E’s arrival is still several months off, so it’s entirely possible that the final product feels quite a bit different than the vehicle we drove. But it’s clear from our simulator experience that Ford is really pushing its engineers and technology to build a vehicle that’s worthy of the Mustang badge. We’re excited to get into the real world and see just how successful the Blue Oval has been.