The souped-up Ford Mustang Mach-E makes driving EVs a lot more fun
I took the wheel of Ford's powerful electric Mustang. Here's how it went.
“This thing has changed my life,” professional drift racer Vaughn Gittin Jr. exclaims. He’s referring to when he drove the Ford Mustang Mach-E 1400 race car built by his Ready to Rock racing crew and Ford Motor Co during a private media demo. “The first time I drove it, I had to stop,” he tells PopSci. “It can’t be like this,” Gittin remembers thinking. “And I drive a 1,200-horsepower Mustang.”
He is right. The thing is so astonishing it seems unreal, especially for those of us who don’t drive 1,200-hp drift Mustangs as our day job. But, just as unbelievably, Ford and Gittin let me experience the insanity for myself.
One by one, electric vehicles are smashing stereotypes about electric vehicles. The Ford Mustang Mach-E 1400 was expressly designed to demolish the notion that driving an EV is boring, thanks to its seven 200-horsepower electric motors driving their combined 1,400-hp through all four wheels.
The Tesla Model S had already demonstrated that EVs are fast, with its ludicrous quarter-mile runs that are silent compared to the roar of Detroit muscle. But roaring is exciting, and the catapult-launch Tesla acceleration runs are kind of bloodless, which underscores a concern from car nuts that our shared EV future will be dull. Friends, I’m here to tell you, after driving the Mach-E 1400, that it doesn’t have to be.
[Related: This 1400-horsepower Mustang Mach-E foreshadows Ford’s electric car future]
While it might seem obvious that a 1,400-horsepower vehicle can be a handful to drive on the racetrack, some very high-powered EVs are remarkably unremarkable. Consider the posh 1,111-hp Lucid Air luxury sedan, for example. That car is blazing fast, but not thrilling. The Mustang Mach-E 1400, however, was built with the intent of unleashing mayhem. They succeeded.
A close look at the Mach-E 1400
Here’s what you need to know about the car: It was built from an actual production Mustang Mach-E body shell (“body-in-white” is the industry term) with steel tube framework added for strength and crash protection. For practicality, the car employs wheel hubs from the supercharged Mustang GT500 and off-the-shelf racing parts like Brembo brakes used on the Mustang GT4 racing car. The hub carriers at each wheel are machined from solid blocks of aluminum for maximum strength.
The Mach-E 1400 has adjustable pushrod suspension using Ohlins adjustable shock absorbers wrapped in coil springs for all four wheels that can be adjusted to suit the conditions and expected use. The thick anti-roll bars are adjustable by changing their attachment position to vary their leverage, which changes how much they affect the car’s handling.
These familiar-looking chassis components appealed to Vasser Sullivan Racing Lexus RC F GT3 crew member and social media racing tech commenter Bozi Tataravic, who accompanied me to the event for added technical insight. “The suspension design [is] very adaptable with a GT3/GT4-style suspension upright design that makes changes easy when making adjustments for road course use or to switch to drift configuration quickly,” he notes.
Additionally, Tataravic spots some clever details on the suspension upright hub carriers. “I like the fact that they machined multiple brake caliper mounting options onto the front upright to allow large swings in brake sizes for things like specialty drift configuration,” he observes.
The Mach-E 1400 packs a 56.8-kilowatt-hour 800-volt nickel-manganese-cobalt battery pack. The pack employs pouch-style cells from the Korean company, Kokam. Electrons from those batteries flow to seven YASA P400 R Series “pancake” style electric motors, which are designed with a through-shaft mounting system so that they can be stacked together in series to combine their power. The Mach-E uses three of the 3-inch thick motors to drive its front wheels and four more of them for the rear wheels.
[Related: Ford’s electric Mustang Mach-E is an important leap into the future]
These front and rear drivetrains operate independently of one another, each driving the wheels through a differential that is the same as Gittin uses on his combustion-powered drift cars. As with most EVs, the Mach-E 1400 has just one gear, but the differential ratios can be changed so that the car’s acceleration and top speed can be adjusted according to the specific demonstration mission of the day. There is no transmission with regular gears.
How the car drives
For my turn in the car, it was set up with the rear differential geared to produce a top speed of 130 mph, while the front one was geared for 150 mph. The goal isn’t to achieve these speeds on the tight infield road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but to give the car the feel of a rear-drive bias.
When Gittin is doing drift demonstrations, the team outfits the car with 90-mph gears front and rear, making it easier for him to spin the car’s tires for lurid wheelspin. I’m not looking for wheelspin, just a modicum of speed and excitement.
Any machine creating 1,400 horsepower, no matter whether it is combustion-powered or electric, generates monumental amounts of heat that must be dissipated. The Mach-E 1400 has separate systems front and rear for cooling the car’s electric motors and inverters. In total, there are four distinct cooling systems using 16 different coolant pumps for all the components.
While my drive will require some amount of cooling, drift performances are a worst-case scenario in terms of heating up the system because the car is running at full power continuously rather than speeding up and slowing down as I’m doing. Drift cars don’t actually go very fast most of the time, so there isn’t much airflow to help with cooling. And even worse, the cars are sideways most of the time, so the airflow that exists is striking the side of the car instead of going through the radiators.
What is also tough for cooling is that this rapid discharge heats the battery cells, and then the team needs to quickly recharge it for additional runs, further heating the battery. Rather than install yet another cooling system for the battery, the RTR (Ready-to-Rock) team built a custom external battery cooler using an assemblage of industrial pumps, hoses, controllers, and heat exchangers to create a life-support cart that parks next to the car when it is in the garage. The cooling end of the system goes beneath the car, where it can draw heat out of the pack directly by circulating the coolant back from the heat exchanger to bring the battery heat out with it.
Technician Tim Browning points out the team’s sensible solution to monitoring the state of the cooling system. It is a Motec electronic dashboard display, exactly like the ones used in racecars.
My pre-drive briefing includes a request to please park the car if the dashboard shows the warning message “STOP NOW.” (This seemed kind of self-evident.) Gittin tells me that he’s seen this warning while developing the car, but as they’ve become more familiar with its workings, they’ve raised the thresholds for the warning so the alert hasn’t appeared in a while, and I’m unlikely to see it. (This is encouraging.)
The car has a light on the roof indicating the status of the high-voltage electrical system. If the light is green, all is good. If the light is red, do NOT touch the car. If you’re inside the car and the crew informs you over the radio that the light is red, you’re supposed to park and leap out of the car, making sure to never touch the car and the ground at the same time.
The car drives normally in most respects, Gittin tells me. Except, the steering gets heavy under braking, as the fat tires resist the driver’s efforts to turn the steering wheel.
The crawl through the driver’s window opening to enter is the most challenging of any racecar I’ve driven. You have to sit your butt on the steel bar where the window sill is and then snake your legs into the opening. But once inside, you can easily slide down into the seat and attach the removable steering wheel.
Now, I’m sitting on top of most of the racing harness that I need to buckle into. With some squirming, I’m able to get most of that pulled clear and start snapping belts into the buckle. Browning leans through the window, making sure the shoulder straps seat properly on the HANS safety device connected to my helmet.
Gittin reaches over from the right-side passenger seat (the car also has a pair of back seats, so Gittin can give three guests demonstration rides at a time) and rotates the knob on the ceiling console to activate the high-voltage system. After a brief delay and a purposeful-sounding “kerchunk,” the system activates and the whirring of various electric devices commences.
Then it is just a matter of twisting another knob, the equivalent of the shifter, to the “forward” position, and the car is ready to move out. My first job is to bed in the car’s new brake rotors, where I do a lap of speeding up and slowing down to transfer some brake pad material to the fresh cast iron rotor surface. This will ensure the brakes will actually work when I need them to on subsequent laps.
It also gives me more time to learn the way around the track, which I’ve never driven before, following some familiarization laps I did in Gittin’s own Mach-E daily driver. Underway for real, the Mach-E lurches forward with a high-pitched whine from its differential gears. The power is excellent, but race tracks are horsepower black holes, absorbing anything you can throw at them without noticing.
Through the first couple tentative corners, the car turns acceptably, but with some heft to the steering as promised. I gain speed through the lap and on the next lap start sliding the car. It corrects easily. So easily, that I mistakenly think maybe there is a stability control system helping, but Gittin tells me that the car has no stability control or traction control.
A bit of this builds my confidence in the car, amidst the shrieking gear noise and corrected slides. Driving this car is work, and the steering’s weight, which piles on the heaviest just at the point where I need to crank the wheel into the turn, is causing me to miss my spots. Late on turn-in equals a missed apex and less ability to flatten the accelerator pedal as early as possible on corner exit.
Through this frustrating sloppiness, my speed builds further, so that by the third flying lap I’m hammering the brakes on the entrance to a slow corner as I reach the turn-in point. Now, the steering isn’t heavy, it feels locked.
It is like the car’s been struck by a Mario Kart lightning bolt just when I need to turn, but instead of spinning me off Rainbow Road, it locks the car onto a straight path leading off the track! I heave all my strength into the wheel and ease off the brake pedal, forcing the car to turn. The abrupt steering input triggers a slide, which I correct and continue on my way, nowhere near where I should be on the track. Maddening. This thing is hard to drive.
My problem, says Gittin, is that I’m driving it like a gas car. He’s mastered the necessary technique to make the Mach-E dance. I, clearly, have not. “You have to learn it,” he tells me, like Yoda counseling Luke that he must unlearn what he’s learned. “You can’t get in it and drive it like a gas car. You were still a little bit of brake-on when you were turning in, and that doesn’t work very well.”
“You were very quickly at the limit, and those little things were starting to catch you, because it’s just not natural for you,” he continues. Following our post-drive debrief, I’m ready to go for another try, to perfect this new driving style. Alas, the RTR crew has already loaded the Mach-E 1400 onto the trailer.
So much for the idea that EVs are too soulless and smooth. They can be whatever they are built to be, including insane, hard-to-master drift cars. “It’s a wild animal, man,” says Gittin. Indeed. I’ve even heard it called “life-changing.”