2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E GT first ride review: So quick it made me sick
In which I call shotgun and try not to personally redecorate the cabin of Ford's new 480-horsepower all-electric SUV.
Chris PaukertFormer executive editor / Cars
Following stints in TV news production and as a record company publicist, Chris spent most of his career in automotive publishing. Mentored by Automobile Magazine founder David E. Davis Jr., Paukert succeeded Davis as editor-in-chief of Winding Road, a pioneering e-mag, before serving as Autoblog's executive editor from 2008 to 2015.
Chris is a Webby and Telly award-winning video producer and has served on the jury of the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards. He joined the CNET team in 2015, bringing a small cache of odd, underappreciated cars with him.
The last time I scored an exclusive ride in a Ford Mustang Mach-E, the conditions were a lot less pleasant. That drive took place in the dead of winter, in a frozen nowhere in the middle of other frozen nowheres. This was well before the electric SUV had been made available for media evaluation, way back when the world was only beginning to debate just how "Mustang" an electric SUV could really be. Fortunately, this time, I wouldn't have to venture as far and I'd get to experience even more of the Mach-E's performance envelope.
The new GT comes standard with all-wheel drive, which is necessary to help put down the drivetrain's stout 480 horsepower and 600 pound-feet of torque. That's a boatload more oomph than what you can get in the most-powerful standard Mach-E (346 hp and 428 lb-ft from the extended-range battery model with AWD). And that's just the base GT -- this Performance Edition's spec sheet displays even gaudier numbers: 480 hp and 634 lb-ft. So equipped, Ford says this Flamin' Hot Cheeto can hit 60 mph in a scant 3.5 seconds -- 0.3 seconds quicker than a base Mach-E GT and nearly as rapid as the fire-breathing 760-hp Mustang Shelby GT500 coupe. More to the point, the PE's acceleration time neatly matches the gauntlet thrown down by the Tesla Model Y Performance, the GT's most obvious rival.
2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E GT ridealong: Electric heavy orchestra
This time out, we didn't need to schlep our gear to Michigan's frozen Upper Peninsula to join Ford's winter testing. Instead, the automaker invited our Roadshow crew to its Dearborn proving grounds to ride shotgun for a nauseating number of laps on the company's tightest, toughest development circuit. In case you think I'm being hyperbolic, I mean "nauseating" all too literally -- this GT proved to be capable of so much grip and mechanical violence that I found myself in a humbling, afternoon-long struggle, desperately trying not to lose my lunch.
My pilot for the day? Dave Pericak. As one of the founding fathers of the Ford Performance team, "Mr. Mustang" (as Pericak is sometimes known) has been instrumental in the development of all manner of Ford's high-performance gas cars and trucks, including the Shelby GT350, the F-150 Raptor and the GT supercar. He's something of a hot shoe and Ford's steering and handling track is practically an extension of his office, so I knew we were in for a serious day of performance.
Before belting into the passenger's seat, a quick walkaround was in order. The 2021 Mach-E GT should be pretty easy to spot on the street thanks primarily to its more aggressive-looking front end. Whereas garden-variety Mach-Es have body-color mugs as smooth and featureless as a snubfin dolphin, GT models rock a carbonized-gray "grille." There's no actual flow-through -- the unique look is a clever appliqué that gives the impression of depth. Smack dab in the middle of the panel is an illuminated version of the Mustang's iconic pony, so you'll even be able to spot a GT crowding your rearview mirror at night. The GT's entire lower fascia is unique, too, with a jutting lower front splitter bookended by a pair of air curtains.
Moving around to the side, the changes are more subtle, with the most obvious being new 20-inch wheels in one of two patterns (non-GTs wear 18- or 19-inch units). This Performance Edition's machine-face alloys feature a clever overlapping pin-spoke design that shows off the model's four-piston front Brembo brakes. While those calipers are available on non-GT models, the larger 15.1-inch vented rotors they clamp down on aren't (the 12.4-inch rears are solid). Those wheels wear inch-wider P245/45 Pirelli P-Zero high-performance summer tires in a compound formulated specifically for the Mach-E PE. By comparison, the base GT's alloys wear less-serious Continental all-seasons, but the wheels themselves are every bit as interesting, capped by Alfa Romeo-like aero covers.
Importantly, while the Performance Edition's gummy Pirellis help put all that torque to the road, those sticky shoes sap this EV's range. Ford says this model is good for an EPA-estimated range of 235 miles versus the base GT's 250. Both of those numbers are a bit underwhelming compared to the Model Y Performance's 303-mile range, but it's worth noting that Tesla's claims are notoriously hard to approach in the real world. That said, if max Mach-E range is your bogey, you're going to have to settle for the non-GT's rear-wheel-drive California Route 1 trim. The latter is is considerably less rapid -- 0-60 mph in 6.1 -- but it should travel 305 miles between plug sessions.
Body-color wheel arches and gloss-black rocker panels visually hunker the GT PE closer to the road, inadvertently making this model look even less like an SUV and more like a five-door hatchback than the standard Mach-E already does. That's not just an optical illusion -- the whole vehicle sits 10 millimeters (0.4 inches) lower to the ground than ordinary Mach-E models. Ford hasn't confirmed the 2021 GT's drag coefficient, but it's reasonable to assume that despite possessing a lower ride height, the GT's aerodynamics might be slightly worse due to its more aggressive front fascia and wider wheels. Out back, the GT's rump looks largely the same -- there's a revised diffuser and a new GT badge on the liftgate and that's about it.
Modest interior upgrades
Inside, the Mach-E GT's cabin is dominated by the same sleek, spare, horizontal dashboard bisected by a massive 15.5-inch vertical touchscreen. Changes are minimal, including a smattering of GT badges on the armrest and door sills, along with lashes of faux suede trim, copper stitching and, in the case of the $64,900 Performance Edition, a unique set of sport seats. Overall, it feels like Ford could've done a bit more -- some model-specific material colors or a unique steering wheel could've helped make the GT's cockpit feel as special as this EV actually is. (Note: If you're tall, you might want to splurge on the PE, as its seats are perched slightly lower, offering nearly a half-inch more headroom. At a modest 5 feet, 9 inches, I'll come to find that I've got no trouble clearing a helmet.)
My ridealong took place on an unseasonably cold Michigan early spring day. That wasn't the best news for the GT's Pirellis, but a few tentative laps around this tight 16-turn roadcourse got the car's summer rubber sufficiently warmed-through that it didn't take long for Pericak to get down to business.
Even from the passenger's seat, it was easy to tell right off that the GT has a lot more power. From a standing start, while quick, a standard Mustang Mach-E simply can't throw your head back the way this thing can. Non-GT 0-to-60-mph times range from 6.1 (Premium extended-range RWD) on down to 4.8 (First Edition), so there's a huge performance delta between those models and this electric pony. The GT PE bursts out of the blocks with genuine fury, its magnetorheological adaptive dampers instantaneously minimizing rearward pitch to keep things on the level. Throughout our acceleration runs, there wasn't much in the way of auditory drama to accompany this preproduction PE, but even so, it feels substantially quicker than the V8-powered Mustang Mach 1 coupe I recently drove -- particularly off the line. The Mach-E GT's default torque split is closer to a 60:40 rearward bias, as compared to the standard model's 50:50 setup, so the electric AWD system simply hooks up and goes with little in the way of tire squeal or lateral squirm. It's almost anticlimactic.
A new drive mode
Part of that surprising serenity is because this preproduction test vehicle wasn't fitted with the additional piped-in powertrain noise that is specific to the GT's new Unbridled Extend mode. The latter setting is a GT exclusive. Whereas the standard Mach-E offers Whisper ("Seamless drive, calm and quiet"), Engage ("Balanced drive, fun and engaging") and Unbridled ("Exhilarating drive, machine and road align as one"), the GT's Unbridled Extend drive mode is a track-day setting.
As Pericak tells me, "What that [Unbridled Extend] has been designed to do is give you more sustained power for track performance. Everybody knows that as you're pulling power out of the battery, you're only going to get so much performance before your battery charge is going to go down. Unbridled Extend is going to give you many more laps of fun, versus what you'd have if we just dumped all that energy and let you run that one or two laps. And you can still do that. Go to Unbridled mode and you can do that, but you're gonna be pulling in energy. If you go to Unbridled Extend, you're going to have more fun for a longer period of time."
Pericak wouldn't get into too many specifics about what sort of technical changes Unbridled Extend mode invokes to enable more hot laps out of the 88-kWh battery, but he did say that the setting loosens up the vehicle's electronic safety net to allow for more yaw to enable more rear-wheel-drive-like character. While my tester had Unbridled Extend's other tuning aspects in play, it didn't have the specific, louder soundtrack activated. Similarly, it's not immediately clear if the production GT's Unbridled Extend mode will feature adjustments to the steering weight or regenerative braking behavior, let alone unique on-screen graphics or changes in ambient lighting the way that Mach-E's other drive modes do.
Either way, it's worth noting that an official Ford press release calls Unbridled Extend "a track- and closed-course only" setting, but company officials confided in me that there's nothing to prevent someone from activating the mode on the street -- other than perhaps common sense.
Beyond Unbridled Extend, one other key change that should make the Mach-E GT more palatable to enthusiasts and track rats alike is an ability to completely turn off the vehicle's stability- and traction-control systems. That level of trust and flexibility has been a hallmark of internal-combustion performance Mustang models for years, but this GT marks the first time Ford is loosening the reins on its electric SUV.
Sickening on-track performance
So, how does all this feel? Frankly, from the passenger's seat, I'd be lying if I told you that I could discern if Mr. Mustang was able to hang the GT's tail out significantly further than a standard Mach-E. However, I can tell you that the GT's performance didn't peter out after just a couple of laps -- or even a whole bunch. What I noticed most was not only how flat the body stayed in corners, but how fluidly the MagneRide adjustable suspension reacted to the track's undulating up-and-down sine-wave sections, enabling the chassis to settle down quickly after being airborne.
The GT's behavior was similarly drama-free on another demanding section of the course that featured a corner with a diabolical rise right at its off-camber apex. Pericak repeatedly unloaded the rear suspension and kicked the GT's tail out in midair, braking hard upon touchdown before tucking into a left-hander. This was a particularly impressive performance for such a big, heavy vehicle (a base Mach-E can weigh nearly 5,000 pounds and this GT is likely slightly heavier).
In fact, the GT reliably regained its composure far more quickly than my head and stomach did. By the end of our second session, I was positively green.
Ah, motion sickness. Now, before you label me a lightweight, know that I've jumped trucks in the desert, flung rally cars sideways through the forest and been given more hair-on-fire racetrack ridealongs with pro drivers than I have fingers and toes. This is the first time I've come close to getting sick. I could tell you that we had the climate control off to minimize noises that might disrupt our video. And I could definitely tell you that I should've waited longer after my second COVID-19 shot to take Ford up on its offer. All of that is true. In the end, though, what's equally true and most important is that the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E GT is capable of dizzying acceleration and brain-sloshing levels of grip. (It'd take back-to-back runs to know for sure, but I have a sneaking suspicion the ME GT PE might outperform a Model Y Performance on a track -- particularly as the laps wear on.)
Oh -- one more truism: I didn't end up needing to pay Pericak's dry-cleaning bill. Me and my stomach managed to keep it together for the rest of my ride, but I had a blinder of a headache I couldn't shake for two days.
After all that, you'd might think I wouldn't be interested in seeing another Mach-E GT for a long time. The truth is, I'm dying to get behind the wheel so I can put the spurs to Ford's lighting pony for myself.