Speed Week 2020: flat out in the Ford Mustang Mach-E 1400
A 1,400bhp thoroughbred with seven electric motors and a taste for drifting. Yes
Of all the cars I’ve ever driven... this is the daftest. I mean what is it for? Usually a good place to start. After a conversation with its creator, American drift legend Vaughn Gittin Jr, and several hours of thought, the best I can come up with is ‘cocking about’.
And that’s fine with me. I mean, it’s not exactly a standard Ford Mustang Mach-E now is it? Most quick electric cars have a motor on each axle. Tesla is talking about putting a pair in the back of its quickest Model S. This has seven motors, each developing 200bhp, three on the front axle, four on the back. That’s 1,400bhp, and somewhere around 4,500lb ft of torque at the wheels. You can set it up how you like: 4WD track car with slicks to make the most of the downforce, rear-wheel-drive drifter with 800bhp and 65 degrees of steering lock, or 4WD skid-about with all 1,400bhp delivered before 100mph, and fat road-ish tyres which wilt immediately and turn to mush when you brush the throttle.
Naturally, that’s what we’ve opted for: maximum smoke. Built as a joint project between Ford and Gittin’s RTR Vehicles outfit, the Mach-E 1400 is based on a regular Mach-E chassis (but almost nothing else is shared), weighs in at somewhere around 2,250kg and has a 57kWh battery. Which lasts about 45 minutes, after which it has to be plugged in by a man wearing thick rubber wellies and gauntlets, while another wielding a bishop’s crook stands behind him ready to hook him out the way if anything goes wrong. I’m captivated by that even more than the vast curving rear wing, giant dive planes and hang about...
...There are four seats inside. Utterly brilliant. Don’t think I’ve ever seen a track- or racecar designed to take a family before, but now I have, I’m smitten. Administering biscuits to the back seats through the roll cage might prove challenging, though. I squeeze in, noting the Perspex box concealing dangerous-looking electric cabling, attach the camo steering wheel and, feeling rather NASA, twist and prod some rather lovely machined switchgear on the rooflining.
On one level it is breathtakingly easy to drive: twist one knob through low voltage and into high voltage, twist another to select forwards or backwards, while a third... we’ll come on to that in a bit. Whining occurs. This blunderbuss of a track car hiccups, shunts and jerks its way out of the garage. I’m downright afraid of it now. I’ve had a look at the tyres, factored in power and torque and reckon any more than two inches of throttle will make more smoke than a bonfire of damp leaves. The noise is intimidating. The diffs chunter. And I can smell electricity. We decide this isn’t a great thing and as a precaution, a laptop is plugged in to reset the car.
It’s a prototype, it’s important to remember that, a one-off and totally unique. Teething issues are to be expected. On day two the power steering pump packs up, and can only be fixed by reverting to an earlier software set-up that has bugger all assistance until you’ve got quarter of a turn of lock on. You’ve seen how broad the rubber is. My shoulders felt like I’d spent the day throwing hammers with an Olympian.
It’s not a car you can build up to – the Mach-E 1400 is either sliding or it’s not. Having trundled about for a couple of laps, I stop on a wide straight, take a deep breath, tense everything and floor it. Not much happens in the way of forward progress, but after a couple of seconds wisps of smoke start curling in. Ah, so we are wheelspinning. And, as momentum picks up I realise it’s not stopping. As long as all four wheels carry on spinning I sort of know where I am with it. It’s like the Hyundai i20 WRC car we had at Portimao last year, although with none of the agility, nor a 4WD system that seemed to know where the corner exit was better than I did. That car was mechanically clairvoyant.
Here, key signals are missing. Noise, specifically. When you’re skidding about in cars two things are happening in the car and your brain. The car is being steered by front (steering wheel) and rear wheels (throttle), and your brain processes data from your eyes and your ears. Your eyes see where you’re going, your ears tell you what the engine’s doing (are the revs falling or rising, and how fast?). But in the electric Mach-E all I’ve got is ‘do I have traction yes/no (delete as appropriate)’. It’s a binary approach to which my brain’s only answer is ‘throttle on/off (delete as appropriate)’.
The motor pitch changes, but try hearing that from inside a helmet over the squealing pleading of tortured tyres. At least the 1400 is predictable. It does the same thing at every corner, in exactly the same way. Turn in, jerk the drilled chrome handbrake as hard as you can, as fast as you can to lock the back wheels, bury the throttle and sort everything else out with the steering. If you’ve got the entry speed about right, you shouldn’t have to do much, it’ll adopt an angle and skate past the apex and on to the exit like it’s on ice.
I’m wary of going in too hot. Although the weight is low down, it’s a big, heavy machine and once it’s sliding you can’t gather it back up quickly. You’re there, trajectory set, scenery in the way. Some grass joins the smoke in the Mach-E’s wake. Luckily we have something else here that serves as a reset. Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 stunt car from No Time To Die. Narrow, nimble and noisy, it’s a precision slider, angle of attack easily adjusted via throttle. That’s more accurate than the steering, which is rather vague on the period tyres...
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The third knob. Think of it as the Mach-E’s trajectory adjuster. It controls power distribution, you decide if you want it to prioritise front or rear axle. I have a play. Max front and all you get is dishonourable, if smoky, understeer. Max rear and it’s bloody hard to catch with limited lock. The Goldilocks setting is a little bias to the rear, where it arcs wide to start with and then the front gradually pulls itself back into control. But what’s the point in being logical or rational about a 1,400bhp electric SUV? It’s here to be silly and prove an EV can be fun. Other cars slide and perform, but not with anything like the free-spirited yee-haw of the Mach-E.