Ford Mustang Mach-E versus the Tesla Model 3. One of the hottest new cars of 2021 faces off against the hottest automaker of 2021. Legacy versus upstart. But in this case, Tesla is the legacy electric vehicle maker, and Ford is the upstart. 

The 2021 Tesla Model 3 electric sedan isn’t the ideal vehicle to compare to the Ford Mustang Mach-E electric crossover SUV. The Tesla Model Y is. But we live in an imperfect world, and my neighbor took delivery of the new base 2021 Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus days before I took a week-long loaner on the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E Premium, winner of our Best Car To Buy 2021.

The vehicles weren’t a mechanical match, either, but the character of both vehicles still managed to shine through. The Model 3 had a single motor with rear-wheel drive, whereas the Mach-E had a motor on each axle for all-wheel drive. You live with your choices. 

And these two choices are the most compelling affordable electric vehicles of the year.

Tale of the tape

On paper, the 2021 Tesla Model 3 had the advantage. 

The 2021 Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus in a $1,000 black coat cost $40,290, including destination and order fees. 

The 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E Premium AWD in a $400 red coat cost $56,200 including destination. 

Tesla owners no longer qualify for the available $7,500 EV federal tax credit, but Ford owners do, subject to income thresholds. The base Mach-E Select with rear-wheel drive costs $43,995, and would be cheaper with the credit. Without it, the Mach-E is more expensive across the lineup of longer range, more powerful versions of either model. 

The Model 3 Standard Range Plus reportedly has a 54-kwh battery pack and a 263-mile range. It powers a motor that produces 283 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque, which pushes the car from 0-60 mph in 5.3 seconds and to a top speed of 140 mph. 

The Mach-E Premium uses a 68-kwh battery pack to power two motors that produce 266 hp and 428 lb-ft of torque. That’s good for a 211-mile range, and a 0-60 mph time of 5.2 seconds.

Winner: Tesla Model 3 has more range and costs less. 

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E, left, and 2021 Tesla Model 3, right

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E, left, and 2021 Tesla Model 3, right

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E, left, and 2021 Tesla Model 3, right

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E, left, and 2021 Tesla Model 3, right

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E, left, and 2021 Tesla Model 3, right

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E, left, and 2021 Tesla Model 3, right

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E, left, and 2021 Tesla Model 3, right

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E, left, and 2021 Tesla Model 3, right

Power

In practice, however, performance depends on the conditions. Snow flurries and single-digit temperatures in our Midwestern suburban neighborhood provided the backdrop for the road test. Off the line, in consecutive tests, the all-wheel-drive Mach-E charged off as the winner. Yet the rear-wheel-drive Model 3 felt quicker and jumpier. The difference was traction, but we couldn’t confirm that until I whipped it around on our snowy suburban streets.

When the Model 3 starts to slip, the traction control cuts throttle response until there’s grip. Tesla reportedly added a “dyno mode” to the Model 3 last year that lets you disable traction control but we didn’t tempt it. Off the line, it hesitated until it built up enough incremental motion to assure grip, then it took off. 

Once moving, the Tesla had more power for highway passing. This jibes with its higher horsepower number. Winter tires or all-wheel drive would make it quicker off the line, or you could wait until the sun shines, a common wish in the Midwest. 

The response of the Mach-E at highway speed was duller. But off the line, up to about 30 mph, it’s plenty quick. Three drive modes adjust throttle response and power delivery, and the top Unbridled mode even pipes in some pony car engine thrum. Don’t worry, such artifice can be disabled. 

The Model 3 feels quicker because, at about 4,900 pounds, the Mach-E weighs a whopping 1,250 pounds more than the Model 3. Even the heftier Model Y with all-wheel drive is 500 pounds lighter. Even the Ford Explorer is lighter. 

Winner: Model 3

2020 Tesla Model 3

2020 Tesla Model 3

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E

2020 Tesla Model 3

2020 Tesla Model 3

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E

Ride and handling

Because most of the weight stretches below the floor and between the axles, the Model 3 has a low center of gravity that makes for good handling for its size. The Model 3 hugs the ground, has three steering settings, and even the one with the least resistance, “Comfort,” felt sportier than the Mach-E’s steering.

The Model 3 owner remarked on the high seating position and tall ride height in the Mach-E; the visual command of the road is one big reason why car shoppers choose crossovers. But the Model 3 tucks in and out of corners like a proper sedan. 

They both ride stiffly, jumping around like a Californian encountering all these Midwestern road imperfections. Keep in mind, the temperature was about 2 degrees. Frigid equals rigid for man and machine. 

The Mach-E was louder on the highway than other crossovers, but the highway ride quality was soft as a blanket compared to the Model 3. Such is the tradeoff for good handling. 

Another notable attribute of the Mach-E was its snow and ice handling. When the road slush from the day turned to ice at night, and a new layer of snow arrived, I sought out a parking lot to relive my teen years and was disappointed by how much grip it had. It held the line remarkably well, and unlike Tesla, the throttle still engaged the axles in a diminished capacity. It instilled confidence, and that’s another plus for the tall hatchback. I eventually found the ESC control in the touchscreen, but my opportunity to hoon it in the snow had passed. 

Winner: Depends. Mach-E in Midwest winters, Model 3 any other time. 

2021 Tesla Model 3

2021 Tesla Model 3

2021 Tesla Model 3

2021 Tesla Model 3

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E first drive - Portland, OR

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E first drive – Portland, OR

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E first drive - Portland, OR

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E first drive – Portland, OR

Technology

There is no question Ford wanted to emulate Tesla with its 15.5-inch touchscreen command center, but Tesla has reinvented the car cockpit with its 15.0-inch touchscreen with a landscape orientation. It replaces the instrument cluster, climate controls, multimedia controller, vehicle info screen, everything, really, aside from two steering wheel toggles and an indicator stalk on one side and gear selector stalk on the other.

The responsiveness of Tesla’s system to touch controls and voice commands, as well as the intuitive layout like that of a MacBook, let me use it with ease in the first five minutes. It’s the best interface on the market, and is far ahead in a category where traditional automakers have stumbled. The fonts and color contrasts are pleasant, and the iconography is clear; when activating Autopilot, Tesla’s misnomer of a driver-assist system, the graphic shows 3D renderings of the vehicles around you, so a minivan looks like a minivan and a semi looks like a semi. It instills confidence that the system sees what you’re seeing, and with regular over-the-air updates, it keeps getting better. Tesla’s crystal clear navigation and mapping is second only to Audi’s system. 

It’s not perfect; there’s no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto compatibility, and no AM radio. It’s all apps such as Tunein or Spotify. Update those playlists or suffer app fatigue. Adjusting the wipers through the touchscreen is annoying and the small climate bar is wedged in at the bottom, but the owner says you get used to it.  

Ford’s vertical orientation of a similar screen doesn’t look as integrated as Tesla’s, but it has a permanent climate bar in the lower quadrant that’s clear and easy to use even with gloves. A volume dial in that section is a nod to the frustrations aired by owners of other vehicles who loathe touch-sensitive volume controls, but it feels chintzy. So does the rotary gear selector on the center console that, in the test model, could be twisted past “Park” and past “Drive” as if it were stripped. 

In place of a traditional instrument cluster, Ford equips the Mach-E with a small vehicle info bar that shows vehicle speed and the status of driver-assistance systems. I prefer looking in that space just below the road and beyond the wheel, instead of glancing over to the right as is necessary in the Model 3. 

Both vehicles use phone-as-key concepts, where you can check vehicle status, precondition the interior, optimize charge time, and control other features through your smartphone. Ford has made major strides in narrowing the tech gap with Tesla, but it still trails.

Winner: Tesla Model 3

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E first drive - Portland, OR

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E first drive – Portland, OR

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E first drive - Portland, OR

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E first drive – Portland, OR

2021 Tesla Model 3

2021 Tesla Model 3

2018 Tesla Model 3

2018 Tesla Model 3

Style and space

The Model 3’s spartan interior, free of buttons and clutter—even the vents are hidden beneath a wood panel that spans the dash—is appealing. The wireless smartphone charger has been upgraded to be more cohesive with the design and the cabin looks like an inviting work zone. 

Seat comfort favors Tesla as well, with standard heated seats that feel substantial but are pretty thin. Ford’s seat bottoms are short, so the long-legged don’t get as much thigh support, but it has more supportive side bolsters. 

The Mach-E’s frunk is deeper because the Mach-E is taller; headroom is better inside, and it has more room overall but not by as great a margin as I expected. The center tunnel space is better executed in the Mach-E with an open floor plan approach whereas the Tesla has two deep consoles, one between the cupholder and charger, and the other under the armrest.

With the rear seats up, trunk space appears to be close between the two vehicles. But the Mach-E’s tall hatchback body style gives it 29.7 cubic feet compared to 15 cubic feet in the Model 3. In the Mach-E, four sets of golf clubs can fit across with the drivers removed. You can’t do that in the Model 3, but the Model Y serves as a better paper comparison here. It has 68 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats down, compared to the Mach-E’s 59.7 cubic feet. I’d still take the Mach-E because it’s much better looking than the bulbous pod called Model Y.  

2021 Tesla Model 3

2021 Tesla Model 3

2021 Tesla Model 3

2021 Tesla Model 3

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2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E, left, and 2021 Tesla Model 3, right

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E, left, and 2021 Tesla Model 3, right

Winner: Mach-E

Right now, Ford can’t play Tesla’s game: Tesla has established an electric vehicle bar that traditional automakers were too burdened by hubris to pursue. The Silicon Valley automaker seems to be a decade ahead of Detroit in battery propulsion systems and connected car technology. On the other hand, Tesla is that far behind on build quality, and reliability remains a big question. 

2021 Tesla Model 3

2021 Tesla Model 3

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E

Those weaknesses partially explain why the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E earned a TCC Rating of 8.6 compared to a 7.5 for the 2021 Tesla Model 3

Ford won’t draw away Tesla admirers. Instead, Ford needs to conquest shoppers from other brands who for too long have been doing the hokey pokey of electrification. Ford has gone all in with the Mach-E and shook it all about. In that sense, Ford is ahead of legacy brands in search of that all-important youth demographic. 

But the Model 3 is better. The Model Y is not. The Mustang Mach-E is still a vehicle to behold, and Ford has assured the name of its iconic pony car stays relevant for another generation. Or another century. 



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