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Ford risks Mustang fan backlash with SUV: They'll need to pry gas-powered Mustangs from 'my cold dead fingers'

Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY

HAWTHORNE, Calif. – Mustang owners take a deep breath: Are you really ready to welcome an SUV into the family — one that isn't even powered by gasoline?  

Sure, there's a little horse on the front and three-spiked taillights in back. But are details like that enough to qualify a new long-range electric SUV to carry a Mustang badge?

Ford Motor took the risk of bestowing its best-known brand name on the new vehicle at its official unveiling at an airport here Sunday, knowing it may have to endure a backlash from the pony car's most loyal owners, a fan base it has carefully cultivated for more than a half-century.

It may not like what it hears.

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Actor Idris Elba and Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor. introduce the all-electric Mustang Mach-E SUV in Hawthorne, California

"It’s going to get a mixed reaction," predicted Steve Prewitt, president of the Mustang Club of America, who favors the new design. 

The alienation isn't just that it's an SUV or that it's powered by a battery. Rather, the rebellion may be mostly fueled by the number of doors – four instead of two – a slap in the face to those who believe a true-blue Mustang can only be a carefree, spirited coupe.

"That seems to be the hardest spot ... that it’s a four-door," Prewitt said. "What I stress is this is not the two-door Mustang replacement. This is an extension, a new member of the family, and I think the car is going to be a hit."

Ford officials certainly went to lengths at the Mustang Mach-E's elaborate rollout to try to establish its credibility.

"You don't mess with an icon," said Bill Ford, the automaker's executive chairman. The new SUV had to drive like a Mustang, feel like one and tear up the test track like one. 

"It is a rocket ship," said Ford,  great-grandson of founder Henry Ford. 

How fast? The upscale Mach-E GT version's mid-three-second time will silently zoom from a stop to 60 mph. It will be Ford vs. Ferrari once again, with that acceleration time comparable to a Ferrari sports car, officials said.

Ford Motor is banking those performance numbers, along with up to 300 miles of range per charge, will make the Mustang SUV a worthy adversary for Tesla's Model Y, a new midsize SUV that should hit at about the same price point.

The Mustang SUV comes late next year, initially at a starting price of $59,990. It drops to $43,895 the following year, and when the GT comes, it will be about $60,000, according to Ford's reservation site.

If the Tesla-like giant screen in the center stack wasn't enough of a hint as to Ford's aim, the automaker held its event next to Tesla's design headquarters in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne.

The decision to call the electric SUV a Mustang was in the works since 2017 when the engineers, designers and others known internally as "Team Edison" developing the electric SUV were looking for a way to "cut through the clutter," said Ted Cannis, global director of electrification.

The Mustang name would give it instant recognizability. 

"Ford is coming to the market with this to win," said Beau Boeckmann, president of Galpin Motors in Los Angeles, long the world's top-selling Ford dealership. Checking his smartphone, he said he had received seven reservations for the SUV immediately after the webcast of the presentation.

Ford decided then it would try to get more mileage out of its iconic names in order to stand out from the crowd, he said. But in a company brimming with Mustang diehards, he said the SUV had to live up to the name. The suspension was tuned to feel like a Mustang. Mustang-like engine sound can be piped into the cabin during acceleration (though we barely could detect it during a ride in a test car.)

"It earned the right" to be called a Mustang, Cannis said.

Many Mustang owners sound skeptical.

"I am not happy with it personally," said Steve McCarley, a past president of the Mustang Club of America, who lives in Stockbridge, Georgia. "Even today, if I close my eyes and picture a car, I picture a '65 Mustang. Telling me you're coming with an electric Mustang, you’re not spinning my wheels."

Those feelings were echoed at an informal weekly car show Saturday centered around a doughnut shop in Huntington Beach, California.

Ken Wilkinson of Huntington Beach, in the driver's seat of his 1966 red Mustang convertible, said his view of an electric SUV version is "totally negative." Looking at leaked photos of it, he sighed, "That's not a Mustang."

Likewise, David Tous of Orange, California, showing off his '66 Shelby GT350 Mustang, said Ford should "call it something else."

There are other defenders, however.

Michael Shorkey, president of the Carolina Regional Mustang Club in Charlotte, North Carolina, said in a pair of emails that he was impressed by Ford's engineering in creating an electric SUV that he thinks can go up against Tesla. He admits, however, that he would miss the growl of a Mustang engine.

"I would say overall a first impression more positive than negative," Shorkey wrote. "That being said, they'll need to pry my cold dead fingers from my fifth-generation (Mustang) GT." 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ford Mustang: Some diehard fans shocked by Mach-E SUV