2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse First Drive Review: The Next Best American Track Car
This is peak, manual-equipped Ford V8 fun.
In the beginning, Ford created the four-cylinder Mustang EcoBoost and V8 Mustang GT, and we saw that it was good. On the second day, Ford said, "Let there be a balls-out circuit-ready version," and it was so. Ford called it the 2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse and, lo and behold, we also saw that it was good.
Sporting a host of chassis and brake improvements, added cooling, more power, a heavenly Tremec manual gearbox, and some aesthetically-pleasing interior and exterior touches, this ravenous, more track-centric 'Stang is a thorough joy to hustle around. It also demonstrates that big V8 power and good ol' American ingenuity still give more expensive European fare a solid run for its money. In the steeplechase of track-and-street versatility, here's how this biblically yoked pony excels.
|2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse Specs|
|Base Price (as tested)||$60,865 ($67,510)|
|Powertrain||5.0-liter V8 | 6-speed manual or 10-speed automatic | rear-wheel drive|
|Horsepower||500 @ 7,250 rpm|
|Torque||418 lb-ft @ 4,900 rpm|
|Curb Weight||3,949 pounds (3,993 pounds with automatic transmission)|
|Cargo Capacity||13.3 cubic feet|
|EPA Fuel Economy||TBD|
|Quick Take||A precision, high-performance track tool that gives its European competition the middle finger.|
The Mustang Dark Horse visually expresses its high-performance potential with a mix of muscular proportions, a spoiler bolted to the trunk lid, a more aggressive front end, as well as badging and graphics throughout to tell passersby that it's more than just a GT.
And why wouldn't it? Here's a bit of trivia to share with your fellow car-loving chums: the Dark Horse is not only the first new Ford Performance nameplate since the gen-four Bullitt, but it's also the first-ever Mustang badge where the horse is aiming right at you, instead of horizontally galloping along (it has those emblems attached, though, too).
It's an overall handsome package, especially sprayed in Blue Ember. The color has a neat holographic sheen that changes depending on lighting and angle, almost like an homage to the old SN95 chassis' Mystichrome.
Inside, the Dark Horse isn't tremendously different from the GT or EcoBoost; check out my recent reviews of those for more on the S650's design but, in short, it's a screen-heavy, spacious environment made of acceptable materials and accommodating of all body shapes. However, it does get some chic blue accents as well as a very solid-feeling anodized metal shift knob if you opt for the manual which will probably get red-hot when left in the summer heat. The optional Recaro sport seats are trimmed in handsome blue leather and Alcantara.
Did You Know That There's a V8 Under Ocean Blvd
It's amazing how engine technology progresses. As some folks might remember, the 2007 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500's supercharged 5.4-liter V8 put out 500 horsepower. Nowadays, Ford is able to squeeze 500 out of a naturally aspirated 5.0-liter Coyote V8.
To achieve 500 hp and 418 lb-ft of torque reliably, Ford dug through its parts bin and threw in the S550 GT500's forged connecting rods and bearings. It also gets upgraded oil cooling and a bit of tuning, of course, but otherwise, the same gear is largely the same as you get in the GT. With twin 80-mm throttle bodies at their disposal, it was probably pretty easy for engineers to achieve.
Elsewhere, the Dark Horse receives the same Torsen limited-slip differential with a 3.73:1 final drive ratio and 255/40/19 front and 275/40/19 rear Pirelli P Zero tires as the Performance Package-equipped Mustang GT. Similarly, its standard six-piston front and four-piston rear Brembo brakes have more track-ready pads over the GT and EcoBoost, plus bigger 390-mm two-piece rotors up front that were sourced from the outgoing GT500.
MagneRide adaptive dampers with bespoke Dark Horse tuning are standard, as are bigger 33.3-mm front and 24-mm rear sway bars, though the Handling Package gets a solid rear bar for added rigidity. The spring rate is increased as well: the front spring rate is now 34 N/mm up front and 115 in the rear. The Handling Package ups the ante to 37 and 130, respectively, while also adding a redesigned rear spoiler and a bigger front lip for more downforce.
Off To The Races
To get a feel for how all this equipment translated to track capability, I had the opportunity to rip many laps through an eclectic mix of high-speed banking, hard braking zones, and some surprisingly technical apexes at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The Dark Horse performed very admirably.
First and foremost, the top-tier Mustang may weigh nearly 4,000 pounds, but it wears its weight well. Instead of attempting to squeeze into whatever's on the rack at H&M, it's comfortably slipping into athletic-cut threads at the big and tall store. This was especially true of its brakes; they never softened up or lost bite. Every time I'd dive into an incredibly late apex to enter the track's infield, the brakes felt amply powerful and had no indication of ever fading away. Their ease of modulation and excellent pedal feel made slicing through a smorgasbord of early, late, and double-apexes both fun and trivial for any driver, no matter the skill level.
I primarily drove Handling Package-equipped examples on track, and it's well worth the $4,995 upcharge. 305-front and 315-rear bespoke-to-the-badge Pirelli Trofeo Summer tires had ample grip across every inch of the course, and suspension tuning was bang-on. The ride was solid throughout exhibiting zero body roll while maintaining grippy composure over a couple of hard compressions and off-camber sections.
Chassis communication was excellent and enabled a very precise experience. The stiffer spring rates, sway bars, and MagneRide damper tuning were well-matched to the faster 15.5:1 steering ratio and stiffer rack that all S650 'Stangs get. The front end felt less vague than it did in the GT—a step up that possessed much-improved turn-in. However, even with much wider and stiffer sidewall meats, it still didn't load up enough to my liking, nor did it have much feel besides what was echoing from the chassis. Still, it was an overall improvement over the GT.
Speaking of composure, certain aspects of the Dark Horse's engine tuning helped facilitate smooth weight balance. First, there's a soft rev limiter at 7,200 rpm followed by a hard rev cut-off at 7,500; I routinely hit the soft limiter coming off the oval at 124 mph in fourth gear. Instead of a jarring bop-bop-bop-bop and seizuring tach needle, it felt natural to hold it at the soft limit for a second or two instead of upshifting or lifting off the gas too soon. The no-lift-shift made for smoother gear changes even though it was a tad weird to get used to at first.
And man, what therapeutic gear changes they were. I didn't have any qualms with the GT MT-82's new-found refinement, but it still doesn't beat this Dark Horse's Tremec (it's the same unit found in the previous-gen Shelby GT350 and Mach 1). Shifts are solid and so direct and have just the right amount of spring and throw; it's a sublime experience and easily the best gearbox that I've ever rowed through.
Finally, there was its heavenly soundtrack. It was always so entertaining to rev out the mighty five-0, blip the throttle for downshifts, and let the low-end torque pull the tach needle up while exiting tight, technical corners. This engine was so entertaining and addictive, and friends, I've been suffering withdrawal ever since. Look, I love the baritone inline-six howl of my own BMW 128i, but not much beats the snarling, bass-filled scream of Ford's Coyote V8.
After a riotous morning on track, I took to some scenic, winding North Carolina roads to see how an automatically-shifting Dark Horse with the Handling Package got on with speed limits, helmet-and-HANS-less drivers, and neglected roadway surfaces.
Across all drive modes, its MagneRide adaptive dampers and stiff-sidewall Pirellis never let you forget that you're behind the wheel of a for-enthusiasts-by-enthusiasts vehicle. It is admittedly a bit Too Much in Track mode, but the other modes' shock tuning did well rolling across rail crossings, craggy bits of tarmac, dips, and potholes.
While there was some faint tire noise, as well as some tugging at the steering wheel when the front Pirellis found a slight change in the road's camber, it was a comfortably big coupe to cruise along in.
I couldn't bring myself to quiet down its active exhaust during my two-hour on-road drive, but its 12-speaker stereo still got plenty loud and had excellent overall audio quality. Another checkmark in the dual-duty category.
The only minor downside to this on-road journey was the 10-speed automatic transmission. Not just because the Tremec is god-tier, but it was a little shuddery and shaky at times when selecting the proper cog, particularly when downshifting in a drive mode other than Track to pass slower vehicles. But shifts were thankfully whip-quick at wide-open throttle. Overall it wasn't bad, and I bet it's something that drivers would eventually get used to.
Money Power Glory
As the top trim (so far) of this new S650-generation Mustang, the Dark Horse starts at $60,865, a little over $12,000 more than a base GT Premium. For that money, you get cloth/vinyl seats, a six-way adjustable power driver's seat, Bang & Olufsen 12-speaker audio, HD Radio, satellite radio, heated seats, and dual-zone automatic climate control.
Moving up to the Dark Horse Premium will cost $64,860 and tacks on premium interior trim and material accents, aluminum pedals, seat venting, and other non-performance-oriented niceties. Like it is in the GT, the 10-speed automatic gearbox is a $1,595 extra. Do yourself and the next owner a massive favor, though, and stick to the stick if you're able to.
Personally, I'd go for a base and opt for the Handling Package and Recaro seats, which pump the sticker up to $67,510. The drop-dead gorgeous Blue Ember paint is, sadly, only available as part of the $1,500 Appearance Package on the Premium.
That's a lot of money for a Mustang, but it doesn't seem too bad when you look at the competition that it firmly squares up against. One of its closest rivals (both in the marketplace and in the paddock in IMSA and SRO racing next season) is the base BMW M4, which starts a whole $12,000 more, weighs around the same, has slightly less power, rocks a less entertaining engine, and a very meh manual gearbox. I've driven both—I'm a BMW fan at heart, but I'd pick the Dark Horse any day of the week.
Then, there's the same-displacement Lexus RC F that starts at $68,195, though takes an astronomical $100,720 to park its track-focused Fuji Speedway Edition in your garage. The Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat will soon be dead, but the Chevrolet Camaro 2SS 1LE starts at a much lower $52,940, though doesn't push as much power to its rear tires.
The Next Best American Track Car
Mustang buyers who rarely find themselves on a closed course, though, may find more value in a manual GT instead. The MT-82 isn't as crisp as the Tremec, and the overall handling and chassis communication won't be as good, but the power difference isn't massive especially when it comes to day-to-day driving. The GT's Brembos have ample stopping power for the street, and the same comfortable Recaros can be thrown in, albeit with less-nice materials.
For lap time fiends, the Dark Horse's on-track personality is thoroughly addictive in that it works with you by providing a grip-filled and communicative experience; one that will reward smooth inputs, hard braking, and use of the entire track with blistering lap times and glorious noises all day long. There's also an endless sense of occasion just driving one around mostly thanks to its great looks and brilliant shifter.
Sporting excellent overall handling, phenomenal brakes, sharper turn-in than its GT brother, and riotous V8 power with a beautiful soundtrack to boot, the 2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse is an all-around solid high-performance vehicle. While it doesn't differ all that much from the GT in some areas, it's a firm step up in others that make it able to confidently scarf down the lunches of any European competitors that dare challenge it.
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