Driving with the throttle pinned on the 24-degree banking of Charlotte Motor Speedway with a nasty V-8 firing away under the hood and the stadium seats molded in different colors to simulate a crowd, I feel like Jeff Gordon in NASCAR’s Coca Cola 600. Maybe road race-specialist Boris Said is a better analogy, as I’m about to take the 2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse on a romp around the track’s infield course.

The new Dark Horse represents the ultimate in seventh-generation Mustang performance—for now, as a more-powerful Shelby version or two is likely to come in the future. Until then, however, I’m quickly learning that the Dark Horse is all the track car Mustang buyers need.

Unlike previous Mustang performance models, the Dark Horse doesn’t dig into the iconic pony car’s history for its name. Instead, it adds a new performance moniker to the lexicon, although this car could easily be called Mach 1 as it’s essentially an evolution of the 2021 Mustang Mach 1, which received more power as well as the full spate of suspension upgrades for the S550-generation Mustang.

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse at Charlotte Motor Speedway, July 2023

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse at Charlotte Motor Speedway, July 2023

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse at Charlotte Motor Speedway, July 2023

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse at Charlotte Motor Speedway, July 2023

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse at Charlotte Motor Speedway, July 2023

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse at Charlotte Motor Speedway, July 2023

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse: An even 500 hp

The fourth-generation Coyote 5.0-liter V-8 making all that racket gets the same upgrades as the version in the Mustang GT. It now sports a dual air intake that feeds dual throttle bodies, and port injection joins direct injection.

The GT’s version cranks out 480 hp at 7,150 rpm and 415 lb-ft of torque at 4,900 rpm, and that increases to 486 hp at 7,250 rpm and 418 lb-ft with the optional active exhaust.

In the Dark Horse, the V-8 gets the active exhaust standard and uses the connecting rods from the 760-hp Mustang Shelby GT500. These stronger rods allowed Ford engineers to progrom the ECU to unlock an additional 14 hp.

I can’t feel the slight difference 14 hp makes, but an even 500 hp is a fun figure for bragging purposes. Like in the GT, it’s just plain fast and loud, and on this track it’s doing its best NASCAR impression, sounding a rorty snarl that builds to a wail to impress gearheads, attract cops, and annoy neighbors. It revs quickly for a V-8, but not so fast that I can’t keep up with the gear changes. Ford isn’t providing a 0-60 mph time, but it is likely at or below 4.0 seconds.

I’m accessing the power through a Tremec 6-speed manual transmission that replaces the GT model’s Getrag unit. Both have downshift rev matching, positive shift points with short throws, and slightly weighty clutch pedals with predictable take-up points. However, the Tremec is more robust, makes room for the additional trans cooler, and is thus better for the track driving Dark Horse buyers are more likely to do. 

The transmission slots from gear to gear without a hitch on this track as I shuffle it from first through fifth gears. It’s a great manual and would be my choice for the engagement it adds to the driving experience.

The other option is a 10-speed automatic transmission that’s also updated for 2024 to hold gears longer during performance driving. It lets me concentrate more on the corners, and I find no need to use the paddle shifters to grab lower gears at corner exit, which is good because the paddles should be larger for easier access.

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse at Charlotte Motor Speedway, July 2023

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse at Charlotte Motor Speedway, July 2023

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse at Charlotte Motor Speedway, July 2023

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse at Charlotte Motor Speedway, July 2023

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse at Charlotte Motor Speedway, July 2023

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse at Charlotte Motor Speedway, July 2023

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse: Hot performance

The Dark Horse is excelling at far more than just straight-line performance on this road course, and that’s thanks to the car’s basic chassis and a slew of performance upgrades. 

All new S650-generation Mustangs come with minor chassis tweaks to further refine the already sporty driving dynamics of the S550. Like other Mustangs, the Dark Horse uses a stiffer under-dash K-brace, a quicker 15.5:1 steering ratio (versus 16.0:1), a stiffer steering column for a more direct connection to the road, and 50% stiffer rear lower control arm bushings to improve handling.

Otherwise, the Dark Horse starts much like the GT with the Handling Package, including the standard 255/35R19 front and 275/30R19 rear Pirelli P Zero PZ4 summer-performance tires, strut tower brace, and Torsen limited-slip rear differential with a 3.73 axle ratio (with the manual transmission, 3.55 with the automatic).

Some parts are also tweaked for the Dark Horse. The front springs are about 31% stiffer than those with the GT Handling Package, the wheels are a half inch wider front and rear, and the standard magnetic dampers get a unique tune, as does the stability control. All Dark Horse models also benefit from additional transmission and rear differential coolers, as well as a more effective oil-to-air engine oil cooler in the grille.

The Dark Horse also makes more downforce thanks to a unique front fascia, lower side skirts, a fixed rear wing, and a rear diffuser. Ford isn’t saying how much downforce the car makes, though.

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse at Charlotte Motor Speedway, July 2023

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse at Charlotte Motor Speedway, July 2023

But this car goes even further. I’m in a Dark Horse with the optional $4,995 Handling Package. It comes with even wider 19×10.5 and 19×11 wheels that mount super-sticky 305/30 front and 315/30 rear Pirelli P Zero Trofeo RS tires. It also gets adjustable front strut top mounts, front tow hooks, a bigger rear wing with a Gurney flap, slightly stiffer front springs, rear springs that are about 10% stiffer, and a solid rear stabilizer bar that keeps the same 24-mm diameter.

For purposes of this track day, Ford has given these test cars a track alignment. Instead of the standard -1.0 degree front and -1.5 degree rear camber, the Handling Package cars have -2.25 degrees of front camber (enabled by those adjustable front strut mounts) and the base Dark Horses have -1.75 degrees of front camber.

It’s all paying dividends on this hot 95-degree day in Charlotte. As I learned with the 2024 Mustang GT in Southern California’s Angeles Crest National Forest, the handling is largely neutral through the corners, with little body lean, direct and communicative steering, a Torsen limited-slip differential that keeps the power down on corner exit, and unflappable brakes.

The Dark Horse gets the same 15.4-inch vented front rotors with Brembo 6-piston calipers and 14.0-inch vented rear rotors with 4-piston calipers as the Mustang GT Performance Pack cars. Time and again, they haul the Mustang down from speeds hitting 133 mph with a high, firm pedal and consistent stopping power.

The real revelation, though, is the Handling Pack’s new set of shoes. The Trofeo RS tires allow the car to carry more speed and thus reduce lap times, and I have the receipts to prove it. A Ford engineer told me these tires provide several benefits over the well regarded Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires used for the Mach 1 Handling Package, including more grip, a softer ride, better wet handling, and 30% more track longevity.

Before each run, I hit the MyMustang button below the large 13.2-inch center touchscreen and choose the auxiliary gauge screen from the performance menu. It monitors g-forces forward, rearward, left, and right, and has gauges for oil temperature and rear differential temperature. The Trofeo RSs can handle more than 1.3 gs (1.35 is the most I see) laterally and more than 1.4 gs during braking (I top out at 1.42). That’s a ton of grip, but I don’t realize how much until I get in a car without the Handling Package that rides on the standard 255-mm and 275-mm PZ4 tires. They top out at 1.14 g of lateral grip and 1.27 g during braking.

One double-apex lefthander induces a little slide from the rear tires as I try to go through it as fast as I did with the Trofeos. I catch it, but it does show that the Mustang can oversteer at the limits of grip. I also have a problem when braking. Making the corner at the end of the long straight becomes an adventure as the PZ4s can’t handle as late of a braking point. I manage to get the car through the tight 180-degree left-hander from 132 mph, but I started to make plans to use the runoff area (which is just more of the oval), and I make sure to brake earlier on subsequent laps.

Further examination shows that the Handling Pack’s tires add 3-5 mph in corners, which creates more speed in the straights and quicker times through every sector of the track.

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse: The daily show pony

All of the Dark Horse’s numerous performance parts give it something of a high-strung character, but they don’t preclude it from use as a daily driver. A street drive in a car with the Handling Package shows that the road-grader Trofeo RS tires don’t even make the Dark Horse unlivable for a daily commute.

The reason: the standard magnetic dampers.

Ford calls the magnetic suspension generation 3.5, and it’s retuned to work with the suspension tweaks and provide a different experience by mode—Normal, Sport, and Track—without becoming too firm in Track mode to maintain contact with a bumpy track like Charlotte Motor Speedway. The damper system can read the road 1,000 times per second and adjust the ride accordingly, based on three firmness settings. 

On the road, abrupt bumps like railroad tracks don’t pound through, though washboard surfaces do create a busy ride for the car’s stiff overall structure and suspension. Wide tires like these can also follow along with every crack and seam in the road, a phenomenon called tramlining, but the Trofeo RS tires are less prone to that behavior.

Without those tires, the standard Dark Horse drives much like a Performance Package Mustang GT, with even less tendency to tramline and a more forgiving ride quality but just as much of a warcry from the V-8.

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse customization

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse customization

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse:  A high-tech cocoon

Be it on the track or street, the cockpit offers comfort for two adults in an environment that balances tech with retro cues. The Dark Horse’s cockpit is only slightly different than the Mustang GT’s. It gets a titanium blue-anodized shift knob with the manual transmission or anodized silver shift paddles in the automatic. It also has a thicker flat-bottom steering wheel wrapped in synthetic suede and adorned with blue accent stitching. The stitching also adorns the door panels, shift boot, and center console. The seat belts are blue as well, and a dark metallic finish is used on bits of interior trim instead of bright silver.

A set of Recaro bucket seats is a $1,650 option. They pinch my admittedly too-wide backside, but only slightly. While they do a good job of holding occupants in place during fast cornering, they only have six-way manual adjustments. I prefer the range of motion of the base six-way power-adjustable sport seats, which have more upward tilt at the front of the seat bottom.

The Dark Horse has the same 12.4-inch digital instrument cluster and 13.2-inch center touchscreen as the other 2024 Mustangs. It acts as an entertainment hub for the car. It’s also where you can find controls for the line lock, shift light, launch control, auxiliary gauges, and new Drift Brake. While the screens don’t fit thematically in a cockpit that sports nods to past Mustangs, the screens look good, work quickly, and have simple control menus, as I learned during my drive of the 2024 Mustang EcoBoost.

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse at Charlotte Motor Speedway, July 2023

2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse at Charlotte Motor Speedway, July 2023

The 2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse starts at $60,865, which is $4,285 more than a GT model with the Performance Package, magnetic dampers, and active exhaust. Considering how much the Dark Horse improves the Mustang’s performance capabilities, I’d call it worth the price, though I also recommend adding the Handling Package for anyone with plans to take it to the racetrack. The only reason for Ford to build a Shelby would be to add more than the already plentiful 500 hp from the Dark Horse’s 5.0-liter V-8.

And should you drive a Dark Horse on a NASCAR track, get it up on the banking and pretend you’re racing Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, or Kurt Busch. The Dark Horse has all the capability to make you feel like one of those guys. The talent is up to you.

Ford paid for travel, lodging, and track time for Motor Authority to play race car driver and bring you this firsthand report.



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