Unlike sixth-gen throwbacks such as the Mach 1 and GT350, the Mustang Dark Horse doesn't have any heritage to bolster its image. Nor, on the flip side, any lingering nostalgia to hold it back. Ford wanted the performance to speak for itself – and boy does it.
This is the most powerful naturally aspirated 5.0-liter V8 in Mustang history, and the Coyote engine is still as charming as ever. Forged piston connecting rods from the supercharged GT500 and specific software tuning pushes it to 500 horsepower and 418 pound-feet of torque, an increase of 20 hp and 3 lb-ft over the current GT.
Granted, the Dark Horse isn't quite as torque-loaded at low RPMs as some of its supercharged or turbocharged alternatives. There's enough punch to get it off the line with purpose but not so much that the Mustang bucks – cars and coffee attendees everywhere breathe a sigh of relief. Torque builds in a lovely linear fashion up to a 4,900-rpm peak and continues to do so all the way up to redline.
Rip past 5,000 rpm to get the most out of the Dark Horse. It absolutely hauls at higher revs, with the V8 doing its best work when worked hard. This motor is even more lovable when paired with the Tremec six-speed manual, which has perfectly tight, quick throws, automatic rev matching, and finally, no-lift-shift (which has been around on GM performance cars for a few years now). It’s a match made in muscle car heaven. A 10-speed automatic is available – and it's pretty good – but the six-speed remains the superior setup.
Most of my drive takes me through the rural, Biscuitville-lined roads of Charlotte, North Carolina. Granted, these aren't the most thrilling pieces of pavement, but after a few hours behind the wheel, the Mustang Dark Horse proves to be a lovely on-road companion.
Even before getting in, the Dark Horse intimidates with its menacing muscle car looks. This is by far the best-looking seventh-gen Mustang to date. The black mascara underneath the headlights and the snarling nostril intakes (a clever nod to the nostrils of a racing horse) fix some of the facial failings of the EcoBoost and GT models. And the backend looks much better with a big wing, as most cars do.
Interior designers opted for scarcity rather than luxury. You'll quickly knock your knee on any number of hard plastic trim pieces on the base Dark Horse, be it on the door panel, passenger side dash, or center console. But hey, sacrifices must be made in the name of performance – and if you want better materials, the Premium model does offer nicer leather and stitching.
The optional Recaro buckets are actually pretty comfy. They have a great shape with excellent lumbar support and a nice leather finish. They are aggressively bolstered – again, another casualty of owning a track-capable car – and there is no power adjustment. The manual adjustments are meant to keep the weight down, but I would rather sacrifice a few pounds for more versatility (which you can do with the base chairs).
The new tech suite bundles a 12.4-inch digital instrument cluster with a 13.2-inch touchscreen display, which means that some of the retro interior elements are indeed gone. But Ford's newest infotainment system is easy to use and highly configurable, and of course, the Fox Body gauges from the base and GT Mustangs make their way to the Dark Horse as well, as do a few Dark Horse-specific graphics.
A MagneRide adaptive suspension comes standard, and it varies in softness from Normal mode to Track. Even in Normal, though, the ride isn’t necessarily plush – but that’s to be expected of a racing horse. There is some obvious harshness over rough roads, but nothing I found to be overly offensive.
Across The LineFor a true performance test, we hit the track. The Charlotte Motor Speedway banks up to 24 degrees – more than many ovals on the Nascar circuit – with the combination of an inner road course dubbed the "Roval." We only get to sample a fraction of it, but there are enough twists to get a feel for what the Dark Horse can really do.
The NA V8, again, shows just how lovable it is on the first banking. Its relentless top-end potency powers the Mustang around the first few two corners of the oval with speed and a deep roar rumbling out of the quad exhaust tips, bouncing around in the stands like a genuine stock car.
Hit the first chicane and the Dark Horse exhibits better agility than possibly any previous pony car south of a Shelby. With the Handling pack equipped on this car (which I drove on the track only), it has sticky, staggered Pirelli P Zero Trofeo RS tires (305 front / 315 rear), stiffer springs, larger anti-roll bars, and an integrated Gurney flap on the rear wing. All in the name of giving this Mustang more confident cornering abilities.
The chassis is impeccably balanced; the body stays flat and fluid body as I, an amateur, attempt to wrestle the car around the tricky infield course. There's only a small hint of body roll in some of the tighter turns, but no tail-happiness from the back end, thankfully.
The steering is quicker than it's ever been too, which allows me to point the Mustang's big ol' nose as close to each apex as possible. The problem, though, is that this tiller loses some of the charming chattiness of the previous model. Even in the most aggressive Track setting, the steering is boosted to a point where it feels vague on center and doesn't load up well in corners, which means it's hard to tell what the front tires are doing. There isn't enough accurate feedback to push harder.
But ticking over to Sport+ or Track mode does produce improvements elsewhere, specifically in the suspension and throttle tuning. The added stiffness in Track mode sharpens the Dark Horse in the corners, and the quicker throttle response means you can dole power out of a corner with more control.
Powerful StablemateIt’ll cost you at least $60,865 with the $1,595 destination fee to get into a base Mustang Dark Horse, which is just a touch less than a comparable BMW M2 ($63,195). Or, it's $64,860 if you want the Dark Horse Premium with color-matching stitching, more padded materials, and a few aesthetic tweaks.
The 10-speed automatic is an extra $1,595 (not that you need it) and the Handling pack (which you should get) is an extra $4,995. All told a Premium model loaded with most everything will set you back just over $73,000, a not-insignificant amount of cash.
While it may not have the heritage to back it up, the 2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse doesn’t need nostalgia to be great. The Dark Horse builds upon the GT with a powerful V8, excellent dynamics, and sharp styling. The Dark Horse deserves to be a staple in the Mustang lineup for years to come.