Ford Mustang: The arrival of a new Ford Mustang is normally just a tease for anyone who loves muscle cars that drive like sports cars. Because no matter how good they are, the base Mustang and the V-8-powered GT have historically signaled that even better Mustangs—absurdly powerful, track-capable, and/or collectible Mustangs—are a year or two away. Modern icons with names like Cobra, Boss 302, Mach 1, and Shelby have taught us that the great pony cars always come later.
That changes with the seventh-generation Mustang, code name S650.
As you’re kicking the tires of EcoBoost four-cylinder and GT models at your local dealer this summer, you’ll want to keep your eyes peeled for anything wearing Pirelli P Zero Trofeo RS track tires. That’s a telltale that you’ve stumbled onto a 2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse with the optional handling package. If the car’s not already spoken for, run—don’t walk—to your preferred auto loan issuer. Even if you have to call mom to co-sign on the loan, you’re unlikely to regret parking one of these in your driveway.
What Is a Mustang Dark Horse?
True to its name, this is the Mustang we didn’t see coming—at least not this soon. The Dark Horse is essentially a performance-package version of a performance car. It’s not as powerful nor as exotic as the Shelby GT350 or GT500, but as a follow-up to the 2023 Mustang Mach 1, it has all the necessary hardware for lapping at track days and high-performance driving events.
With 500 horsepower, the Dark Horse makes 14 horsepower more than a 2024 Mustang GT equipped with the optional active exhaust, which should tell you the secret sauce isn’t in the engine. No. You buy this particular Mustang because you’re a muscle-car sophisticate—someone who appreciates going fast around a corner at least as much as they love pushing the pedal to the metal in a straight line.
The key differences between the GT and the Dark Horse are baked into the chassis, with the $60,685 Dark Horse featuring standard MagneRide dampers, Brembo six-piston front and four-piston rear brake calipers, and a strut-tower brace and K brace. It also has a stiffer suspension tune with larger anti-roll bars, a Torsen limited-slip differential, Pirelli P Zero (PZ4) summer tires, and an upgraded cooling package. Spring for the $4,995 “Handling” package, and you get even firmer suspension tuning, a more aggressive aero package, and the Pirelli P Zero Trofeo RS tires that up until now have only been a factory fitment on Pagani hypercars.
How Does It Drive?
Throw a Dark Horse into a corner on the street or on a racetrack, and it sticks like Big League Chew in a third-grader’s bowl cut. The Trofeo RS tires deliver even more stick than you expect in turns and especially under braking.
Stand on the brake pedal from triple-digit speeds, and you’d swear there was a parachute pulling you back to reality. This isn’t just an observation about mechanical grip. The sense of stickiness is elevated by how planted the Dark Horse feels in everything it does. It follows the driver’s intentions with precision and poise and a manageable and confidence-inspiring bias toward understeer. If this car doesn’t follow the line you wanted, it’s not the Dark Horse, it’s the driver.
The MagneRide dampers keep body motions on a short leash, and the revised steering hardware in all seventh-generation Mustangs removes the last bit of slack from the system. Engineers replaced the flex joint in the outgoing car with a rigid intermediate shaft and then injected more life into the steering with a quicker rack.
I’d still love to feel more feedback through my fingertips, but there’s no criticizing the steering for its accuracy at this point. The brake pedal travel is on the long and soft side for a vehicle this focused, but it otherwise feels natural enough that most drivers will only know the Mustang now uses brake-by-wire technology if they read this story.
As good as the Dark Horse is, Chevy’s muscle car may still go down as the best-handling gas muscle car of all time. Compared to the Mustang, a Camaro SS 1LE or ZL1 built on GM’s excellent Alpha platform has a lighter, nimbler, and more playful spirit.
The S650 Mustang shares a lot of its core structure with the S550 Mustang, and you can feel it—namely as an unshakable sense of heft—in the way the Dark Horse drives. With the optional 10-speed automatic transmission, Ford says it weighs 3,993 pounds. Of course, picking a winner here is largely an academic exercise. With the Camaro and the Challenger headed out of production, the Mustang is about to be without a rival for the second time in two decades.
Is the Handling package worth it?
Whether or not you should buy the Handling package comes down to how hard you’ll ride your Dark Horse. Ford bills this car as track-capable, but that label undersells what the full performance kit can do. It’s not just capable on the track; a Dark Horse wearing Trofeos is wasted if it isn’t regularly driven on a challenging road course. And not just because it achieves shorter stopping distances and higher cornering speeds. The Handling package makes the car more stable under braking, cornering, and corner-exit acceleration.
The Handling pack version is so civilized on the street—thanks to more MagneRide magic—that it could also be a perfectly livable road car. The problem is this much grip makes public roads effortless to the point of being dull. On most American roads, you’d have to double the speed limit before you’d need to think about your corner entry speed. For anyone who isn’t planning to track the car, the standard Dark Horse is both more fun and better equipped to deal with the curbs, potholes, and thunderstorms.
Howl if You Love a Good V-8
The Dark Horse connects corners with a firm shove from the most powerful naturally aspirated 5.0-liter V-8 Ford has ever built. Curiously, the Dark Horse’s extra 14 ponies over the GT are unlocked via software rather than the kind of intake or exhaust changes that are typically used to squeeze more go out of naturally aspirated engines. With the new dual-throttle-body intake, apparently every fourth-generation Coyote engine has the hardware to make 500 horsepower.
There are internal changes for the Dark Horse’s engine, but they’ve been made to ensure the engine survives the Dark Horse driver’s more aggressive driving. There are stronger camshafts, a better-balanced crankshaft, plus forged connecting rods and con-rod bearings from the Shelby GT500.
The Coyote isn’t a torque monster, needing a tall 4,900 rpm to reach its 418 lb-ft of torque, but that’s fine by us. What it lacks in low-end grunt, it makes up for with smooth, linear, power delivery. Ford claims a 7,500-rpm redline, but there’s a big fat asterisk next to that number. In manual-transmission cars, or when you’re paddle-shifting the 10-speed automatic, you’ll smash into a “soft” rev limiter at 7,300 rpm before the computers allow you to slowly walk up to the 7,500-rpm redline that’s indicated on the tachometer. If the giant digital instrument cluster isn’t going to show the effective redline, it could at least flash a shift light in your peripheral vision to help you time your shift power peak.
While it’s not as thunderous as a Chevy small-block, and it doesn’t bark like Jaguar’s supercharged 5.0-liter or crackle on overrun like so many cars trying to prove a point, the Coyote sounds the part. The exhaust’s gruff woof crescendos into a howl at higher rpm with the standard active exhaust offering three different levels of awesomeness – or obnoxiousness. They’re loud enough that many owners will also make liberal use of the fourth setting, Quiet mode, when they’re not at the track or attacking canyon roads.
The Mustang GT’s Getrag MT-82 six-speed manual is swapped for the stout Tremec TR-3160 in the Dark Horse. The lightweight 3D-printed titanium shift knob wants to be shifted hard and fast through short, stiff, and heavy throws. It feels awesome when things snap into place as they should, but the pattern is tight enough that it’s easy to get hung up between gates if you’re not perfectly precise.
The optional 10-speed automatic swaps ratios quickly, but its Track mode wasn’t nearly as aggressive as Ford engineers promised. In a couple corners on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s roval (road-course/oval hybrid), the Track held the engine a gear too high at corner exit, below the engine’s torque peak.
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What Else Is in the Seventh-Generation Stable?
The Mustang Dark Horse’s immense grip, unflustered stability, and analog power delivery would make it an exceptional muscle car even if you stripped it out of the context of this moment in time. Factor in the reality that muscle cars, V-8 engines, and manual transmissions are only becoming rarer, and this limited edition appears poised to become a future classic. Then again, if history has taught us anything, there’s likely an even better Mustang on the horizon.
|2024 Ford Mustang Dark HorseSpecifications|
|LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD, 4-pass, 2-door coupe|
|ENGINE||5.0L/500-hp/418-lb-ft DOHC 32-valve V-8|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed manual, 10-speed auto|
|CURB WEIGHT||4,000 lb (est)|
|L x W x H||189.7 x 75.5 x 55.2 in|
|0–60 MPH||3.8-4.0 sec (MT est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||14-15/22-24/17-18 mpg|
|EPA RANGE, COMB||N/A|
|ON SALE||Summer 2023|