Roaring through the banked turn, the speedometer exceeds three digits as the Coyote howls beyond 7,000 rpm. Cool air blows across my hand as I grab the grippy titanium shift knob, when I push in the clutch, the car blips the throttle on its own, easing the car into gear as I step on the binders before turning down into the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course.
Even our senior management was amazed that there was no trade-off between ride and handling anymore. The ride got better, and the handling got better. -Jamie Cullen, Mustang Vehicle Dynamics Supervisor
The air conditioning cooling my shift hand is a pleasant reminder that just hours before I was driving the same car on the streets. There it exhibited the manners you might expect from a far more reserved machine, but this is the 2024 Mustang Dark Horse — Ford’s first new Mustang performance model in more than two decades.
We live in wonderful times, but before the triple-digit fun began, I drove away from the track on a jaunt through some beautiful local roads to assess the street prowess of the latest hi-po pony. Naturally, it benefits from all the updates imbued in its more mainstream brethren but turns up the performance knobs higher.
The moment there was a clear road, I stood on the loud pedal and things got louder in the best way. The exhaust note transformed from a booming rumble to a snarl that exemplifies the attitude of the first forward-facing horse badge to grace a Mustang model. The tone is courtesy of unique mufflers and tuning.
The theme of hardware and software joining forces to improve both performance and driveability is part of the mission for the development of all the ’24 Mustangs, and the Dark Horse follows in those hoofprints at a faster pace.
My first time in the saddle was on the street in a car optioned with the Handling Pack, which rides on staggered, 19-inch Dark Tarnish wheels wrapped in Pirelli Trofeo RS rubber. It also sports adjustable strut-top mounts, revised MagneRide calibration, a unique rear wing with a removable Gurney flap, and more.
From previous experience, you might assume the more track-oriented option might be too much for everyday driving. Not this time around. While it was a bit more communicative over noisier sections of the road, it came off as more than livable for anyone with an inclination toward performance.
“It has stiffer front springs, stiffer rear springs, more rear bar, and a shorter sidewall. which is why I think our team is most proud, like, the most-improved award goes to the Handling Pack,” Mike Del Zio, Mustang Vehicle Dynamics Engineer, said. “Because we’re really happy with the ride. We’re able to help out with the handling, but we think we think we’ve made the biggest strides in the ride and the tram-lining on that car.”
One of the few complaints regarding the previous Shelby GT350 was its tendency to steer itself in reaction to road imperfection, which engineers call tram-lining. Mach 1 addressed that deftly, and the latest Mustangs continue that pattern, even with the aggressive staggered tire fitment on the Dark Horse Handling Pack car.
“We’ve got a multi-spine steering shaft that we grabbed from Mach 1. We put that across the board for 650. Then, on top of that, we took out the isolator altogether as well,” Tim Smith, Mustang Engineering Supervisor, says. “The cross-car beam that it all attaches to is massively better. It pays dividends not just for steering like in the coupes and in the convertibles. It just gives you much more structure under the car. All these things are building blocks to a great experience.”
While it resists tram-lining, the Dark Horse did show a bit of bump steer when confronted with major road surface changes, but in general, it carries the same steady precision offered by its lower-powered cousins, albeit with a bit lighter feel in the flat-bottom wheel than the Mustang GT Performance Pack.
That frisky steering feel is a byproduct of the more aggressive suspension hardware on the Handling Package car, which requires a different approach to calibrating the MagneRide damping to work with the lower ride height, stiffer springs, and 24mm hollow sway bar in front and 24mm solid sway bar out back.
“What we tried to do is make the GT run over everything and still steer well, but just take it all. We did that with a lower spring rate and a little more damping. Now (with Dark Horse), you’ve got this extra spring so you still do have more damping, but proportionally, you put more spring in and then you put in damping and now you’re now you can kind of let the thing be a little playful.” Del Zio, who has decades of experience making Mustangs handle, explains.
In practice, the Dark Horse feels lighter on its hooves on the street. Where the Performance Pack GT feels battleship stable, this car is ready to lean into the corner and rip, while still embodying the engineers’ mission to deliver track-ready performance without an over-the-road penalty.
“The time and effort that Mike (Del Zio) and Adam (Brecher) put into the MagneRide to unlock as much potential as possible were key,” Jamie Cullen, Mustang Vehicle Dynamics Supervisor, says. “It’s that old 80/20 rule like 80-percent comes really quick, but the remaining 20 takes a long time. They spent an inordinate amount of time getting the 20 by going to tracks and riding curbs just making sure that the suspension would do the best in all situations.”
To achieve those goals on all the new Mustangs, including Dark Horse, engineers deployed a new controller and new software to deliver higher levels of comfort and performance.
“We got upgraded software and the control strategy was different, but it allowed us a lot more fine-tuned control, specifically in the ride. So you know for that low-speed body control to make it feel controlled without feeling harsh. That’s the good news. The bad news is it was a ground-up calibration, so we did spend endless hours learning the new software and optimizing it…” Cullen says. “Even our senior management was amazed that there was no trade-off between ride and handling anymore. The ride got better, and the handling got better. That was a secret that Mike (Del Zio) was able to unlock.”
That handling prowess was clear on the CMS Roval course run by the Ford Performance Racing School. Made up of a quarter of the NASCAR oval and an intricate infield road course, it challenges the driver and showcases both the powertrain and suspension attributes baked into the Dark Horse.
Yours truly began by learning the track in a base Dark Horse with the TREMEC 3160 six-speed manual transmission. It’s a familiar arrangement carried over from GT350 and Mach 1, and it shares the latter’s matched-rev-downshift feature that takes the heel and toe work out of the driver’s hands and allows more concentration on the track ahead. It was a fun if tentative ride that proved the base car is more than competent on the track, but could occasionally overwhelm its tires.
Moving to a Dark Horse Handling Package car optioned with the automatic transmission turned the experience into a rollercoaster ride with a steering wheel and a throttle. With more aggressive suspension and the sticky Pirelli Trofeo RS rubber onboard, the grip was ample and consistent.
“One of the big things for us that helped unlock the car is having such a close partnership with Pirelli…” Cullen explained. “Mike (Del Zio) did some of the driving and evaluation work with Pirelli. The result is the Trofeo RS and that’s been a quantum leap. It extends the performance, both lateral longitudinal wave performance, improves tram-lining performance, and increases longevity. That’s a home run.”
Not only is the Handling Pack rubber wider, measuring 305 in front and 315 out back, in place of the 255 and 275 widths on the base car, but benefits from a ground-up design engineered to let the Dark Horse gallop at full trot.
“The building process is a new process that is partially a spin-off of the Formula 1 process which allows us to use more than one compound in both the width and the thickness of the tread,” Davide Conti, Pirelli North American R&D Director, explained. “So in this way, we can balance the grip levels that we want on the inside and outside of the tire and also manage the stiffness of the tread blocks in the different areas of the tire. This allowed us again to have to push further the trade-off between the wet the dry traction, also because the wear of this is definitely better than the previous product…”
Applying that prodigious grip was a hoot thanks to a finely tuned 10R80 10-speed automatic. In Track mode, it bangs upshifts and executes downshifts in a manner unheard of just a few years ago. The automatic Dark Horse is a legitimate performer on the track and it lets the driver just focus on negotiating the course at high speed.
“We built off that Mach 1 strategy, which was the first time a base Mustang had a fully developed Track mode. We took everything we did there and that was the starting point. We kept building so our transmission calibrator spent a lot of time at the track with us refining this,” Del Zio said.
With the transmission tending to the shifting and the car providing reliable grip lap after lap, it was easy to overlook how well the brakes reined in the latest performance pony. This scribe never had the fortitude to find their limits, but based on a few short stints on track those limits are impressive, and that is the result of fresh brake design.
“There are some instances in the past where we can utilize some components, but most of the time with a high-performance car like this, it does require a brand new design,” Brandon Miller, Sports Car Product Manager at Brembo, said. “So a lot of the times people would look at maybe the GT500 on the S550 platform and say, ‘Oh, it looks like the same brakes. It’s completely different. You have different disc sizes, different pad thicknesses, and a couple of different variations. We’ve been a proud Ford partner for over 20 years stopping Mustang since the 2000 Cobra R, so when we sit down with Ford, they give us a list of what they need, and we’ll work together to build them the package that they need.”
Combined, the braking, handling, and shifting prowess make the most of the 500 horsepower underhood. Engineers benchmarked the Dark Horse against competitive vehicles, as well as internal stars like the Mach 1 and Shelby GT350. The Mach 1 was said to approach GT350 lap times on more intricate courses, and the Dark Horse outperformed Mach 1 on every track it was tested. Solving that riddle says the Dark Horse, despite having 26 fewer horsepower, might just exceed the heralded GT350 in some situations.
All told the Dark Horse is fast, fun, and ferocious, and it stakes the claim to create a lasting performance Mustang legacy at the dawn of the pony car’s seventh generation.