DRIVEN: New Ford Mustang Dark Horse combines old-school muscle with modern finesse

Published Aug 1, 2023


Only a handful of cars have the ability to get the public’s emotions aflutter and when the Ford Mustang is in the mix, well, it’s pretty much top of the pile.

Add a Dark Horse prefix and you know it’s likely to be something special.

We were fortunate enough to be at the global reveal in Detroit last year where Mustang fans from all over America gathered to see what the fuss was about.

Fast forward almost a year and where better to put it to the test than at the home of NASCAR in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The Mustang Dark Horse is the first new performance name for the brand since Mustang Bullitt was introduced in 2001.

Apart from the obvious exterior and interior changes, its beating heart is a naturally aspirated 5.0-litre Coyote V8 engine with 373kW and 567Nm of torque making it the most powerful non-Shelby edition ever.

And in a world of politically correct same-same EVs, that's music to the ears for any true petrolhead.

The Ford Performance crew took the large lump of metal and upgraded a uniquely balanced crankshaft and forged piston connecting rods to handle greater cylinder pressures and piston speeds as well as a sports strengthened camshafts for track-durability needs, including extended operation close to its 7,500rpm redline.

And for good measure they’ve included a dual throttle-body intake design to improve engine breathing clearly seen by the accentuated open nostrils in the front grille.

All of these improvements send power to the rear wheels via a six-speed TREMEC manual transmission that includes a transmission oil cooler.

There’s also the option of a 10-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters when you switch it over to the manual option.

Ford South Africa haven’t confirmed yet which version we’ll be getting but here’s hoping the 3D-printed anodized blue titanium shift ball tops the list.

Additional enhancements include brake cooling NACA ducts, an auxiliary engine oil cooler, rear axle cooler and a lightweight radiator with improved and more powerful cooling fans.

Ford describes the Dark Horse as sinister looking and they’re not far off.

It’s unabashed a Mustang, featuring a gloss black grille with trapezoidal nostrils and a unique lower front bumper with high-gloss “fangs”, lower side skirts and at the back a fixed rear wing, diffuser and darkened quad exhaust tips.

Dark Horse badges are placed on the fenders, boot and door sills with an anodized version of the signature pony on the front, the first time Mustang has had a forward-facing horse.

We had to wait for the afternoon city and highway driving session before we could take a closer look at the interior.

When the morning is taken up with speedway laps with a helmet and the car in Track Mode while getting to grips with flatshifting gear changes, the sweeping course and trying not to write the car off while pushing the limits in 36 degree heat, there’s not a whole lot of time to look at the niceties of the interior.

When things are a little more sedate you’ll notice that the cockpit is very driver-centric.

It has a thicker flat-bottomed suede-wrapped steering wheel with Bright Indigo Blue accent stitching with all the usual buttons and switches including an easy to reach drive mode button.

The 12.4-inch instrument cluster is fully digital, allowing you to customise it to your preferred setting flowing into a 13.2-inch SYNC 4 touchscreen infotainment system angled towards the driver.

There’s contrasting blue stitching across the door panels and seats, gear shift gaiter and centre console and the interior trim, bezels and vents have been replaced by a dark metallic gloss.

There’s also a B&O Sound System with 12 speakers and a subwoofer if you ever get tired or bored of the glorious sound of a V8.

And that’s unlikely as we waited our turn behind the wheel at the Charlotte Raceway.

Charlotte is homebase for every NASCAR team (and the NASCAR Hall of Fame) and as much as F1 is the darling of motorsport, NASCAR rules in America and it’s easy to see why.

With V8s strapped to a roll cage rumbling past at 320km/h in cars that resemble those the public can buy, it’s a more raw form of racing and they have no problem filling a 300,000 seater track on any Sunday race day.

And I can tell you that a 24 degree banked turn a foot or two from the wall can become very intimidating at 220km/h, so much respect for those drivers that do it much faster with 35+ cars around them, no sound or heat insulation, spotters and crew chiefs shouting instructions and drivers pushing you from behind for sometimes 600 miles (965 kilometres) on race weekend.

What made our time on the track special was that the Ford people in charge let us drive after an explanatory tour in a high standing shuttle and then without an instructor switched the Dark Horse to Track Mode and let us loose.

My first session was in the manual Mustang fitted with the Track Pack that adds stiffer springs, larger front and rear sway bars and wider Pirelli Trofeo tires and 19-inch by 10.5-inch front and 19-inch by 11-inch rear wheels.

Sadly initial indications are that it won’t be available in the South African market.

Still, it’s quite an introduction to the car as the first few laps gets you acquainted with its power and handling characteristics.

Dropping the clutch and flooring it there’s virtually no wheel spin as it shoots forward allowing the Torsen rear differential to come into its own.

And when you remember that at 5000rpm you can flatshift, barreling into the banked turn heading towards the wall after a sharp left seriously gets your heartbeat racing.

Pushing as hard as you can on 19-inch Brembo front six piston brakes with 13.9-inch rotors makes you appreciate the stopping power before a left turn into a part of the track inside the oval.

Switching gears through hairpins and gentle curves using as much of the track as possible you get a feel for its chassis tuning, larger rear sway bars and heavy-duty front shocks not to mention specially designed and manufactured Pirelli P ZERO tyres on staggered fitted rims.

Next up was the automatic “standard” version which is the Dark Horse most likely to come to our shores.

It’s not a whole lot tamer except that you can focus a bit more on the handling dynamics while letting the “box do its thing.

It’s outstandingly calibrated and switches over seamlessly as it hits the red line with a fantastic blip as it gears down when you stomp on the brakes.

Steering is light and direct with very good feedback with a new lightweight strut tower brace and K-Brace and MagneRide shocks that monitor wheel and tyre movement 1 000 times per second.

Putting the Dark Horse through its paces really makes you appreciate what the engineers and designers have managed to do with this car.

The Mustang has always been a fun car to drive, more because of its sound, heritage and straight line speed but past Mustangs have been hard work and compromised in terms of handling when it comes to the twisty parts.

The Dark Horse not so.

It’s solidly planted and will allow you to push it to the limit without feeling like it’s about to swing its back around at every corner although just when you think you’re ready to sign a NASCAR Rookie Driver contract, it will remind you that it’s not completely reigned in.

Any idea of shenanigans on the open road route were quickly banished when we were told that one of the local journalists had been slapped with a $1 000 fine and reckless driving infringement and would have to appear in court to explain himself.

So we settled down with the manual and spent a few hours admiring the perfect state of their roads and highways.

Fortunately the speed readout was in miles so we could (mostly) stick to the limit but the satnav instructions took a while to get used to while explaining directions in miles and feet.

The clutch is light and gear changes slick and there’s enough low down torque so that you don’t have to constantly manipulate the gearbox.

Befitting a car like the Dark Horse the seating position is comfortable with support in all the right places especially the lumbar parts as I found out on the track.

It also seems that the view over the bonnet isn’t as intrusive as the current Mustang GT.

Build quality and interior fittings look decent with soft touch surfaces and quality stitching throughout.

Americans are used to big muscle cars and especially V8s but when a dyed in the wool Dodge Charger fan comes out of the halfway stop restaurant and says he’s not a Mustang fan but that this is a special machine, you know the guys at Ford have done it right.

There’s no timing yet for local release, and specifications but expect it to be during the course of next year.