The Ford Mustang Dark Horse Is Just a Beginning

2024 ford mustang dark horse
The Ford Mustang Dark Horse Is Just a BeginningJeremy Cliff
2024 ford mustang dark horse
This horse breathes through the nostrils on either side of the front grille.Jeremy Cliff

Greatest hits compilations are, by nature, backward looking. They are the already popular, beloved things brought together in one place. Nothing surprising. The 2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse is familiar in the expected ways, comforting in every riff and harmony. It feels only so new because, well, it’s only so new.

This story originally appeared in Volume 19 of Road & Track.

There’s a horse running in the grille, the taillights have three segments each, and that roofline has been around for a while. The double-overhead-­cam, 32-valve Coyote 5.0-liter V-8 is 88 hp more robust than when the engine first howled for 2011, but it’s still a Coyote. And it’s still in the front and still drives only the rear wheels. Both the Tremec six-speed manual and the optional 10-speed automatic transmissions are known quantities, and all the important dimensions and basic chassis designs from the S550 Mustang generation have been ported to this S650.

2024 ford mustang dark horse
The Dark Horse graphics seen here are the standard stickers. Custom-­painted racing stripes are a $5495 option.Jeremy Cliff

Yes, the Dark Horse is both quick and fast. It bites into corners gluttonously, and its exhaust roars with a stallion’s lust. Previous Mustangs from not that long ago also did that. Boss 302, Mach 1, GT350, Bullitt—there have been a lot of special-edition Mustangs that have performed well. And yet, dang, this Dark Horse is a blast. Talented enough for the track and civilized enough for commuting. Not quite so easygoing, though, that it would be happy crossing a continent.


Considering how Ford mines its own heritage, the Dark Horse moniker is the most (maybe only) surprising element of the package. Bullitt was the last new name applied to a Mustang back in 2001, and that relied upon nostalgia for the 1968 Steve McQueen film of the same name.

2024 ford mustang dark horse
Depending on the lighting, the Dark Horse’s Blue Ember paint shifts into different hues.Jeremy Cliff

Though this is the most powerful factory-made naturally aspirated Coyote 5.0-liter V-8, the “5.0” fender badges are missing. In their place is the new Dark Horse logo, which, Ford announces, is the first Mustang badge to depict a horse head-on. It’s got a ghostly “Riders on the Storm” vibe. The 5.0 is, however, featured atop the engine itself, just as it is with the 2024 Mustang GT’s engine.

“Externally, the two engines look the same,” explains Rob Williams, Ford’s 5.0-liter Mustang engine program engineer. “The primary hardware difference between the Dark Horse and Mustang GT Performance pack is the connecting rod based on the 5.2-liter GT500 design. The Dark Horse’s larger, stronger rod requires a unique crankshaft balance and 5.2-liter con-rod bearings.”

2024 ford mustang dark horse
The fat titanium shift knob heats up something fierce in the sun.Jeremy Cliff

What’s in a Neigh’m? Ford, never reluctant to mine its past for marketing purposes (Bronco, cough, Ranger, ahem), nonetheless went with a new name for its latest high-performance Mustang. “We have a new aesthetic with the Dark Horse. Not just heritage design cues. More black accents. More war paint. A more sinister look,” explains Matt Simpson, Ford’s general manager of enthusiast vehicles. For the record, the car has four matte-black horse logos affixed to its exterior.

How sinister any Mustang can be is an open ponder. But this breaks the Mustang’s string of expected variations—Boss, Mach 1, Bullitt, all the Cobra riffs—and opens up breathing room for whatever comes next. And there will be a next.

2024 ford mustang dark horse
The 2024 Mustangs have a sharper countenance than before. Yes, the turn signals are still sequential.Jeremy Cliff

“There are more planned derivatives coming,” says Simpson, to no one’s surprise. With Chevrolet’s Camaro evaporating and Dodge’s Challenger on the verge of transmogrifying into something electric, Mustang will soon have the American-­made V-8 coupe market to itself. But with a clear track ahead of it, the horse must continue to run. The customers are fickle, style obsessed, and often distracted by nostalgia and unrealistic performance expectations. For Ford to keep eyeballs on this Mustang as it ages, it must gallop onward.

Both the GT and Dark Horse engines run a 12.0:1 compression ratio and use the same voluptuous twin-throttle-body intake. “Dual airboxes with dual throttle bodies reduce the flow restriction in the air-induction system,” Williams contends. “Each bank flows about half as much air as a single-inlet system. This results in a significant reduction in airflow losses.” The fourth-­gen Coyote engine is blessedly naked and gorgeous.

2024 ford mustang dark horse
The bridge between Detroit’s Guardian and One Woodward buildings.Jeremy Cliff

For a moment, weep for the passing of the 2015–­20 GT350’s flat-plane-crank Voodoo based on the Coyote from the current Mustang lineup. That 5.2-liter engine made 526 hp and sang better than Adele during the best 10 minutes of her best-ever day. It’s also why Ford hedges that this is the most powerful 5.0-liter Mustang—­emphasis on the 5.0.

The difference between the GT’s 486-hp Coyote (with optional active exhaust running 93-octane fuel) and the Dark Horse’s 500-hp version (standard active exhaust on 93) comes down, it seems, to how each is calibrated. And the calibration difference isn’t much. Both make their rated peak power at 7250 rpm and generate the same 418 lb-ft of peak torque at 4900 rpm. It’ll take a state-of-the-art, fine-tuned ass to feel much of a difference in daily driving.

2024 ford mustang dark horse
The best of the selectable displays is the one that imitates the gauges of the 1987–93 Fox-body Mustangs.Jeremy Cliff

But daily driving isn’t every day. The clear power­train advantage the Dark Horse has over the GT Performance package is its manual transmission. While the GT offers the ag-friendly G­etrag­ MT-82 six-speed self-stirrer, the Dark Horse gets the sweeter Tremec TR-3160 six-speed. Beyond the subjectively better shift quality of the Tremec, it’s a more closely geared box. For instance, fifth in the Getrag is a 0.81:1 overdrive, while it’s a direct 1.00:1 in the Tremec. The closer ratios mean the torque can be applied on track better with the Tremec. Both transmissions have comparably deep overdrives in sixth and finish with a 3.73:1 final drive lashed to a Torsen limited-­slip differential.

The GT and the Dark Horse share the same automatic option: a shiftable version of the 10-speed codeveloped with General Motors. It worked well during a brief exposure at a press event in North Carolina. The Tremec is a mountain more fun and was aboard the tested vehicle.

2024 ford mustang dark horse
You’re not required to order your Dark Horse in a dark, moody color. But it does menace better than pretty much anything else on the market.Jeremy Cliff

With the Dark Horse’s optional Handling pack­age comes massive rubber: 305/30R-19s on 10.5-inch-wide rims in front and 315/30R-19s on 11.0s in back. That’s the same-size tires Ford fitted to the GT350R and the outgoing Mach 1 with its Handling package. These baloneys are 50 mm wider in front and 40 wider in back than what’s offered on any 2024 GT. However, while the GT350R and Mach 1 used Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s, the Dark Horse gets Pirelli’s new P Zero Trofeo RS tires.

Tipping into the throttle, the Dark Horse’s Coyote seems to growl up the scale at a rate of about one octave per inch of pedal travel. The clutch operates with some effort, but that’s the fun of it. Release this darkest horse, and the result is a 60-mph time of 4.1 seconds, with the quarter-­mile flying past in 12.5 seconds at 115 mph.

2024 ford mustang dark horse
Or maybe the best display is the one that speaks to the soul of the generation who grew up playing video games.Jeremy Cliff

That’s 0.2 second quicker to 60 than the 480-hp Mach 1 and 0.1 quicker in the quarter with the same trap speed. And it’s well behind the 2020 GT350R, which leaped to 60 mph in 3.8 seconds and wrecked the quarter in 12.0 seconds flat at 120 mph. Alas, it’s also behind the 455-hp current Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE, which hit 60 in 3.9 ticks and ran the quarter-mile in 12.3 seconds at 116 mph. In a few months, however, the Camaro won’t be here to kick the Mustang around anymore.

With the suspension’s MagneRide system in Sport or Track mode, diving into a corner hard and letting the big, six-piston Brembo front brakes clamp onto 15.4-inch discs is rewarded with astonishing turn-in. The new Pirellis may or may not be as sticky as the Michelins, but Ford gets the most out of them. And short of a stint at Le Mans, those brakes won’t fade.

2024 ford mustang dark horse
The Dark Horse exhaust growls, barks, and snarls.Jeremy Cliff

On track, the rev-matching feature makes screwing up shifts a matter of willful malice instead of driver incompetence. Maybe Parnelli Jones could coordinate the dance of clutch and shifter more efficiently, but you? You are, presumably, not Parnelli Jones.

If big digital things are your thing, the 2024 Mustang has adopted a massive, sweeping display that runs across most of the dash, with modes ranging from modern gamer to pure science fiction. But the most effective setting is a throwback to the instrumentation once found on the 1987–93 Fox-body Mustang. It’s a tach, a speedometer, and a few discrete ancillary gauges. Easy to read and kind of pretty, it almost makes up for the lack of a volume knob.

2024 ford mustang dark horse
It’s hard to see with dark paint, but the Dark Horse has a matte-black finish under its headlights. It’s mascara for the automotive soul.Jeremy Cliff

Ford has offered Recaro seating in Mustangs off and on since the 1979 Indianapolis 500 Pace Car. The optional Recaros in the Dark Horse are supportive without being confining and are comfortable for hours of hardcore sitting. But another Mustang heritage is chintzy surface texturing, and some of that is apparent on the door panels and center console. That was easier to overlook when Mustangs were cheap, but the Dark Horse Premium starts at $64,860, including a $1595 destination charge. That’s not cheap, and larding up the extras can push the price to nearly $80K.

On a 600-mile trip up and down the length of Michigan, it was apparent the Dark Horse is not a touring machine. Even in Normal mode with exhaust hushed, this is a loud and brassy car with big tires that make a pronounced rolling basketball noise on many surfaces. The ride is always stiff, and sometimes that’s irritating. At other times, it can be infuriating. This car is best appreciated when there’s a track nearby with plenty of open days. The Dark Horse represents the lowest rung in Ford’s burgeoning lineup of track-day and full-race new Mustangs [see “Gran Turismo Dynamite,” left, and “Race to Survive,” page 124].

2024 ford mustang dark horse
With the deaths of the Chevy Camaro and the Dodge Challenger, the Mustang once again becomes the only pony car.Jeremy Cliff

There’s a certain complacency that comes with a greatest-hits album. They’re often released after a group has peaked and is now playing in tribal casinos and at state fairs. But there are exceptions.

Maybe the 2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse is the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975) manifest as a 500-hp, two-door coupe. That record debuted on the Billboard 200 in March 1976 at number four, rocketed to number one the next week, and remained on the chart for 420 weeks. And the Eagles weren’t done. Don Henley told Rolling Stone, “We didn’t really want that album to be released, but had allowed the label to do it in order to buy ourselves more time to work on the Hotel California album.”

There are most certainly more Mustang variations to come. The Dark Horse may just be the compilation that allows Ford enough time to produce something new that’s as great as Hotel California in the next few years.