Performance Coupe Showdown: 2023 BMW M2 vs. 2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse

2024 ford mustang dark horse vs 2023 bmw m2
2023 BMW M2 vs. 2024 Ford Mustang Dark HorseMarc Urbano - Car and Driver
2024 ford mustang dark horse vs 2023 bmw m2
Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

From the May/June issue of Car and Driver.

Elsewhere in this magazine is a comparison test of eight rational compact SUVs that carry families, haul groceries, and do the daily grind honorably. Here, we compare two examples of a very different type of automobile. Built less for the practical side of transportation and more for the admittedly selfish pursuit of driving pleasure, the 500-hp Ford Mustang Dark Horse and its 453-hp German rival, the BMW M2, square up against each other now that the Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger have hit the showers.

Both the Dark Horse and the M2 are products of a major refresh, indicating that their makers are here to play for a little while longer—but maybe not much longer. The M2 is likely to be the last BMW to offer three pedals, according to M's head of development, Dirk Hacker, and the Mustang is Ford's lone surviving passenger car, although Ford CEO Jim Farley promises that the V-8 Mustang has a lot of life left in it. Perhaps you're wondering why we didn't include the Toyota Supra and the new Nissan Z NISMO in this round. We decided to examine only cars with rear seats; practicality isn't completely dead here.

2024 ford mustang dark horse vs 2023 bmw m2
Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

Seeking the most visceral driving experience, we opted for the six-speed manual versions of the 2023 M2 and 2024 Dark Horse. The prices also lined up well. At $75,345, the M2 came equipped with the Carbon package ($9900), which adds carbon-fiber trim, sheds weight with a carbon-fiber roof and M Carbon bucket seats, and unlocks a higher top-speed governor and a day at BMW's driving school. The M2 also had the Shadowline package ($300), which darkens the headlight surrounds and cannon-sized quad exhaust tips, plus adaptive LED headlights ($650) and special emblems and badging from the BMW M 50 Years package ($200). Its Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires are standard.


The $78,755 Mustang Dark Horse had plenty of extras too. The Dark Horse Handling package ($5495) brings adjustable strut mounts, a more aggressive tune for the magnetorheological dampers, and wider 19-inch wheels wrapped in sticky Pirelli P Zero Trofeo RS tires, which happen to fall under Tire Rack's "streetable track and competition" category. The Recaro seats ($1995) get unique bolsters, while Grabber Blue brake calipers cost $495. The Premium package ($3995) tacked on an anti-theft system, wheel locks, and a garage-door opener. The painted Tarnish Dark and Shadow Black hood stripe ($5495) is an option we could go without. A day at Ford's Performance Driving School is included with all Dark Horses.

2023 bmw m2
Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

To ensure a proper environment for testing these two coupes, we drew a loop from Los Angeles southeast to Borrego Springs, then back north via Palm Springs and west into the city of Azusa. Palomar Mountain challenged us with tightly knit hairpins, Palm Desert's Highway 74 brought high-speed sweepers, and San Gabriel Canyon Road took us to new heights and a dead end. To keep things real, we sprinkled in the occasional freeway stint around greater L.A. After over 500 miles of fun, we settled on a winner.

Interior and Exterior

Despite each car sharing a host of spicy menu items, sitting in both is like visiting two completely different restaurants. Both vehicles get sport seats and large screens, but that's where the similarities end. The manually adjustable Recaros in the Dark Horse are plush and comfortable. The M2 gets racing-style carbon-fiber buckets that are not only tough to get in and out of but also force your legs together. Technical editor Dan Edmunds complained about a lack of padding, digging his wallet out of his back pocket to find relief each time he climbed in. The M2's seats were better at holding us in place during high-g cornering maneuvers, but the Mustang's Recaros remained the obvious favorite in every other environment.

2024 ford mustang dark horse
Car and Driver

Nostalgia and technology bump heads in the Mustang's interior. Dotting the center stack ahead of the shifter are the push-button start, volume knob, and traction-control button. The whole area looks like it's just missing a tape deck. Perched above it, though, is a Jumbotron-rivaling 13.2-inch infotainment touchscreen, and directly in front of the driver is a 12.4-inch digital instrument cluster. Wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are on the menu, as are launch-control settings and track-data analysis, and the gauge cluster's look can change to a digital rendition of the 1987–1993 Mustang's instruments. The Ford infotainment system did suffer from slow startups, distortion in music while using smartphone streaming apps, and relatively sluggish reaction to inputs.

Ford Mustang Dark Horse

HIGHS: Beauty that's both seen and heard, comfy seats for the streets, brakes that will get you out of trouble.
LOWS: Defeated by most gas stations and their entrances, it's not good when the late-'80s gauge cluster is the clearest one, a few infotainment-related problems.
VERDICT: The last—and best—of its kind.

The BMW offers more screen acreage with a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster and a 14.9-inch center touchscreen embedded in the dash. There's an almost overwhelming level of configurability, which makes finding an operation as basic as disabling lane-keeping assist a user-experience nightmare. You select drive modes through the touchscreen too, although you can activate your combination of favorites with the bright red M1 and M2 toggle switches near the center of the steering wheel.

Light blue, dark blue, and red M patterns on the M2's door panels and within the M Carbon bucket seats' inserts add a splash of color to the BMW's interior. There are carbon-fiber trim pieces on the steering wheel, dash, center console, door panels, and places where the Dark Horse uses grained plastic instead. Neither coupe has rear seats worthy of human passengers, but if you do cram someone back there, at least the BMW offers climate controls to keep them from complaining too much.

2024 ford mustang dark horse vs 2023 bmw m2
Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

Upright and relatively glassy, the M2's greenhouse provides easy outside views. The Mustang's smaller side glass and its mirrors that are no bigger than Pop-Tarts limit visibility. In the BMW's rearview mirror, you can see a subtle hump at the corner of the trunklid, while the Dark Horse blocks that view with a wing. Good outward visibility makes lane changes less stressful—advantage, BMW.

Powertrain and Performance

The Dark Horse takes choice parts from great Mustangs of the recent past: forged connecting rods from the discontinued Shelby GT500 and the Tremec TR-3160 six-speed manual transmission out of the last-gen Mach 1 and Shelby GT350/350R. The M2 is a mix of spare parts too. Its twin-turbo 3.0-liter inline-six powerplant is a slightly detuned version of the S58 found in many BMW M models. The 15.0-inch front and 14.6-inch rear rotors, adaptive dampers, and an electronically controlled limited-slip differential are all borrowed from its big brother, the M4.

The straight-six in the M2 revs as if unencumbered by reciprocating mass. At no point on its way to a 7200-rpm redline does it sound as exciting and menacing as the Dark Horse's 5.0- liter V-8, but the altitude-compensating turbos kept the BMW squirting ahead of the Ford in the thin air 4000 feet above sea level. On city streets, it's the Mustang that has people swiveling their heads to see what is making that sound—especially with the exhaust in Sport or Track mode.

2023 bmw m2
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The M2 wins the race to 60 mph, which it completes in 4.1 seconds, two-tenths quicker than the Mustang. It beats the Ford nearly everywhere, traveling a quarter-mile in 12.3 seconds at 119 mph versus the Dark Horse's 12.7-second run at 115 mph. The M2's short gearing means passing at freeway speeds doesn't necessarily call for a downshift; the Bimmer's 6.7-second 50-to-70-mph result is 2.5 seconds quicker than the taller-geared Mustang's.


HIGHS: As quick as techno, performance that's more accessible, easier to live with on a daily basis.
Can't hear it over the Mustang's V-8, optional seats are hard and difficult to get out of, shifter lacks the crisp engagement of the Stang's.
VERDICT: A practical, powerful, and fun sports coupe—the kind BMW used to make.

During our stopping tests, the Mustang's humongous 15.4-inch two-piece iron front rotors, six-piston calipers, and sticky summer tires dug in. The Dark Horse stopped from 70 mph in 141 feet, 10 feet sooner than the M2, and from 100 mph in 274 feet, 23 less than the BMW.

Both the Mustang and the M2 gained some weight with this generation. At 3968 pounds, the Dark Horse is 214 pounds heavier than the BMW and 175 pounds heavier than its closest analogue, the previous-generation Mustang Mach 1. The M2, though 182 pounds heavier than the previous-generation M2 Competition, is easily the nimbler and more playful of the two.

2024 ford mustang dark horse
Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

Driving Experience

Against the seemingly never-ending corners of the best canyon roads Southern California has to offer, the M2 proves to be the easier coupe to drive quickly. The BMW's Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires aren't as aggressive as the big boots on the Mustang, but 1.04 g's on the skidpad isn't far behind the Dark Horse's 1.07-g average. On the street, the M2 lacks the grip of the fat-tired Dark Horse, but it's happier approaching its limits, inspiring the confidence to go harder into the next apex. The Dark Horse never gets left behind, but despite having better steering feel than the BMW, its larger size and greater mass do make hustling it on tight roads feel more like work. But sometimes work is fun. Plus, the V-8's exhaust note sounds breathtaking as it echoes off canyon walls.

Whatever the setting, the M2's steering effort is usually too light. It's easy to give it too much input, though a good driver will adjust quickly. And though we preferred the Mustang's steering feel, it too left us wanting more feedback. Listening to the Dark Horse's Pirellis squeal tells you more than the steering wheel does anyway.

The driver can configure the M2's ride toward comfort, but even the more pliant damper settings can't add cushion to the stiff competition seats. The Dark Horse benefits from a smooth ride and plush seating, but its Handling package gives it just enough camber to cause tramlining on anything but perfectly smooth roads.

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Working the Tremec six-speed's titanium shift knob is a direct and mechanical affair. Quick shifts are possible in both, although the Ford seems happier to take the abuse of a fast one-to-two redline shift. It also features no-lift shifting.

The Mustang's predatory growl greatly out-shouts the buzzing and pops of the M2. At highway speeds, the M2 is quieter and more relaxed than the Mustang and goes a lot farther on a gallon of gas. Its twin-turbocharged inline-six sipped a gallon every 18 miles, while the V-8-powered Dark Hose sucked down premium at a rate of 14 mpg. Offsetting that efficiency advantage is the BMW's tiny 13.7-gallon tank, which requires refilling almost as often as the Dark Horse's 16.0-gallon hold.

When you pull into the gas station, you might scrape the Dark Horse's optional front splitter upon entrance. Driving with it attached during street use requires angled entries to avoid damage. With no front parking sensors or camera, park carefully or listen for the crunch. The M2 (Captain Practical, as we nicknamed it) clears most parking blocks and—unlike the Mustang—has front park assist for when it won't.

And the Winner Is...

Many of the Dark Horse's best attributes—the roaring V-8, the sticky rubber, its menacing muscle-car looks, and its mega brakes—are all good enough reasons to want one. The BMW might not measure up when it comes to V-8 rumble, but it serves up performance with greater ease. More glass makes it easier to sluice through traffic. Its infotainment software operates without a hiccup. Its shifter, though not as wonderfully mechanical as the Mustang's, is effortless to row quickly. We don't love how light the steering feels in the M2, but the lighter clutch-pedal feel is easier on the leg. Plus, the M2 is quicker.

The Dark Horse costs over $15,000 more than a similarly optioned Mustang GT and barely beats the GT's performance. There always has to be a second place, but we wouldn't call the Dark Horse a loser. Both coupes supply the type of driving experience we love, and we're willing to give up a bit of comfort, some fuel economy, and a little of our hearing to experience it. But the M2 requires less sacrifice to enjoy the same performance and is a better time when you're just trundling home on a clogged freeway. It's more comfortable, more refined, and easier to drive to its limits. The BMW takes the win, but if you fall hard for the Mustang's V-8, we completely understand.

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