What: 2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse
Where: Charlotte Motor Speedway, USA
Conditions: Hot, sunny
What is it?
An American automotive icon and an iconic American racetrack. The recent launch of the new-generation Ford Mustang took place, in part, at the Charlotte Motor Speedway – the heart of NASCAR country.
We got to put the new Mustang Dark Horse hero model through its paces around a special version of the ‘Roval' – a combination of the high-banked oval and a challenging in-field road course.
Why does it deserve a track test?
The Dark Horse is an evolution of the previous generation's Mach 1, which was designed to be the most track-capable version of the Mustang. Ford has even taken it to the next level with the Dark Horse, using it as the basis for two new track-only versions of the pony car – the Dark Horse R and Dark Horse S.
So it stands to reason that we should see how it handles itself on the track and where better than the Charlotte Roval, where the NASCAR version of the Mustang goes into battle. Ford has us using a slightly different version than the ones Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and co. will drive on but it's enough to make us feel like we're living out our Days of Thunder dreams or fantasy of being a NASCAR star.
What's it like inside?
Ford has given this new-gen Mustang a refreshed interior, carrying over large parts of the previous model (door trims and the basic layout) but adding a lot of new technology. Specifically, an all-new double digital display, with a 12.4-inch digital instrument panel and a 13.2-inch infotainment touchscreen combined with one single housing.
For the track, the new digital instrument display includes the ability to cycle through multiple layout options including a ‘Track' setting that looks like the latest NASCAR dashboard. It's well-laid out too, unlike so many new overly complex digital displays, with a large tacho that runs left to right, a speedo and gear indicator all clearly visible.
How's it go down the straights?
The Dark Horse is powered by Ford's now-familiar 5.0-litre ‘Coyote' V8 engine that powered the previous Mach 1. In this new model it's tuned to make 372kW of power and 566Nm of torque and can rev all the way out to 7300rpm.
The engine is paired to a Tremec six-speed manual gearbox or a 10-speed automatic. The Tremec features the same ‘flat-shift' technology as the previous generation Mach 1, which means you can keep your foot flat to the floor on the accelerator and simply dip the clutch and pull the next gear without lifting. It's a great trick and does feel quicker on the track, but is less practical on the road as it requires more than 90 per cent throttle and only cuts the spark to the engine briefly to allow the shift, so you need to be in a very committed situation.
We gave both the engine and flat-shifting transmission a workout on the Charlotte Roval, keeping our right foot buried and letting the V8 scream all the way to the redline before simply dipping the clutch and grabbing the next gear.
The engine is impressively powerful and linear, easily hauling past 200km/h before halfway down the back straight of the oval before we need to slam on the brakes and turn into the infield turns.
What's it like in the bends?
Ford is offering the Dark Horse with an optional handling package, which brings a unique suspension tune and stickier Pirelli Trofeo RS tyres – instead of the usual Pirelli P Zeros. Unfortunately it won't be available though Ford directly, but the closely associated Herrod Performance is set to offer it for Australian customers.
If you're the kind of person who wants to track their Mustang regularly and focuses on lap times then I'd highly recommend adding the handling upgrades. It makes a very noticeable difference in behaviour, with the handling package feeling sharper and more responsive, while the standard model is still quick but slides around more.
If your priority is fun and enjoying the occasional skid, then you shouldn't bother with the handling pack and enjoy the playful nature of this well-sorted coupe.
And if you really like your skids, then you'll want the new ‘Drift Brake' that turns the electronic park brake into a rally-style lever. It allows you to simply pull the lever and snap the back end of the Mustang out like a pro.
Is it a front-runner or backmarker?
The Mustang Dark Horse is definitely a front-runner, as Ford has clearly learnt lessons from the previous ‘S550' generation model and made this new model a more well-rounded and international performance car.
The combination of the handling package and Drift Brake only elevate its on-track credentials, but the new Dark Horse is fundamentally an exciting, engaging and powerful track car.