Payne: On track in the sinister Mustang Dark Horse
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Payne: On track in the sinister Mustang Dark Horse

Aug 22, 2023

Charlotte, North Carolina — Heaven is riding a Ford Mustang Dark Horse at 7,500 RPM.

Coming off the 24-degree Turn One banking at Charlotte Motor Speedway, I banged the manual Tremec shifter from 4th to 5th gear at redline, all 500 ponies roaring in front of me. Down the back straight we thundered until a tight 180-degree hairpin interrupted our reverie.

But for all of the V-8’s glorious aria, the infield course on Charlotte’s 2.3-mile “roval” (road oval, combining Charlotte’s oval track with a tight infield course) is where the Dark Horse really shows its stuff.

Building on the seventh-generation Mustang I recently tested in the canyons of Angeles Crest Highway north of Los Angeles, Dark Horse is the new-gen Mustang’s first performance variant.

It’s no GT350 – the screaming, 526-horse, 8,000 RPM, V8-powered Shelby variant that Ford introduced with its 2015 sixth-gen coupe – but it’ll do. Credit Mustang’s entry into IMSA’s new GT3 and Mustang Challenge series with a pair of snorting, earth-pawing race cars – both flying the Dark Horse banner. Win on Sunday, sell Dark Horses on Monday.

Dark Horse is one mean-lookin’ filly.

You’ll know it by the black mask enveloping the grille and headlights. Black stripes flow up the hood (there are graphics options, typical of Mustang customization) like striping on a stallion’s nose. Get Dark Horse in red or Grabber Blue to highlight the black trim.

The visual allows for instant differentiation from the yellow GT that I flogged in California. And the Dark Horse picks up where the loaded $60K GT lets off: performance package with upgraded P-Zero summer tires, sway-bars, brakes and spoiler out back.

Decelerating into Charlotte Motor Speedway’s hairpin, these elements combine to bring the two-door missile back to earth, just as they teamed up in the GT to conquer California Route 2 with precise handling and instant toque. Indeed, Dark Horse destroyed the rolling North Carolina country roads leading into the Motor Speedway of Charlotte.

But the track is Dark Horse’s natural habitat. I encourage owners to spend time there to explore its envelope. Here the engine, brakes, tires and transmission are pushed to the limit of heat and grip. It’s why Ford upgraded Mustang’s manual transmission from a Getrag unit in the GT to the Dark Horse’s Tremec — the latter equipped with two coolers to withstand sizzling temps.

It’s why you’ll want to upgrade to the $4,995 Dark Horse Handling Package and its sticky P-Zero Trofeo RS rubber (or buy a new set of rims and take slick tires to the track). The Handling Pack comes with goodies like an adjustable rear wing and front splitter — but it’s the tires that are the secret sauce.

Hard on the brakes into the hairpin, the Pirelli gumballs gripped the pavement with confidence compared to the slipperier summer P-Zeros. Rev-matching with the manual shifter help make for smooth corner entry — BRAP! BRAP! BRAP! — as I shifted from fifth to second for the tight left-hander.

Sticky as they are, the Trofeos couldn’t contain the 5.0-liter Coyote V-8’s 415 pound-feet of torque, and the rear end briefly stepped out as I stomped the throttle up into Infield Turn 3. Sliding across the 90-degree Turn 3 apex, Dark Horse was remarkably balanced for a 3,900-pound land shark that has swallowed a V-8 boat anchor — but uphill Turn 4 would be a bigger challenge.

A long 180-degree left-hander, Turn 4 is essentially half a skid pad — an opportunity to get to the sports car’s true character. And Mustang likes to, um, understeer.

Ford’s chief muscle car competitor, Camaro, has shown up the Ford pony in such exercises given the Chevy’s neutral handling (credit a chassis shared with the corner-carving Cadillac CT4-V). Sure enough, Dark Horse — like a pack horse distracted by some delicious grass on the side of a trail — was stubborn about turning into Turn 4, its nose plowing straight ahead.

Patience, Payne. I back off the throttle and rotate the big coupe into the apex. Once it sniffed the apex, Dark Horse responded, the Trofoes absorbing power. I get back on throttle again — only to face yet another 180-degree Turn 5. And another for Turn 7. And again in Turns 8 and 9.

The inherent push is always there, but I learned to coordinate V-8 torque and sticky rubber to hit my marks. It’s what makes track days so much fun, and why eight-holers like Mustang are track favorites. The Coyote’s wail echoed off CMS’s walls as I pounded around lap after lap.

Dark Horse options leather Recaro seats, which were both supportive and comfortable — unlike the back-crippling carbon-fiber seats I recently experienced in the BMW M3.

With its gorgeous 19-inch display screens housing digital instrument and infotainment displays, seventh-gen V-8 Mustangs can now be credibly considered peers of the Bimmer, which boasts a similar display. In past generations, interiors weren’t Mustang’s strength, but that has changed and you’ll enjoy customizing Dark Horse’s track modes — augmented by Unreal Engine gaming graphics that are BMW’s match.

One thing Mustang could learn from Bimmer is to put its horizontal RPM tachometer (TRACK mode) in a head-up display for maximum driver visibility. Especially since the Dark Horse tops out at a nose-bleed $72K. That’s $15K shy of a loaded, 500-horse M4 Competition, but still a lot of coin considering that the Corvette C8 and Porsche Cayman start in the mid-$60,000 range.

But add a proper, howling flat-6 to the Cayman and price soars to $93K. The Corvette is stiffer competition. Add a Z51 performance package and the Chevy is competitively priced with the Ford while providing its own 495-horse V-8 and high-tech interior. Especially if you equip the Mustang with the $1,595 10-speed automatic, which rivals the ‘Vette for smooth motoring. The ‘Vette doesn’t offer a manual, however.

Rotating out of the last 180-degree Turn 9 back up onto CMS’s banking, I grabbed the blue shifter knob and shoved it into third gear at redline. Then 4th gear, the cannon-sized quad pipes out back exhaling with a snort. Coyote howling toward redline.

I grabbed for 5th. Heaven.

Next week: 2023 GMC Sierra AT4X

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, four-passenger sports car

Price: $60,865 base, including $1,595 destination ($67,510 manual and $72,800 automatic as tested)

Power plant: 5.0-liter V-8

Power: 500 horsepower, 418 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual; 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.8-4.3 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed: 165 mph

Weight: 3,949 pounds (manual); 3,993 (automatic)

Fuel economy: EPA 14 mpg city/22 mpg highway/17 mpg combined (manual)

Report card

Highs: Looks wicked; Trofeo RS tires grip like glue

Lows: Understeer at the limit; Mustang GT with slicks gets you to the same place for less coin

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at [email protected] or Twitter @HenryEPayne

Report card