Ford Mustang Dark Horse 2023 Review
The seventh-generation S650 Ford Mustang is on its way Down Under, taking its sweet time after its reveal in September 2022 as first deliveries push out into the first quarter of 2024. But it will be worth the wait, headlined by the new Ford Mustang Dark Horse that’s an absolute beast. More power, more pace, sharper handling, sharper looks and some neat tricks like a drift lever and remote revving make the Dark Horse a fitting successor to the S550 Mustang Mach 1. Old-school? Sure. All-new? Hardly. But the follow-up to the first ‘global’ Mustang that was produced in right-hand drive ex-factory and immediately became Australia’s top-selling sports car has lost none of its appeal, especially with a howling Coyote V8 under the bonnet.
The Ford Mustang is a legendary sports car that’s approaching its 60th birthday, the Mk1 revealed at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York, on April 17, 1964 – with a $2368 price tag.
With the legend comes plenty of debate over the best and worst through the years (anyone care to remember the 1974 Mk2? Didn’t think so…), and while much has changed over six decades, the new S650 Mk7 has stuck to a familiar formula that closely follows the S550 Mk6 – the first global Mustang that has proved hugely popular in Australia, now the biggest export market for the North American pony car.
Some are asking whether Ford has done enough, but with what’s likely to be the last V8-powered Mustang in history, we’re happy to report that the Mk7 – in flagship Dark Horse guise driven here – is arguably the best yet.
You’ll pay handsomely for it, and although Ford Australia is yet to announce local pricing and specs as the launch date blows out into the first half of 2024 (close to that 60th anniversary), we expect the top-spec, track-tuned Dark Horse to cost around $90,000 plus on-road costs.
Price rises of about $5000 are anticipated for the continuing Mustang GT – tipped to start from circa-$70,000, retaining its position as one of the most affordable V8s on the market – and the four-cylinder turbo Mustang HP, opening the books at around $57,000.
We don’t hear anyone complaining. With supplies of the current Mk6 Mustang fully exhausted in Australia, Ford dealers are understood to be holding a high number of pre-orders for Mk7 V8 models, both GT and Dark Horse, despite the lack of pricing information.
Rivals? For similar money, you can take your pick from a variety of high-performance dual-motor electric cars (Kia EV6 GT, for example), Japanese sports machines (Nissan Z, Toyota GR Supra) or hot European metal (BMW M240i). But there’s little likelihood of cross-shopping here.
Perhaps only the Chevrolet Corvette will give Mustang buyers pause for thought, if you’re prepared to part with more than $180K and also cope with delivery delays.
The new-generation 2023 Ford Mustang uses the same platform architecture as the previous model and has plenty of familiar attributes such as its engine line-up (albeit heavily updated). But Ford’s interior design team has done a tip-top job modernising and upgrading the cabin.
Aussie specs for the Ford Mustang Dark Horse flagship haven’t been locked down, but in addition to the myriad mechanical upgrades, count on premium interior features hinting at its performance potential – heated and cooled sports seats, alloy pedals, heated leather-wrapped flat-bottomed sports steering wheel, electric park brake that doubles as a drift brake…
Dual-zone climate control, a wireless phone charger, twin USB ports (Type A and C) and a 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen stereo will also be part of the Dark Horse deal, along with an agonisingly beautiful spherical manual gear shift knob, which is 3D-printed anodised titanium in a blue colour.
The auto gear shifter? Entirely forgettable; a plastic lever with no redeeming features. In fact, the 10-speed auto itself isn’t particularly inspiring, but more on that later.
Along with a new high-resolution twin-screen set-up in the cabin of the Mk7 Mustang, the central controls have been condensed, while the leather and suede seats in the Dark Horse are six-way power-adjustable for driver and four-way power-adjust for the passenger.
Performance upgrades like Brembo brakes, an active valve exhaust system, a Torsen rear diff, MagneRide adaptive damping system and 19-inch alloy wheels shod with Pirelli P Zero tyres (255/40 front, 275/40 rear) will be standard on the Aussie Dark Horse.
This is, after all, a sports car designed for the track.
While it could be argued the historic connection with previous models is muddied given all the digital real estate (the screens are huge), the new Mustang’s cabin a much nicer, more upmarket place to spend time.
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Options? There’s a tonne of them in the US but the Aussie selection will be whittled down to key items such as Recaro seats, an ‘appearance’ (sticker) pack and premium paint.
The circa-$15,000 Australian-produced carbon-fibre wheels are unlikely to be offered by Ford Australia.
The same goes for the Handling Pack offered in the US, although Queensland-based Herrod Performance has confirmed it will import the package as an aftermarket option.
It includes tweaked suspension, thicker anti-roll bars and ultra-grippy semi-slick Pirelli P Zero Trofeo RS rubber mounted to wider wheels (305 front, 315 rear).
The previous Mk7 Ford Mustang received a poor three-star (out of five) ANCAP rating back in 2018, although the company claimed the sports car was still safe. It also didn’t seem to harm its showroom appeal and sales potential.
The new 2023 Ford Mustang has not yet been tested by independent crash safety authorities.
It comes with seven airbags as standard – though no centre front airbag to reduce head clashes between the driver and passenger – as well as plenty of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS).
On the latter, think lane centring assist, evasive steer assist, reverse brake assist and speed sign recognition that works with intelligent adaptive cruise control (ACC) to automatically adjust the car’s speed.
There’s also a stop-and-go mode for the ACC in heavy traffic but only on models equipped with an automatic transmission. LED headlights with auto-dipping high beams are part of the standard package, too.
The new 2023 Ford Mustang gets a big tech upgrade and the headline act is undoubtedly the new twin LCD screen array, which quite frankly looks awesome once you’re ensconced in the captain’s seat.
The dual screens reside behind a single curved pane of glass, angled towards the driver, and although this saps some of the retro touches of its predecessor, the 12.4-inch digital driver’s display and jumbo 13.2-inch central touch-screen have excellent detail, smooth animations, menu structures and more functionality than an overclocked smart watch.
Running the latest SYNC4 operating system, the Mustang is more connected now and the remote start system even includes an auto rev function.
Over-the-air (OTA) updates will keep the operating system relevant and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – both wired or wireless – work well.
There is one quibble with the all-digital layout and minimised physical controls – adjusting the temperature can only be achieved via the touch-screen and requires a couple of touches to change the fan speed. Traditionalists won’t like this…
Now in its fourth generation, the 5.0-litre Coyote V8 that features on the 2023 Ford Mustang GT – and in uprated guise in the Dark Horse driven here – has always been a great engine: responsive and sonorous out of the box and capable of big horsepower with a few aftermarket tweaks.
The Gen4 307-cubic-inch (5038cc) bent eight will have tuners frothing, but even those who plan to keep to it stock as rock will welcome the progress made.
Indeed, along with the improved steering and drive dynamics, the updated powertrain is one of the new Mk7 Mustang’s best elements.
Just like a top athlete, the updated Coyote engine has an excellent cardiovascular system and breathes more freely than its predecessor thanks to the fitment of twin airboxes that feed new twin throttle bodies.
There’s also a larger plenum intake manifold and a new exhaust manifold with revised four-into-one piping.
The results of these changes are that the V8 sounds gruntier and breathes deeper, and combined with an active exhaust system with four different acoustic/power modes, it’ll make owners smile and pique the interest of passersby.
Other changes to the engine include the fitment of a steel oil pan, a new crankshaft, stronger dual overhead camshafts and forged piston con rods from the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 that make it a very rev-happy unit, with a 7500rpm rev limit.
Along with improved cooling systems (rear diff cooler, lighter front radiator) and bonnet vents that actually have a positive net effect on thermal dynamics in the engine bay, you’re looking at a delightfully quick-revving and responsive cast-aluminium V8 that in Dark Horse guise bangs out 373kW or 500hp at 7250rpm and 566Nm of torque at 4900rpm.
It’s billed as the most powerful naturally aspirated 5.0-litre V8 Mustang ever.
Top speed is rated at 270km/h (168mph) and we don’t doubt that claim, given we were pushing 200km/h around one banked corner in fourth gear at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The 0-100km/h sprint should take around 4.0 seconds using launch control, and getting there can be achieved with either a six-speed Tremec TR-3160 manual transmission (which replaces the sludgier Getrag MT-82 in the GT V8 models) with rev matching functionality, or a 10-speed automatic.
Both transmissions come with a Torsen limited-slip diff, with a 3.55:1 rear axle ratio in the automatic and a 3.73:1 rear axle ratio with the manual.
Some of the cool track tricks built into the powertrain include set-and-forget adjustable RPM launch control, flat shifting functionality, the line locker burnout mode and the new drift brake.
If a muscle car’s popularity hinges largely on its powertrain, the new Mustang will be hotter than Carolina Reaper chilli sauce.
On the road, we managed to achieve 17.4 miles per gallon in the 2023 Ford Mustang Dark Horse – or 13.5L/100km to use the metric measuring system.
That’s quite efficient considering the car weighs a lardy 1790kg and has a roaring big V8.
On the racetrack? It’s not exactly relevant, but naturally used a lot more high-octane petrol, roughly 5mpg or 47L/100km.
The 2023 Ford Mustang Dark Horse is the vehicular equivalent of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson – charismatic, engaging and compellingly powerful.
And it starts with the steering, which has improved dramatically on the Mk7 Mustang thanks to a quicker steering ratio (15.5:1 versus 16:1 previously) and stiffer steering shaft, which is now attached to more rigid supports.
All of this promotes clearer communication between car and driver while creating a sharper, more responsive front-end than its predecessor.
Feedback through the steering wheel isn’t class-leading (and probably never will be), but there’s enough visceral data flowing through your hands to get a gauge on how the front hoops are biting the bitumen and there’s reasonable feel through the seat of your pants.
Handling dynamics have levelled up too, via the better weighting and sharper steering rack but also the Pirelli tyres and recalibrated suspension. It sits flatter through corners and generates more grip from its Pirelli P Zero hoops, which give the car more poise and the driver more confidence to explore its grip threshold.
It will kick the tail out, especially on track when provoked, yet the rear-end feels more predictable and more in tune with the rest of the car.
Ford has developed a more settled and balanced Mustang, with less body roll and pitch and the way it punches out of corners at full noise is more intoxicating than ever. The gravelly, resonant, basso profundo acoustics from the active exhaust system add loads of theatre and really drag you into moment, melting away all other worries and stresses…
It’s a splendid experience and never gets old, the engine involving the driver in a way only a naturally aspirated V8 can.
Sure, it carries over a fair whack of the last generation’s underpinnings and powertrain, but the Dark Horse feels seriously beefy and winding out gears is more addictive than burnt caramel, especially given the quad-cam engine’s improved eagerness to rev to its 7500rpm soft limiter.
There’s no getting away from the car’s mass, the almost-1.8-tonne kerb weight meaning you can’t keep pushing forever, yet it feels lighter and more nimble than a vehicle of its size (4820mm long) and bulk should.
And while it’s still a muscle car, it’s more nuanced and predictable – until you engage one of the shenanigan modes… of which there are many.
The retuned suspension and recalibrated adaptive dampers (MagneRide in Ford-speak) retain a modicum of civility and ride comfort. You won’t be too uncomfortable when dawdling around town or cruising along poorly maintained country roads, but bumps and potholes do make themselves felt.
The small wing mirrors don’t provide much visibility down its flanks, although Australian regulations will require local-spec Mustangs to get bigger mirrors. Outward vision through the narrow-ish windows isn’t as restricted as some two-door sports coupes out there. Supra, Z, cough.
If you want the purist’s experience, the six-speed Tremec manual will be a no-brainer, delivering the sort of bond between car and driver that won’t be quickly forgotten, its short, precise, mechanical shift feel rarely unsatisfying.
While the 10-speed automatic feels slightly more responsive now and is quicker at upshifting than the manual, there’s times when it feels like there’s too many ratios and sometimes gets flustered, chopping and changing.
This becomes even more evident on track, where it feels out of sorts compared to the lock-and-load character of the manual. After a long, hot 36-degree day of punishment by journalists around the circuit, the automatic transmission felt pretty sluggish by 3:00pm. It’s better suited to hard driving on road, not the racetrack.
The six-speed manual Mustang Dark Horse, on the other hand, is a fairly robust circuit warrior and more playful and lively if you want it to be, all too happy to wag the tail in Track mode, which dials back the stability control.
If you want precision, you can have that too and, once again, that front-end is the hero of the Mustang Dark Horse on track. It allows the all-American coupe to tip into corners and rotate through them with impressive alacrity.
The big 390mm front brake rotors and six-pot Brembo callipers can cop a beating without too much protest and deliver strong, repeatable stopping power even in intensely hot conditions, slowing the car from 200km/h on the back straight to a 50km/h hairpin in short order.
Perhaps the biggest surprise during the track testing is the handling package, the Dark Horse’s wider (and rare) Pirelli P Zero Trofeo RS semi-slick tyres, thicker anti-roll bars and tweaked suspension giving it tremendous grip. It also pivots into corners with more gumption than models without it and laps significantly quicker.
The Pirelli P Zero Trofeo RS were launched by the Italian tyre brand in late July 2023 and are just magnificent. The Mustang Dark Horse is one of the first cars to get them, and while they’ll cost about twice the price of most high-performance tyres and last about half as long, they transform the car on the racetrack.
We also had a chance to test the Handling Pack-equipped Dark Horse on the road and it’s reasonably compliant and the wider front hoops and stiffer front-end give it an even sharper turn-in and directness.
But it does tram-line, requiring micro adjustments to keep it pointed ahead on straight roads, which would get tiresome on longer drives.
The Handling Pack (available in Australia via Herrod Performance) is the pick for track days, but the standard suspension with its more compliant chassis set-up makes it the pick as a daily driver.
After stepping away from the vehicle, contemplating what it achieves, I came away impressed with the Mustang Dark Horse and I honestly didn’t expect it to be so compelling to drive in such a wide array of scenarios.
Ford put a lot of resources into sprucing up the 2023 Ford Mustang’s cabin to attract a younger crowd, the fancy-pants digital screens with their giga-flop power delivering admittedly sumptuous visuals.
It’s a quantum leap forward compared to the previous generation, both in terms of tech and overall fit and finish, with much higher-quality materials in evidence.
That said, to me it felt like the new Mustang was missing something… Apart from the utterly gorgeous 3D-printed blue anodised spherical titanium manual gear shifter, there wasn’t much to connect it to the past.
Ultimately, such progress probably improves the breed and the sheer amount of tweakable elements in the Dark Horse, from the screens, layouts, track data, all the way through to mechanical adjustments to things like the exhaust note, steering weighting, damper settings – the list goes on! – is quite extraordinary.
Sporty touches like the aluminium pedals, motorsport-inspired drift lever and flat-bottom steering wheel give the cabin plenty of character while the seats – both regular and optional Recaros – are supportive and comfortable on road and track.
There’s a sense that the seventh-generation 2023 Ford Mustang is more of a heavy-duty facelift than an all-new model.
But when the Dark Horse flagship drives so cleanly, engages the driver so authentically and is packed with honest and effective performance technology, who really cares?
This is a hugely capable Mustang and Ford Performance has proved once again, just as it did with the Ford Focus RS, that it can create affordable track day weapons that encourage drivers to push the limits, while connecting with their inner child.
What other cars have drift handles, smoky burnout modes, no-lift-shift functions and remote rev trickery right out of the box?
The main question is: Has Ford done enough with the S650 Mustang? And from this first drive, the answer is resoundingly yes.
2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse at a glance:Price: $90,000 est (plus on-road costs)Available: Early 2024Engine: 5.0-litre V8 petrolOutput: 373kW/566NmTransmission: Six-speed manual/10-speed automaticFuel: To be confirmedCO2: To be confirmedSafety rating: Not tested
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