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The Dark Horse model receives numerous track-focused enhancements over even the Performance Pack GT models. (Ford)

Ford’s latest Mustang improves the breed

Ford’s stable of seventh-generation Mustang models brings new levels of power and handling performance to the masses.

Ford’s seventh-generation Mustang continues the tradition of improving the breed with each iteration. While the changes under the skin may seem incremental, the latest Mustang has been bred to deliver an even higher level of performance.

SAE Media was invited to drive several examples of the 2024 Mustang in Los Angeles, sampling Ford’s latest pony car on the winding roads of the Angeles National Forest, while also discussing with engineers the various technical improvements to the latest steed. High priorities included enhanced vehicle dynamics and a more muscular powertrain.

Power for the people
The engines from the previous pony have been carried forward, with the 2.3-L EcoBoost serving as the base powerplant and the 5.0-L Coyote V8 continuing as the GT’s mill. The EcoBoost I4 remains SAE-rated at 315 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 350 lb-ft (475 Nm), which matches the outgoing entry-level Mustang’s output. However, there have been some significant hardware changes to the ancillaries and engine internals.

The latest EcoBoost features a new twin-scroll turbo with a lighter rotating assembly, which allows for faster buildup of turbo boost. There are roller-finger follower lifters instead of the previous generation’s direct-actuating mechanical buckets. This reportedly allowed better overall control of valve actuation for improved emissions performance. The EcoBoost’s fuel system now also features both port and direct injection.

One notable omission from the EcoBoost’s spec sheet for 2024 is a manual transmission. Ford said the take rate for manual EcoBoosts didn’t represent a strong business case to continue offering the option. The 10-speed automatic will serve as the only gearbox for the force-fed mare.

On the GT side of the stable, power output has risen to a healthy 480 horsepower at 7150 rpm and 415 lb-ft 563 Nm) at 4,900 rpm. Those figures represent a 30 hp and 5 lb-ft peak gain at a slightly higher engine speed over the previous GT and even eclipses by 10 hp the output of the 2023 Mach-1 spec Mustang. The available active-valve exhaust enhances output of the GT even further, to 486 hp at 7250 rpm and 418 lb-ft (567 Nm) at the same 4,900 rpm.

Where Ford really let go of the reigns for the latest Mustang was on the top-spec Dark Horse, which takes a naturally aspirated Mustang engine to heights previously seen only by stallions adorned with a Cobra or a Shelby badge. The Dark Horse still features the same 5.0-L Coyote V8 as the GT, but with several key enhancements that bring its output up to a staggering 500 hp at 7250 rpm.

To hit the magical 100 hp per liter milestone, Ford’s engineers bestowed the V8 with forged connecting rods from GT500 to account for higher peak cylinder pressure, thanks to the Dark Horse’s additional grille air intake volume. All Coyote V8s for the 2024 Mustang now feature a new dual throttle body manifold which provided a substantial reduction of induction losses.

The most significant differentiator between GT and Dark Horse Mustangs doesn’t lie under the hood, but rather in the transmission tunnel. Mustang GTs come standard with a Getrag MT-82 gearbox. Dark Horse models instead receive a Tremec TR-3160 unit. Ford’s engineers stated this choice was based on customer feedback. While Ford believes the Getrag 6-speed is appropriate for Mustang GT customers, the additional performance of the Dark Horse and the model’s track-oriented nature made the Tremec unit a better fit.

Horse of a darker color
New for 2024, the Dark Horse is aimed squarely at Ford’s track-focused Mustang customer. In addition to the powertrain enhancements, right off the showroom floor, the Dark Horse features a level of chassis hardware that should make it at home on the drag strip or the road course.

“Dark Horse is our new thrust into the performance of the future,” said Adam Brecher, vehicle dynamics engineer. “We wanted Dark Horse to signal that we’re still the people who are offering true performance, even though our competitors have walked away. We spent a lot of time making it a cohesive package and I spent a lot of time on track with those cars.”

At a glance, the Dark Horse seems like an incremental improvement over the GT. However, a deeper look at the spec sheet backs up Brecher’s claim that the Dark Horse is a well-honed machine. The rear subframe bushings of Dark Horse models are a stiffer durometer and the static spring rates have been raised. The MagneRide system’s calibration was also tuned to match the Dark Horse’s higher rates.

The Dark Horse shares its Brembo six-piston front brake calipers with the Performance Pack-equipped GTs, but the mounting strategy for the Dark Horse differs from its GT brethren and the Dark Horse also is shod with a two-piece front disc with more thermal capacity. The Dark Horse also features a unique electric power steering calibration and additional cooling features, such as a model-exclusive differential cooler.

Saddling up
Ford’s test drive route wound through LA’s northern freeway network on the way to a buzz up and down the mountain roads of Angeles National Forest. With plenty of dips, crests, cambered turns and roller-coaster levels of elevation change, the park provided the perfect backdrop to sample the handling of the new Mustang.

SAE Media sampled three flavors of Mustang: an entry-level EcoBoost, a Performance Pack GT coupe and a Performance Pack GT convertible. All three exhibited a level of poise that would be a revelation to drivers of late-model Mustangs, but the surprise experience was the GT convertible.

Traditionally, the drop-top ‘Stang has been better-suited to boulevard cruising than backroad bombing. But the seventh-generation convertible feels just as capable at the limit as its hardtop stablemate. Much of that dynamic competence comes courtesy of the available MagneRide suspension system. It maintains an excellent balance between compliance and damping while also providing plenty of tactile feedback.

The chassis also inspires confidence on both corner entry and exit. There is plenty of suspension compliance and travel to absorb bumps, but body motions are well-controlled and there’s enough feedback though the steering wheel that it’s easy to manage weight transfer and overall slip angle.

One of the most impressive handling characteristics of the 2024 Mustang GT is its ability to put its prodigious power to the pavement. The rear suspension exhibits some squat on throttle, which provides ample feedback of how much traction is available. Combined with the chassis’ willingness to drive for an apex on initial turn in, the latest Mustang encourages impressively early throttle application on corner exit.

Equally impressive is the chassis’ willingness to alter cornering behavior under load via throttle adjustments. Front end scrub, what little there is, can easily be mitigated by a mid-corner lift without inducing lift-off oversteer. Slip angle is also easily be managed via the right foot, which makes for a very entertaining yet controllable experience on challenging roads.

This Mustang inspires such confidence behind the wheel that it makes one feel like a more-talented driver than might be the case. The combination of handling dynamics and the Coyote V8’s bellow – made even clearer by the unlimited headroom of the convertible – provided a driving experience that was nothing short of intoxicating.

Magnetic magic
After time behind the wheel, SAE Media spoke with Adam Brecher, vehicle-dynamics engineer, responsible for the ride and handling balance of the 2024 Mustang. Brecher outlined the differences in chassis tuning between each of the models and detailed just how much time and effort went into tuning the damping and handling traits of the MagneRide damping for each version’s target audience.

“My team and I have a handling track and an autocross track back home,” Brecher explained. “We spend a lot of time on all the products we’re tuning MagneRide for. But for Mustang specifically, we wanted to make sure that we were providing a chassis that was not only fun, but also had great turn in and hooked up on the way out of the corner. MagneRide is what our team spent the most time on, and I’m really happy with where we ended up ride and handling wise.”

Brecher further explained how the MagneRide system provided his team a wider range of tunability. “Our software progression for MagneRide allows us to do a lot in terms of adjusting your normal vertical motion to your roll vertical motion so that we can tune your damping to vary in tandem with your steering-wheel angle. The result is that our chassis setting really enables you to change directions quickly. I have a lot of authority on the damping to turn you in as well.”

Brecher also detailed how he and his team turned the latest convertible Mustang into a serious performer. “A couple things have changed on the convertible specifically,” Brecher said. “From the steering side, we have a couple new features such as a significantly faster steering ratio. Also, the cross-car beam between the A pillars where the steering wheel mounts is significantly stiffer. All of which gives you more authority in the front end.

“Part of our goal in the vehicle dynamics space came from us asking ‘why can’t the convertible be a serious sports car?’ So, I was trying to deliver that the best I could.” Though Brecher and his team did want to elevate the convertible’s performance, they also sought a chassis that had a playful nature. “I think there are some manufacturers that tend to lose the plot there,” said Brecher. “We can make a serious sports car, but at the end of the day, nobody is driving the Nürburgring every day of their life. We wanted to make it serious, but still fun.”

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