Dark Horsing Around at the Woodward Dream Cruise
The Woodward Dream Cruise took place over the weekend, providing us an opportunity to sample Ford’s latest wares back-to-back — including the 500-horsepower Dark Horse Mustang.
As a native Michigander, the Dream Cruise was a staple of my adolescent and teenage years. Originating as an offshoot of Detroit’s street racing scene, Woodward Avenue went from being a locale famous for lavish homes to one known for car dealerships, aftermarket part shops, and catching a whiff of burnt rubber.
While the street had become synonymous with cruising and even racing as far back as the late 1800s, it didn’t become ground zero until the 1950s and the formal Dream Cruise wouldn’t manifest until 1995. With people already using Woodward for automotive meetups for over a century, it was decided that an organized summer event could be used to drum up money for the local economy and various charitable organizations. But the turnout ended up being 10 times what everyone expected.
The Woodward Dream Cruise is now the largest one-day automotive event in the whole world, drawing in well over a million people annually. Formerly dominated by American automobiles, attendees can now spend their day car-spotting an array of foreign and domestic vehicles of every type. Rat rods, hoopties, hot rods, donks, lowriders, exotics, classics, customs, racers, stance vehicles, American or Japanese muscle cars, luxury cruisers, and ultra-rare antiques are all on display in what effectively becomes a multi-mile parade route with opportunities to break off and do some illicit (but often tolerated) street racing.
(Full Disclosure: I had already planned on hitting up the Woodward Dream Cruise this year, then Ford invited me to spend some time at the brand’s roadside clubhouse where there would be a slew of new models to take out. There was also a surplus of free drinks and food, which my guest and I both enjoyed in lieu of stepping out to grab lunch elsewhere.)
Ford had its most exciting automobiles in their hottest trims on hand for us to drive, ensuring that they’d be getting sustained attention on Woodward Ave. But there was also a slew of display-only models tapping into the company's heritage, including a pair of GTs, for any passersby to ogle. It represented an excellent marketing opportunity for the company and one I was eager to exploit for a few hours before relocating. While I had logged some extended seat time in several of the models that were there (especially Blue Oval’s many pickup trucks) it was nice to drive a diverse array of Ford products back to back — even if none of them got my full attention.
However, it was the new $60,000 Dark Horse Mustang and its upgraded 5.0-liter V8 that everyone seemed the most curious about. Effectively a meaner Mach 1, the Dark Horse offers a tighter steering ratio, fatter anti-roll bars, massive Brembo brakes, and some chassis tuning. Ford has also seen fit to increase the Mustang’s output to 500 horsepower @ 7,250 rpm and 418 lb-ft of torque @ 4,900 rpm.
Moving slowly down Woodward, I must have gotten asked about it half a dozen times. Before I had time to gather a single thought about the car, strangers wanted to know everything about it and whether or not it would beat their chosen vehicle on the streets. This included the owner of a Cadillac CT5-V Blackwing who was desperate for me to accompany him on the next turnoff so we could both find out.
The car makes all the right noises upon startup and does so at a volume that will allow you to share the experience with the neighbors. I spent the first 15 minutes in the Dark Horse being yelled at by small children on the sidewalk to “rev it up, baby” and happily obliged. However, the new Mustang can be piloted in a manner that keeps sound limited to a soft rumble thanks to Ford’s customizable exhaust setup.
This system can likewise be set to rattle the fillings of people on the opposite end of the block by being placed into its track setting with the single press of a button. When selected, the car will warn you that you’re not supposed to drive something this loud on public roads. It’s not a new feature for the Mustang. But it is one that I always make sure to test going under bridges and through tunnels to ensure it’s functioning properly. Tolerance for the maximum level of sound a vehicle can produce will certainly vary between customers. But Dark Horse drivers will undoubtedly find a setting they’ll be happy with in any given scenario, provided they never expect the car to be truly quiet.
Ford seems to be positioning the Dark Horse as the middle ground between Mustangs designed specifically for the street and those committed to track work. However, there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of compromise in terms of overall practicality. Drivers obviously cannot expect stellar fuel economy with 500 horsepower on tap and the suspension, combined with a rather prominent front lip, requires one to be extra cautious transitioning between road and driveway. But the supportive Recaro seats are comfortable (though perhaps a tad wide for someone super skinny) and the car soaks up uneven pavement surprisingly well. Beyond a handful of trim-specific quirks and a bigger gasoline bill, I doubt it would be that much more difficult to live with than the EcoBoost version of the pony car.
It’s not even difficult to drive hard in its more docile settings. Electronic helpers keep the vehicle from stepping out under acceleration and power is modulated in a way that feels non-invasive. But you’re clearly not getting everything the vehicle can give until you’ve placed it in a more aggressive mode and found some pristine pavement to unleash it upon. Sadly, this meant I never had an opportunity to explore the Dark Horse’s true capabilities and that’s likely to be the case for a lot of the people who buy one and never take it to the track.
While my experience in the vehicle was entirely devoted to street driving — and most of that happened to be very slow — I did manage to find a few underpopulated corners of Detroit to mash the throttle and stomp the brakes. Initial assessments would seem to suggest that few will be disappointed by either activity.
Though, if you’re hoping to maximize straight-line acceleration, the Tremec TR-3160 is not faster than the 10-speed automatic no matter how adept you happen to be at driving stick. But the Tremec will garner more street cred and comes with automatic rev-matching. The manual also gives drivers the option to bang shift through gears under full acceleration. While the Dark Horse is undoubtedly softer and slower than something like the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, it’s priced over $10,000 lower and ends up being far less punishing on a choppy road.
The interior layout is excellent and makes the driver feel appropriately special. I’m not particularly fond of modern digital displays. But Ford has managed to find an agreeable mix of physical and touchscreen-based controls. More importantly, everything has been oriented to prioritize the driver and situated at a height that minimizes the time you spend looking anywhere but at the road ahead. Ford Sync may not be my ideal user interface from a simplicity standpoint. But it’s serviceable, customizable, and nice enough to look at.
Ford’s newest Mustang is an extremely enjoyable place to spend time, regardless of how you’re driving it, and one can exit the vehicle to admire its menacing bodywork and novel paint hues. Ford had several Dark Horses on hand and the prettiest had to be in Vapor Blue — which is a grayish-navy with little red metallic flecks that sparkle in the sun.
The Dark Horse wasn’t the only model there turning heads. The Blue Oval also had high-trim versions of the Ranger, F-150, and Bronco available. This included the extra-wide and extra-tall Raptor variants. These vehicles all share a similar recipe and are about delivering off-road performance with competent street driving in a package boasting more power than you’d realistically need for either. If you’re interested in these models, you only need to decide whether you’re willing to spend the money and have sufficient parking space.
Already familiar with the pickups (the F-Series remains tied with the Ram 1500 for best full-size, while the new Ranger has adopted some of its best qualities), your author opted to grab some extended seat time in the Bronco. But I snubbed the Raptor in favor of the two-door Heritage Edition that will presumably trade in higher volumes. Designed to resemble the 1966 original, the Heritage is a clever mix of throwback styling and modern technology. It’s also a tad nicer to drive on pavement than a Jeep Wrangler and provides an interior space more conducive to running errands.
However, it’s not all roses. While the interior is clearly designed to be rugged and easy to clean, some of it feels and looks a little cheap. Interior displays are lacking versus just about every other modern vehicle Ford had on display for the Woodward Dream Cruise. But it isn’t something owners are likely to lose a lot of sleep over. Like the Wrangler, the Bronco is decidedly (perhaps even necessarily) rough around the edges and the people buying one aren’t going to be fretting about road noise when they remove the entire roof and test their hand at rock crawling.
There were no opportunities to take the SUV down a gnarly trail. But I did intentionally hop several curbs to make my passenger laugh and the Bronco acted like they weren’t even there. While not a serious test, it’s probably the extreme situation most Broncos will be exposed to by owners.
The Bronco’s 300-horsepower EcoBoost (2.3-liter turbo) offers 300 horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 325 lb-ft of torque at 3,400 rpm. That’s more than satisfactory for most tasks and doesn’t result in a vehicle much slower than what’s available via the significantly more powerful Raptor. Ford has struck a nice balance with the Bronco and had loads of trims available for those seeking off-road capable grocery getters or something that’s ready to launch up the side of a mountain at break-neck speeds.
On Woodward, the Bronco (nor its little brothers) didn’t get the same level of attention as the Dark Horse. But a couple of motorists seemed surprised that it was offered in a two-door and proclaimed that it looked truly excellent in that particular format. Its high ride height and lack of roof also made it the absolute best way to experience the cruise, since it yielded unrivaled visibility in all directions.
I stepped out of the Bronco wanting one for the second time this year — despite my not doing much legitimate off-roading and having a strong preference for lower, leaner, and faster automobiles.
The third vehicle we spent the most time in happened to be the Ford Mustang Mach-E, which I’ve bitterly referenced as the “Mock-E” on several occasions. The notion of an electrified crossover wearing the Mustang badge has long been repellant to me and it carries all the polarizing traits that are synonymous with all-electric vehicles — along with their perks.
Digital door releases and minimalist interior layouts may work fine for most people. But neither appeals to me. The same could be said about its massive panoramic roof. While wholly impressive at first sight, only the passengers will continue to notice it once there’s driving to be done. You just don’t notice things like that from behind the wheel.
However, this is also where the Mach-E ended up trumping everything else Ford had allowed me to drive that day. Rolling up the windows on Woodward Avenue shut out the noises emanating from the countless hot rods that surrounded me and stepping on the accelerator left just about everything else in the dust.
The Mach-E offers a placid, tranquil experience. But it’s all-electric powertrain means torque is immediately available and guarantees explosive acceleration from a dead stop. While the deluge of power begins to trail off after 60 mph, a Mach-E GT can technically get there before Ford’s brand-new Dark Horse Mustang. Still, it would be wrong to call it a serious performance vehicle beyond ⅛ mile runs. Despite even the base model Mach-E showcasing savage levels of acceleration around town, the steering feel is vague (very electronic) and nothing about the car is trying to push you into being a hooligan.
None of the above eliminates my concerns about range or the fact that I’m just not ready to rely on touch screen technology for vehicle controls either. But it did serve as a reminder as to why some people gravitate toward EVs and that the Mach-E is probably one of the better picks from the all-electric crossover segment. It’s right up there with the Kia EV6 and Hyundai Ioniq 5 (though I’ve only driven the former) in terms of driving enjoyment — leaving interested parties to cross-shop those models against the more practical Tesla Model Y based on things like available range, cargo space, overall value, and assumptions about long-term reliability.
I guess the takeaway is that the Dream Cruise is proof that there are at least 1.5 million Americans still interested in something other than your average commuter crossover and te Blue Oval hasn’t yet given up on enthusiasts, spending good money to remind everyone over the weekend. The automaker’s event roster certainly could have used something like the now-retired Focus RS, Fiesta ST, or Ford Fusion Sport. But it has continued manufacturing an array of vehicles (especially pickups and SUVs) catering to the kind of people that get emotionally involved with their rides.
Assuming quality control likewise continues being addressed (an issue more than a few brands are having to work on these days and Ford engineers have told me they’re laser-focused on), the Blue Oval is positioned to have one of the best-designed and most-distinct lineups in the business right now. It also packages them in a way that doesn’t limit the fun to those with money to burn, yet still encourages customers to aim up the trim ladder — helping pad its profit margins without embittering fans.
See below for more Dream Cruise pictures!
[Images © 2023 Matt Posky/TTAC.com]
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