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Heavy metal: Dodge Challenger Black Ghost vs Ford Mustang Dark Horse

The Challenger is dead, for now. Will the muscle car survive? We couldn’t leave California without a 1,300bhp grudge match

Published: 16 Apr 2024

Rest in peace the muscle car? The Capitol insurrection’s got nothing on this. Amend the constitution! You can pry my V8 from my cold, dead hands.

Erm, no. Outside of California’s stringent tailpipe laws America is still potty for these things. Sales are steadfast and there’s a huge generation-spanning community. The reaction to our Challenger was universally jingoistic. Unprompted, they reel off the tale of the cop from Detroit. And because Americans are born able to discern model years and memorise engine codenames, anyone who stopped for a chat knew the Mustang we brought along to crash the Challenger’s funeral party was a bit special. Think of it like an M3 CS – sharpened, honed, dipped in choice options.

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Black Ghost versus Dark Horse. The most malevolent sounding face-off in all car history? Well, strictly this isn’t a fair match. The Dodge is so old it’s being carved into the face of Mount Rushmore, while Ford’s latest, greatest Mustang is $40,000 (£32k) cheaper and 300bhp worse off. And we’re in the state of California, where the coffee is skinny, decaf and served in a recycled cup. Where every second car is that blobby computer mouse on wheels you know as the Tesla Model Y – 1,307bhp of heavy metal shouldn’t play well here.

Photography: Mark Fagelson

But look where we are: downtown San Francisco. Thanks to an iconic car chase set on these very streets that was riddled with continuity errors, jammed with heroic stunts and unsullied by music, this idiosyncratically hilly city put Ford vs Dodge (OK, it was a Charger back then) on the automotive map.

The only hostility we incur all day is a parking fine. Ironically, we made the hotel valet parking attendant’s week.

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What does the future hold? Dodge’s Charger Daytona EV concept will spawn an all-wheel-drive range topper available in 455bhp, 590bhp or 700+bhp tunes, replete with a 126dB synthesised ‘engine note’. The entry level car will stick with combustion, albeit a 3.0-litre straight six. From a Jeep.

Ford’s already dipped a toe into electric Mustangs with the Mach-E. It won’t be the last, but boss Jim Farley says he’ll follow Porsche’s lead of maintaining the 911’s petrol sanctity, so the Mustang is the final model to make the switch. In the meantime, hybrid drive beckons. This could be one of the last times San Francisco reverberates to a supersized double helping of V8 bass.

The Ford sounds terrific – there’s an exotic crackle to its fruity exhaust. When the Dark Horse reaches the UK later in 2024 it’ll be muted and slower – down from 500bhp to 449bhp due to our tighter emissions regs. Out here as God intended, it’s a rich baritone. Throttle response is gratifyingly crisp too, so long as you’ve remembered to change down a gear or four. This one had the optional 10-speed auto – I’d stick with the ex-Shelby manual.

The industrial sounding Challenger valiantly gives chase but the pursuit rematch is over in seconds, not just because of the greasy roads and canvas showing through its tyres. It’s a much more agricultural machine – no matter which of the gears you’ve locked it into, it’s all supercharger whinny, wheelspin and axle tramp. At one point I lose traction climbing tram tracks and slither helplessly downhill while the supercharger treats the Bay Area to a violin solo.

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Given how much more modern the Mustang is, it’s not a clean getaway. None of the three steering modes offer reassuring feedback. Though its ride is nowhere near as punishing as the Black Ghost’s, more could’ve been done with the firm magnetorheological dampers to unlock a breadth of ability. And it’s so complicated – five drive modes, umpteen dashboard readouts, each with appropriate ambient lighting. Even the handbrake’s been reinvented to make it more annoying.

In the Dark Horse, I felt like there was a car buried under the screens and menus, waiting to be tamed if only I could find the right combo of modes, the right gap in traffic, a drier patch of road. I howled with laughter as the Challenger wobbled drunkenly at the merest blip of throttle, wilfully tramlined whether there were rail tracks or not, with merry dollops of dead play in the hefty steering. Brakes? Grabby at the top of the pedal then soggier than a burger bun when you beg more. They fade just cruising downhill in San Fran. The diff’s so tight you could spin while parking. And every so often, if it’s been idling for a while, there’s an ominous odour of petrol. Keeps you on your toes.

So does the driving position. The Mustang clutches you in purposeful Recaros. Boarding the Dodge is like sitting on a barstool strapped to a hypersonic missile. But how could you not love a car which comes with a ‘chiller’ function to direct the aircon away from the cabin and into the supercharger to guarantee maximum boost pressure?

Every nation has its comfort zone cars. Germany’s is bahnstorming saloons. The UK’s are the north and south poles of motoring: gawky lightweights and deluxe wafters. America’s is the big, not clever, muscle car. And the Challenger is bigger and dumberer than the others. Like the Bullitt chase, it’s not as perfect as history will remember, but some legacy to live up to.

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