It was quite a day on the second Monday of November 2022 as drive time on the “Tail of the Dragon” came into focus. Representing a slice of US 129 starting in Graham County, NC, and ending in Blount County, TN, the Dragon (also known as Deal Gap) has reached legendary status for its meandering 11-mile trek marked by 318 turns.
This writer drove the Dragon twice and road shotgun two additional times as part of an inaugural signature drive event for the newly named Southeast Region Automotive Media Association (SERAMA). Manufacturers supplied SERAMA with about one dozen vehicles, including a 2022 Ford Mustang Coupe that introduced me to the devious charms of the dragon. The Mustang acquitted itself with nary a touch of the brake pedal. Read on and I’ll share my tale, but first, we’ll examine the model at hand.
Sixth-Generation Ford Mustang
The Ford Mustang needs no introduction as it is the consummate pony car introduced in 1964. Now in its sixth generation, the rear-wheel drive Mustang is available as a fastback coupe or a convertible. A 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine powers the base model. A 5.0-liter V8 motivates the GT. A supercharged V8 is exclusive to the Shelby GT500.
The specifications that follow cover the 2023 version which, incidentally, will be an abbreviated model year. Looming on the horizon is the seventh-generation 2024 Ford Mustang, which will be based on a modified version of the current architecture. We expect the powertrains will carry forward with more power, improved technology, and a new interior on tap. Expect the 2024 Mustang to arrive in the Summer of 2023.
Notes From the Tail
Our test 2022 Ford Mustang came with the standard engine and a 10-speed automatic transmission. Enthusiasts prefer the 6-speed manual gearbox, but we were satisfied with the choice, especially for the Dragon. Indeed, three-pedal foot action on the tail means much work. On the other hand, the automatic proved useful, especially when operated in manual mode. Notably, this driver only needed to use the brakes twice on a circuit known for causing brakes to overheat.
One concern I had was the size and weight of the Mustang. My drive partner, Kevin Meyn, and I had left our Alcoa, Tennessee, hotel in a Toyota GR 86, which is sized ideally for the narrow, twisty roads of US 129. But my concerns were soon ended as the Mustang was used on the trip back following the GR 86’s successful voyage.
Curves and Speed
The dragon itself is not to be played with. Those 318 curves range from the mild to the wild and include hairpin turns and switchbacks. The posted speed is never above 30 mph and most curves are marked no higher than 15 mph. The roads were clear of precipitation that day and traffic was low. Weekends on the Dragon are busy and April through October are especially active.
We learned that operating automatics in manual mode supplied the best control of our vehicles. The Mustang functioned best in second gear, switching only to third on occasion – mostly when the road was relatively straight and rising. Ford tunes the Mustang to operate ideally at low speeds in second gear – in effect, we allowed the engine to do the bulk of the braking.
Despite its girth, it was easy to keep the Mustang between the double yellow center line and the white road edge markers. Precise steering and excellent feedback are hallmarks of the Mustang. Not once did the rear wheels move out from underneath us. Then again, we never floored it.
It is about a mile in from the North Carolina side and just over the Tennessee border where the first challenge is felt. Between Deals Gap and Cooper Straight is a hairpin turn that requires deft handling. If your speed is low enough you’ll avoid braking, but that’s not always possible. Further up, there are enough corners and curves that’ll cause white-knuckle driving or turn your stomach, or maybe both. The appropriately named “horns of the dragon” offer some bite as well, especially as each approach involves much meandering activity before reaching them.
“The Horns”, as well as the “Hog Pen”, are two areas where braking is nearly impossible to avoid. Chances are you’ll anticipate them and won’t be caught unawares. By no means are these the last challenges as dozens more twists await, including “The Whip” and “Rocket Corner”
Beefy wheels would make taking the Dragon proportionally difficult, but the standard Mustang equipped with summer tires proved itself. Its sport-tuned suspension is near-perfect for twisty roads, including the Dragon.
The Tail of the Dragon lives up to its name as well as its reputation. It is a dangerous slice of highway that has claimed more than five dozen lives since the mid-1990s. Motorcycles and sports cars frequent the road and tend to push their drives to the limits. That can be problematic as reaction times are very small and how other drivers behave can certainly impact safety. All in all, the Dragon is a drive experience worth taking, with a high level of alertness necessary to accomplish the task.
2023 Ford Mustang 2.3T Specifications
|Ford||2023 Mustang 2.3T|
|Price Range||From $27,700 (estimated)|
|Standard Engine||2.3-liter Turbo I4|
|Horsepower||310/330 hp @ 5,500 rpm|
|Torque (lb.-ft.)||350 lb.-ft. @ 3,000 rpm|
|Transmission||6-speed manual or 10-speed automatic|
|Curb Weight (pounds)||3,491 to 3,932|
|Legroom (f,r…inches)||45.1, 29.0|
|Shoulder room (f,r…inches)||56.3, 52.2|
|Hip room (f,r…inches)||54.9, 47.4|
|Cargo Storage||11.4 (convertible)/13.5 (coupe)|
|Gross vehicle weight (pounds)||NR|
|Fuel Tank (gallons)||15.9|
|EPA Fuel MPG (city/highway/combined)||22/32/25 (auto); 21/29/24 (manual)|
|Manufacturing Plant||Flat Rock, Michigan USA|
Specifications supplied by the manufacturer. Compiled by Tom Keegan.
See Also — Tales From the Tail of the Dragon
Photos copyright Stumpwater Media Group, LLC. All rights reserved.