Driven: 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302

By Tom Martin

February 23, 2011

—Monterey, California

In the conventional view held by most car enthusiasts, it might be said that there are three classes of car: the great, the good, and the forgettable. Careful observers will debate the boundaries between these categories and the rankings of cars within them, of course.

What has, perhaps, gotten less attention than it might is the existence of less than a handful of cars at affordable prices that nonetheless rank among the great and, as a result, challenge our ideas about value. Put another way, these affordable-but-great cars provide a basis for asking, “Why pay more?” when examining the lofty sticker prices that attend the anointed ones of the car world.

After a day driving the new Mustang Boss 302 on and around the Laguna Seca race track, we’re prepared to nominate this latest Mustang as the newest member of the affordable but great. Just for reference, the other members of this august group are the Mitsubishi Evo X and the Mazda RX-8. That’s it. Before you begin composing your hate mail, let’s be clear that:

1. We’re limiting “affordable” to cars at $40K and under here (i.e. within about 30-percent of the average new car price).

2. One could rationally choose a good car over a great car, even when examining choices around the same price point, because you care about some particular characteristic. (Including the many non-driving factors like styling and space that affect real car buying.)

3. We don’t want to lose sight of the point here, which is much more that the Boss 302 is a great car, which is unusual at this price point, and not really that there are only three cars on this somewhat arbitrarily defined list.

The distinction between greatness and goodness that we’re using here requires a bit of explanation. When we drive a great car, we tend to perceive it through two qualities that, as it turns out, are difficult to bring together: character and coherence. The great cars do many things in an engaging way (character) and those things all fit together harmoniously (coherence). In a way, this is quite philosophically different from the idea of a “perfect” car, if we define that term to mean “not doing anything wrong,” because these cars lack character. Likewise, great cars differ from flawed but good cars in the coherence of their execution.

This notion of greatness—defined as character plus coherence—is important here because the reputation of the Mustang certainly precedes the reality. The Mustang we have in our heads might be characterized as simple, retrograde, and brutish, even while we admit to admiring a torquey V-8 that offers about as much horsepower per dollar as one can find on today’s market. The problem we’re getting at is that the Boss 302 isn’t, by quite a stretch, that car. So, erase the old Mustang from your mind, and contemplate the new one, which is refined, balanced, competent, and engaging in a variety of situations. Oh, yeah, and fast as hell.

The 2012 Boss 302 nomenclature, of course, pays homage to the Trans-Am series racecars, and their street brethren, of 1969 and 1970. In a way commonplace back then, the Boss 302 street version was a production car built so that Ford could qualify under the Trans-Am rules to do battle with Camaros and Firebirds (and the occasional AMC Javelin). Racing was simpler back in the day, so although there is a Grand-Am racing version of this new Boss, it certainly is less related to the Boss 302 at your Ford dealer than was the case 40 years ago.

That doesn’t really matter, though, because the new Boss is designed to stand on its own merits as a street car with the ability to be used for occasional track days. Ford has put substantial effort into the 302, starting in the engine bay. This version of the much-loved DOHC 5.0-liter (302ci) Mustang V-8 puts out 444 horsepower. The Boss motor is naturally aspirated and develops its power peak at 7500 rpm, which makes it a bit of a revver for this engine size and configuration. Ford has made major technical changes to get to this level of output, including sodium-filled exhaust valves, a special intake manifold, and CNC machining of the heads based on the complex dictates of computational fluid dynamics modeling. As we said, not exactly retrograde.

The engine is hooked up to the standard Mustang six-speed manual gearbox, which has ample capacity to deal with the new motor. By not wasting development dollars on the transmission, Ford was able to work up a new exhaust that has both rear and side dual pipes. We can certify that side exit exhausts are generally a byproduct of heavenly inspiration. In the case of the Boss, the idea is that you leave the caps (which have a small hole in them) on the side pipes until you get to the track and them remove them. The reality is, every sane owner will remove the caps upon taking delivery of the car, and will never look back. The side pipes sound great at idle, richen up the sound beautifully while driving, and yet are never really obtrusive. (As a note to the observant, you won’t see the side pipes in photos of the car because they discretely terminate under the rocker panels rather than exiting all the way out the side).

Of course, you expected the Mustang to have a big motor. So the big question we had going into this driving session was whether Ford could exorcise the problems that seem to plague every current generation Mustang. The big issue has always been with the chassis. Even on the Mustang GT and GT500, the suspension and steering work together to filter out just about all data coming from the road. It probably isn’t quite as bad as we just made it sound, but not far off, and the result is that Mustangs feel strangely disconnected from everything involving a turn. They handle well enough, it is just that communication is lacking.

So the glorious news is that the new Boss 302 suspension calibrations take a massive leap forward. While journalists in the past were often tempted to point the finger at the live rear axle that Mustangs carry, in reality the problem was more a matter of having springs, shocks and bushings that were just too soft.

There are two slightly different versions of the Boss chassis on offer. The basic Boss, which will be limited to 3250 examples, firms everything up and offers adjustable shocks and an optional Torsen differential. The Laguna Seca version (750 units only), takes everything a small step further: stiffer rear springs and bars, added bracing, R-rated tires (wider at the rear), and a bigger aero package. The differences seem very small on the street, except for extra tire noise, though a bit more noticeable on the track.

The degree of these chassis issues, and the simplicity of the fix, is revealed about five minutes into our test drive. The highways and back roads around Laguna Seca don’t have the urban blight so common in the northeast and Midwest, but they aren’t laser-smooth either. Just a few miles of driving reveals the Boss 302 suspension to be more than compliant enough to deserve remarks like “genuinely comfortable” and “decent ride quality.” 70 miles or so later, that opinion doesn’t change. The Boss 302 offers five screwdriver adjustable shock settings, and we ran this street section on setting 2 (where 5 is stiffest).

The base Mustang GT has a comfortable ride too, of course, so the revelation comes as we hit the twisty sections. With the Boss, you can feel what each end of the car is doing, with the result that confidence on turn entry is much higher, you feel better able to place the car, and modulating and correcting your line is a joy. That’s a significant change. Similarly, the steering, which has three settings (comfort, normal, and sport) reveals more about the road than in past iterations.

The motor offers up some kick too. Low-end and mid-range torque are quite good, which is a blessing on the street. The base 5.0 from the GT is rather stout, as well, so in all honesty power on the street isn't the reason to plunk down more money. The Boss 302 sound is punchy and agreeably complex, though more muted than you might expect until you get the revs up above 3500.

So far the picture of the Boss 302 that we’re forming is of a comfortable daily driver that responds well to picking up the pace. It loves to dive into corners, arc through them with minimal roll, and they lay down the power. We’ve written similar words about the BMW M3, a car that does a masterful job of balancing comfort, power and handling, and which seems especially appropriate on long drives under varied road conditions. The only thing is, the Mustang really outdoes the BMW in steering feel, torque delivery, shifter ergonomics and symphonic range. The M3 might have a slight edge in chassis refinement and is probably a little more at home as the road tightens up. But hands down on the street the Boss is more involving and characterful.

As we’ve observed, though, one place where the M3 tend to pull away from cars that might initially seem as fun or more fun is when you take one to the track. Or, to get a car that works as well dynamically as the M3, you often have to throw the comfort and long-distance capabilities of the BMW out the window.

Not so with the Boss, at least based on our time at Laguna Seca. The balance and progressive nature of this Mustang make it an ideal car for anyone from once a year track day tasters to motorsports country club members. Two things make the Boss 302 special for this group of people. First is that the Boss is quite easy to point, without being twitchy. Get the line a bit wrong on corner entry (everyone does it from time to time) and corrections are easy. Second, the Boss puts the power down in a way that is fast but not scary. The rear end feels very planted and you don’t get the sense that the car wants to send you into the gravel. Sure, there’s a lot of power here and if you do something stupid the Boss will punish you. But it presents a seductive balance of pace and poise.

We grant you that few people will cross-shop the M3 and the Boss 302 given their stylistic and heritage differences, but it is a measure of the accomplishment of the Boss 302 to say it broadly feels like an M3, improved. And, for those who care about such, the Boss is also reputed to be slightly faster at Laguna.

To round out this initial view of the Boss 302, we feel compelled to raise another car as a reference. We have on many occasions praised the Porsche 911 GT3. The most recent rendition of that car is full of character and easily deserves consideration as the best sports car in the world. The Boss 302 is like the GT3 in two particular ways (and not in many others). Like the GT3, the Boss is on paper a slightly tweaked version of a familiar car. But god is in the details, and both the GT3 and the Boss 302 are a full step or more ahead of their relatives in driving involvement. In addition, the Boss and the GT3 have a sense of the caged animal about them. This character is part and parcel of the GT3 experience.

With the Boss, it comes courtesy of something called “Track Key.” The Boss has a second key, and once you’ve purchased the accompanying firmware ($302, only available after delivery), the Track Key causes the car to load software that changes 300 parameters in the car’s electronics. Lumpy idle, quicker throttle response, different TC settings, and more are the result. The Boss 302 version of this caged animal vibe is plenty tame for the street, though for your daily commute you might prefer to use the regular key. Or not.

So, as you may now understand, we were a bit surprised by this latest Mustang. It is a very usable GT, has loads of character for urban driving, and works really well on the track. Not many cars have that kind of range, nor the generally masterful execution of the underlying elements.

Of course, the Boss 302 isn’t perfect. There are cars that outperform it on any given characteristic. And, it will never feel like a truly light car, although it wears its weight well. To stay near the $40,000 mark Ford has had to cut a few corners: seat shape, interior plastics, shifter notchiness. We also haven’t driven it on really bad roads where the live axle might be a greater liability. But, as you can see this is getting nit-picky.

We’ll see how the Boss holds up to further scrutiny. But, the reality is that the early money says the Boss 302 is just plain great. And we think it is a great deal too, at least if you could find a dealer who will sell you one at sticker price.

2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302
Engine: V-8, 5.0 liters, 32v
Output: 444 hp/ 380 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 4.1 sec (est)
Top Speed: 155 mph
Weight: 3632 lb
Base Price: $40,200 (est)
On Sale: Spring, 2011