First Drive: 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302 [Review]

Aimed at taking what is already the best driving ponycar to the next level, the Mustang Boss 302 reprises an historic name. Does it prove itself at the track?

The newest Ford Mustang may look like a retro tribute to the original "Boss," but it's really an up-to-date racetrack superstar with a famous BMW directly in its sights. We tried out both of the new Boss 302 models at the Laguna Seca racetrack to see if the Germans should be worried.

"I told them, don't worry about how much it costs. That's my problem, not yours."

Dave Pericak, Ford's chief engineer for the current Mustang, likes to tell stories from the front lines of the ponycar development battle, and most of the stories he's telling on this bright Tuesday morning at Laguna Seca end with those two sentences. As he lists feature after feature on this new Boss, from the bespoke head castings to the sheer outrageousness of putting Lamborghini-spec R-compound tires on a car that will sit next to more expensive Ford F-350 King Ranch trucks in the showroom, it's hard not to wonder: How'd he talk Ford into doing all this?

It's a particularly relevant question because the Boss didn't necessarily need all of these unique features to succeed. The 2011 Mustang GT 5.0 is arguably the finest regular-production ponycar in history, marrying a stellar quad-cam V-8 with a thoroughly competent and refined take on the old live-axle formula. On road courses, it sneaks up behind C5 Corvettes and flat-out humiliates a lot of very recent German hardware. Pericak could have made a "Boss" with some tape, an engine tune, and a few interior trim pieces and the car would have sold just fine.

Target: M3
The choice was made instead to go after a modern performance icon costing half again as much as a fully-loaded Mustang GT. Everybody knows that the current BMW M3 is a segment leader, offering the performance of Porsche's 911 at a much lower price.

Pericak decided to play BMW's game against them and create a Mustang that could match the M3 around Laguna Seca at a significant savings.

This meant making big changes to the Mustang "five-point-oh" from the wheels up.

Built to run
Front to back, here are the significant features of the "base" Boss 302:

That's a long list of revisions, and they're all important to the Boss mission of "balanced performance." But as we climb the sixteen-percent grade of a Monterey canyon road, it's the monstrous engine that makes its presence most immediately known. This car is too fast for all but the most gnarled back roads, reaching effortlessly into the triple digits between corners and pulling relentlessly from three grand all the way to the 7,500 rpm soft rev limiter. No factory ponycar has ever offered this kind of pace in these conditions -- only Ford's own 2011 aluminum-block GT500 can even mount a challenge.

After just a few miles of observing this car's ability to warp time and space, we back off the throttle and relax. As good as the brakes are, they really aren't up to the challenge of endless ABS-cycling high-speed entries down long, steep hills. It would take Corvette-ZR1-sized platters to dissipate that kind of heat, but this is a car that costs less than a base 'Vette. Time to back off -- and we've made the right choice, as the local police have woken up to the fact that there are a dozen Mustangs with side-facing exhausts racing around the area. We'd better find a place where this kind of power can be safely uncorked.

The Laguna Seca model is sorta street legal
Ford's goal for the Boss 302 was to beat a six-speed BMW M3 around Laguna Seca -- a target that reportedly fell on the very first day of testing. To celebrate this and to add insult to injury, Fordcreated an even-more-limited "Laguna Seca" model. For an extra $7,000 bucks (approximately $47,140 MSRP), the Laguna Seca adds:

That front splitter is the subject of some controversy, as it runs afoul of federal regulations which apparently have something specific to say about badass race-car-style aerodynamic aids. Officially, Ford recommends that you remove the splitter before driving on the street. Unofficially, we here at Leftlane recommend that you buy a couple backup splitters for the day you encounter serious speedbumps.

A monster on the racetrack -- but a gentle one
We have limited track time available and no laps to waste, so we start in a Laguna Seca edition with the traction control and stability systems completely disconnected. No street car really feels quick on a racetrack, but the Boss comes close, particularly over the blind front straight where it takes some courage (or stupidity) to hold the throttle down all the way to the brake markers. Five years ago, this would have been supercar performance. Today, it's enough to blow by BMW's track star and worry a new Z06.

Ford promised us a "neutral" car, meaning that it would not understeer to any measurable extent, but manufacturers are always claiming that. Surprise! The Boss delivers, easily negotiating Seca's Turn Two without washing out the front end. If you've driven this track in Gran Turismo (or real life) you know how rare that is. It's a pleasant surprise to find easily controllable power oversteer available through the next sequence of turns -- just what we need to fix some poorly chosen entry lines.

Turn Six is known for breaking wheels, shock absorbers, and hearts in equal measure, but the Boss just bounces through in total control. Same goes for the Corkscrew. We have all the rebound damping we could wish for as we sail off the edge of the world and fall all the way down to Turn Nine. It's sooooo easy to drive this fast. Compared to the '95 Cobra this author raced in NASA's Camaro-Mustang-Challenge a few years ago, this isn't even recognizable as a Mustang. It's more like "¦ BMW M3, honestly. It's just faster.

The value proposition
Followup laps in the "plain" Boss are no less impressive. The narrower rear wheels and different diff make this a more tail-happy car, particularly once the rear tires are warm. Although Ford's tame racing drivers report a one-second lap time difference between the standard Boss and the Laguna Seca Edition, for most of us the gap will be two seconds or more. You just can't beat the advantage of aero and R-compound tires -- but that's not to say the regular Boss doesn't have the racetrack edge on nearly anything else out there.

Pricing starts at approximately $40,140. If you can come up with an extra $302 for the "track key," do it. You'll get racetrack-specific engine tuning and a lumpy idle that matches the 1970 original owned by one of Ford's engineers. Recaro seats are optional (and recommended) on the plain Boss, but what we'd really recommend is paying the extra money and buying the Laguna Seca edition.

Purchasing any Boss 302 Mustang this year may prove to be difficult because there won't be many to go around. Some dealers will get just one Boss, while others will get none. Get in line now if you're interested.

Leftlane's bottom line
Should you be interested? Well, if you want a retro tape-and-stripe car for Saturday nights at the burger joint, you'd be better off buying a Mustang California Special GT. This is for the track stars, the NASA Time Trial warriors, the guys who don't want to see anybody's bumper ahead of theirs. It's a unique combination of massive pace and pleasant on-track demeanor, wrapped up in a gorgeous package.

It's more than Ford promised, and more than most of us need. But it's exactly what Mustang enthusiasts -- and maybe even a BMW driver or two -- will want.

2012 Ford Mustang Bos 302 base price range, $40,140 to $47,140.

Words by Jack Baruth. Photos by John Flores.