Driven: 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302

Nowadays, it's no longer difficult to make a powerful muscle car, as evidenced by the proliferation of high-zoot ponycars that offer an honest 400-or-more horsepower. And while they are all exceedingly good at their number-one task: off-the-line acceleration, most aren't terribly well rounded performers. That makes the Boss 302 Mustang a standout in this now-crowded field.

When the Boss 302 was unveiled last summer, you might be forgiven for thinking this glory-days rehash was little more than the middle offering in the firmament of similarly nostalgic muscle Mustangs. The Boss gets 444 hp from its 5.0-liter engine. The Mustang GT already makes 412 hp from its 5.0-liter DOHC V-8. The Shelby hits the 550-hp mark, using a supercharged version of the old, 5.4-liter V-8.

But as it turns out, the Boss is much more than simply a middle offering. At the reveal of the Boss at Laguna Seca raceway in Monterey last August, Ford was emphasizing the car's focus as a track machine. That's particularly true of the Boss 302 Laguna Seca edition, in which a much stiffer suspension and an X-brace in place of the rear seat are two of the most notable manifestations of that car's mission.

More recently, I had a chance to drive a Boss 302 Laguna Seca at an autocross event at Ford's proving ground. Although the beautifully controllable, oversteer-happy chassis was loads of fun, the most surprising and impressive aspect of the Boss was the free-revving nature of its modified 5.0-liter V-8. Where so many big American V-8s seem to labor as they climb the tach, the Boss V-8 is much more lively. It makes its peak hp at 7400 rpm, and it revs all the way to 7500 rpm -- well past the GT's 7000-rpm redline or the Shelby's 6250 rpm.

Back home, I now have had a chance to spend some street time in the car. This time it was a standard Boss 302. In this real-world environment, this Mustang impressed with its polish.

The 302-cubic-inch V-8 emits a sharp bark when you're getting on it, but does not drone on tiresomely when you're just cruising. If that's too mellow for you, however, one can remove the restrictor plates to open up the side exhaust outlets. Speaking of the exhaust, it hangs low, and scrapes on speed bumps even when taken at a crawl; on a similar note, the aggressive front spoiler looks pretty vulnerable too -- park with care.

The clutch (which uses carbon fiber plates) is a tad heavy, as one might expect, but take-up is very easy, as is throttle tip-in and modulation. The six-speed manual -- the only gearbox available -- is a special, close-ratio unit. Its shift action stands out from the industrial feel of many muscle-car mechanisms. Its throws are ultra-short (as is its gear lever) and shift action is very positive action. Nice.

So, too, is the steering. The wheel is covered in a suede-like material that feels great. Effort is adjustable (as it is in other Mustangs); normal and sport are both good; only comfort is somewhat overboosted. For an electric-assist system, the feel is very natural. The system is also impervious to tramlining, despite the wide tires.

The Boss suspension is firmer than that of the GT, and yet ride quality is surprisingly livable. It's a little stiff and bouncy at times, but this car easily absorbs ridges, bumps, and crests without beating up passengers -- even though it's riding on 19-inch wheels on ultra-low-profile 40- and 35-series rubber. Bumps encountered mid-corner, however, can cause the live-axle Boss to skip sideways. The Boss has adjustable damping rates -- at the top of the shock tower under the hood (or in the trunk), where you select 1 through 5 by turning a tiny slot with a screwdriver.

My Kona blue test example had the optional Recaro sport seats (which are combined with the Torsen limited-slip differential in the lone option package). Those sport seats do a great job keeping you in place during high-g turns and yet they're also quite comfortable for a long highway trip. All seat adjustments are manual, however.

In fact, the rather basic -- okay, cheap -- interior, and the long list of missing optional equipment, are really the only two factors that might put someone off from making this most endearing Mustang as an everyday driver. Among the options not available here, but offered on the GT, are navigation, a power driver's seat, a glass roof, a backup camera, satellite radio, and Sync. The absence of some of those is perhaps understandable, but satellite radio and Sync?

That said, the Boss 302 thrills as a special edition that really is offers something unique; it's not just a Mustang GT with more. At $41,105 ($11,000 more than a base GT), the price doesn't even seem that outrageous for a car that is sure to be of interest to future collectors (4000 will be built, 750 Laguna Secas). And compared to the $8500-more-expensive Shelby GT500, with its max-everything overkill, the Boss is sharper, more fun, more focused, and more polished. This muscle car with finesse is truly a horse of a different color.

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TireKicker
Just like in '69, when the Shelby got heavy, the Boss 302 is the real track car...closer to the spirit of the original Shelby GT 350.

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