At times, the Mustang versus Camaro storyline is as sophisticated as The Itchy and Scratchy Show, the television-show-within-a-television-show created for Matt Groening's jaundiced, cartoon American family. While these two pony cars take turns playing tireless cat or ruthless mouse, one thing remains constant: they fight (They fight. They fight, they fight, they fight. Fight, fight, fight! Fight, fight, fight!) with little purpose other than antagonizing the other or settling the score.
A recap from previous episodes: Ford finds a large audience for a retro-styled pony car, Chevrolet builds a retro-styled Camaro. Ford finally drums up some decent engines for the Mustang, Chevrolet gives the V-6 Camaro an 8-hp bump without touching the engine. Chevrolet builds a high-tech masterpiece that's more sports car than muscle car, Ford throws down the most powerful production V-8 engine and a 200-mph top speed.
We've already refereed two rounds of this tit-for-tat squabble and picked winners on both sides. If you're buying for cheap performance with a run-of-the-mill V-6 or V-8 model, 'Stang beats Camaro. If you have the scratch for a Porsche and the discerning tastes of a newly licensed teenager, we rank the Camaro ZL1 ahead of Ford's Shelby GT500. But the greatest pony car of them all has claimed its title without using a single stick of cartoon dynamite. The Ford Mustang Boss 302 delivers a level of driver involvement that's not just unmatched among 1960s-styled two-doors; it's among the best in the wider world of cars. And since it's positioned between the Mustang GT and the Shelby GT500, the Boss occupies a space that Chevrolet hasn't contested.
The Camaro's counterattack
And so we have yet another episode of The Camaro and Mustang Show. Same characters, same conflict, new antics. Given the history between these two, it's no surprise that Chevy wouldn't lie still while Ford pushed its pot of skin-melting acid into position. Instead, the engineers at GM readied their own attack, sharpening the handling and strengthening the drivetrain of the Camaro SS with the 1LE. Their answer isn't a unique model like the Boss, but rather an optional equipment package that can be added to manual-transmission SS models. 1LE cars pack the same 426-hp, 6.2-liter V-8 found in the SS but add larger anti-roll bars, stiffer dampers, a close-ratio gearbox, a shorter final drive, a strut-tower brace, a transmission cooler, and stickier tires. At face value, the changes suggest incremental improvements in handling and acceleration, but when driven, the 1LE reveals a much more significant transformation.
Perhaps that shouldn't come as a surprise, since engineers worked backward from the divine $54,995 Camaro ZL1, transferring both knowledge and a few parts to the 1LE. Most noticeably, the ZL1's front tires -- 285/35ZR-20 Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar G:2s -- are used at all four corners of the 1LE with profound effect. The ultra-high-performance summer tires offer gobs of grip while the identical sizes front and rear reduce the Camaro's proclivity for understeer. With equal credit going to the revised suspension, high-g cornering in the 1LE bears little resemblance to that of the 2011 Camaro SS. That car rolled, wallowed, understeered, and generally disappointed when it was flogged around the track. Winning our respect back, the 1LE remains surprisingly flat in corners with less body roll and more front-end grip than the Boss Mustang. And while the suspension changes keep understeer at bay, neither is the 1LE an oversteering lunatic. This Camaro can be pitched, chucked, and hurled into corners with reckless abandon and it remains a well-behaved, easily controlled pony.
All SS models adopt electric power steering for 2013, a welcome change over the dull hydraulic setup of last year's car. The Camaro now steers with sharper on-center response and more immediate turn-in (thank those tires again), though there is room for improvement. With less weight in the nose than the ZL1, the 1LE has a feeling of lightness in the steering wheel that weakens the connection between driver and road. In all, the tidier steering and handling of the 1LE package shrinks the Camaro -- at least in terms of perception. The 1LE feels smaller than a regular SS on the track, yet not as nimble as the Mustang. The 1LE is still haunted by tortured sight lines and its inescapable 3860-pound weight.
While the small-block V-8 makes the same 426 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque as the SS, the 1LE accelerates more quickly thanks to a new transmission that puts first through fourth gears closer together and a shorter final-drive ratio. That gearbox also includes a new shifter -- borrowed from the ZL1 -- with slightly longer throws and a nicely shaped shift knob. The Camaro's powertrain is hardy and robust, yet tamer and calmer than the Boss's unruly 5.0-liter. To get closer to the Mustang's bad-boy attitude, every 1LE buyer will want to make sure their car is equipped with the $895 active exhaust for a deeper, louder note on startup and under hard acceleration.
Who's the Boss?
In contrast to the Camaro's traditional torquey V-8, the Mustang is a hopped-up screamer, spinning 1100 rpm higher and hitting its 444-hp peak at 7400 rpm. Don't expect any apologies that the 1LE has 40 lb-ft of torque on the Boss, though. Power delivery is linear and precise and the Mustang has character and personality that go far deeper than the Camaro. The 5.0-liter lopes at idle, snorts at tip-in, and thunders under full throttle. And when you remove the restrictor plates from the side-exit exhaust pipes, the effects are even more intoxicating. Chevy's active exhaust system politely turns down the volume when you're cruising, and we'd caution that the Boss's amplified gurgle could get annoying on the highway -- if it didn't sound so damn good.
The Mustang's gearing is even more aggressive than the Camaro's, bringing the mixed blessing of more frequent shifting. The stiff and tight shifter looks cool and it's fun to strong-arm a fast upshift on the street. The flip side is that you'll be busier on the track and the claustrophobic gate spacing makes for cumbersome downshifts when you're in a hurry. The Camaro's shifter, with more space between gates, is far friendlier. We do appreciate the Mustang's superior visibility and the optional Recaro buckets that hold you firmly through high-speed sweepers. Unfortunately, these ergonomic advantages are negated by the nontelescoping steering wheel, which puts taller drivers uncomfortably close to the dashboard.
That's too bad, because the connection between driver and car is otherwise uncanny in the Boss 302. Handling is predictable but hardly conservative. The rear end is quite loose and the front tires will push to the outside of a corner if they aren't coaxed into a turn. These could be negatives, but the Boss communicates so clearly to the driver through the vibrations in the seat, the quiet squeal of the tires, and the heft of the steering wheel that it's easy to toe the limit of traction without feeling like you're going to lose it. The Pirelli PZero tires aren't quite as sticky as the 1LE's Goodyears and the Boss's edgier handling requires you to exercise the brakes harder to set up for corner entry. And even when you're not lapping as fast as the 1LE, you'll find yourself working more to get a clean lap. So while the Camaro is the faster car around a road course, the Boss is the more engaging and entertaining car. It's a challenge to drive perfectly and a riot to drive with the rear tires billowing smoke.
A matter of heart over head.
As different as these two cars are, this showdown is as close as it comes to a stalemate. All rational thinking puts the Camaro ahead of the Mustang. In addition to being the faster car, it's also significantly cheaper than the Boss. As a $3500 option on top of the SS's $33,535 starting price, the 1LE undercuts the Boss by a whopping $5960. Yet while you're turning faster laps in the 1LE, you'll be yearning for the involvement and the specialness of the Mustang. Everything that the Camaro package addresses -- body roll, gearing, and handling behavior -- were complaints we had about the SS back in 2010. The 1LE package comes off as a fix for what was broken rather than improving on an already excellent car. That's what the Boss 302 does.
The raucous Mustang installs itself in your subconscious with the viciousness of a drug addiction. Despite knowing there's an objectively better alternative with a Chevy badge, we are lured back to the Boss again and again. Its responsive chassis, competent handling, and brawny engine strike us in a psychological weak spot where emotions overrule sensibilities. We'd never question someone for making the rational choice of a Camaro SS 1LE, but reason be damned, the Boss 302 is the car we want.