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First Drive: 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302 and Laguna Seca

We covered the 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302 extensively in the November issue of Automobile Magazine (or here, or here, or here) as part of our package of the 10 Greatest Mustangs Ever. And, on the cover of that issue, we asked: "Will the new Boss 302 be number 11?"

Now that we've driven it, the answer is a resounding yes.

Simply put, the Boss 302 is the best of all of the current Mustangs. It's the best expression of a modern muscle car and, frankly, it's the best all-around sports car to wear a Mustang badge. Unburdened with the extra weight and disproportionate thrust of the supercharged GT500, unafflicted with the GT's cushy suspension, and unfettered by the V-6's incorrect soundtrack, the Boss 302 is, to us, exactly what a Mustang should be.

OK, so it still has an old-tech live-axle rear suspension. But that characteristic -- and the resulting skittishness over mid-corner bumps -- is, at least, a part of the Mustang's charming character. And, as we've said in the past, Ford's engineers have done a remarkable job of taming that beast.

On the track, where the suspension doesn't need to cope with mid-corner bumps, the Boss 302 is the very picture of perfect chassis balance. The Boss 302's shocks are adjustable, but we would never mess with the settings the factory dialed in for our drive around Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. With only the slightest hint of understeer built in, this Mustang becomes infinitely and easily throttle-adjustable. Applying maintenance throttle through long sweepers invokes smooth four-wheel drifts that require neither big steering corrections nor stability control intervention to modulate. Indeed, in Sport Mode, the ESP will intrude only if your sideways attitude starts increasing more quickly than your steering inputs, and even then, its light-handed interventions never slow you down one bit.

The changes to the 5.0-liter V-8 are exactly what you'd expect from a Boss -- lots and lots of revs. Forged pistons and significant improvements to breathing move the power peak up in the rev range to a shocking 7500 rpm, right as the limiter kicks in. Few cross-plane V-8s rev this high, and few produce the acoustic fury that comes from the 302. With two additional exhaust outlets (one per side, just in front of the rear wheels), the brutal Mustang music takes on an even more staccato wail, and the additional revs help produce a primal scream unlike anything else on the road. The engine's peak torque is down 10 lb-ft, but you'd never notice it while driving -- there's plenty of thrust everywhere in the rev range. Shorter, 3.73:1 gears in the limited slip differential (optional on other Mustangs) help this V-8 make minced meat out of the first few ratios. Putting the power down is no problem, and you'll row through first, second, and third so quickly you won't have time to notice that you're already at 90 mph. Sorry, officer.

The Boss' ride over broken pavement is impressive, and the Mustang's long wheelbase helps eliminate any of the choppiness you'd expect from a firm ride. The upgraded, 14-inch front brakes (taken from the Shelby GT500) were easily overheated at Laguna Seca (a track notorious for killing brakes), but will likely survive less abusive tracks and aggressive back-roads blasts.

The Laguna Seca edition of the Boss 302 ditches the back seats in favor of a visible cross-brace for added chassis stiffness. It also features a slightly larger (26 mm instead of 25 mm) rear anti-roll bar, stiffer rear springs, a Torsen limited-slip differential and R-compound Pirelli Corsa tires mounted on rear wheels that are an inch wider than the standard Boss 302's. Result: an even crisper, better-balanced Boss that's even easier to control at the limit. We love it, but we're not sure the extra $6995 is worth the increased performance and drop in practicality unless this Boss winds up being a track-day toy.

Either 302, however, is available with the coolest feature of them all: the TracKey. Once a dealer reflashes this Mustang's computer, starting it up with the red TracKey switches the engine management programming to a more aggressive calibration. There's no more power, as the 444-hp 5.0-liter is maxed out as it is, but two big, immediately noticeable things occur. Firstly, the lag usually programmed into the throttle pedal (both on depression and release) is gone, and the Mustang suddenly feels like its accelerator pedal and throttle butterfly are connected by a cable. Every car should be so lucky. Secondly (and this may the coolest computer-controlled automotive feature ever), at idle, the computer alters cam timing to maximize valve overlap. The result: a lopey idle no different than if you had spent thousands installing ludicrously hot cams.

How Ford's powertrain engineers got the Boss to pass emissions tests with a stuttering, loping idle, we'll never know. But we're stoked that they did, because we could sit and listening to an idling Boss 302 all day long. That alone is worth the price of admission -- and the bonus is that the rest of the Boss 302 is just as awesome.

At $40,995 (including destination), the Boss 302 isn't exactly cheap in absolute terms, and it's nearly twice as expensive as a base Mustang. It's four times the car, though. And it's not only $8500 less dear than the Shelby GT500, it's a better all-around car, too. In those terms, the Boss looks like quite the value. There's all the financial justification you'll need to buy one. The emotional reasoning starts and ends with savoring the sound of that unbelievable idle.