Let’s get one thing out of the way before I get into the review of the 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302: this is no tech car.
The Boss is one of the only vehicles in Ford’s lineup that isn’t available with the automaker’s Sync voice command infotainment system. The stereo is Ford’s basic rig with AM/FM/CD playback and the best thing that I can say about it is that sound does, in fact, come out of its four speakers. Satellite radio is optional and you can connect your MP3 player via the auxiliary input, but don’t bother looking for the USB port–there isn’t one. You can also forget about making a hands-free call, because Bluetooth isn’t available. Navigation? Yeah, right.
On paper, the 302’s power train also seems decidedly low-tech. There is no forced induction. Fuel is added via old-fashioned port injection rather than new-fangled direct injection. Power meets the road at the rear wheels via the Mustang’s old-school live rear axle. And in true muscle car fashion, at no point during our week of testing did the trip computer report higher than 12.2 mpg (well below the EPA’s guess of 17 city and 26 highway mpg).
So when you see the low score at the top of this review, know that the reasons are the absolute lack of cabin gadgetry and the unimpressive fuel efficiency of the low-tech drivetrain. Sorry, but those are the rules that we’ve set up.
But every now and then, a low-tech car comes along and transcends a simple star rating, causing even us Car Tech guys to drop our gadgets and just enjoy the ride. The Boss 302 is one of those cars. (The Mazda MX-5 Miata also comes to mind, but that’s a different sort of driving enjoyment.)
V-8-powered car audio
I didn’t even realize that the Boss 302 didn’t have Sync, premium audio, or hands-free calling until the second day of testing, because I didn’t even touch the radio for entire first day. The best bit of the 302’s sound system isn’t in the cabin, it’s underneath it. The 444-horsepower, 5.0-liter V-8 growls and burbles through a unique quad-exhaust that features a pair of conventional tailpipes out back that handle most of the waste gas output and a second pair of smaller exhausts that exit through hidden tips just ahead of the rear wheels. This secondary side exhaust system is designed to enhance the Boss’ particular brand of engine-note music. To be fair, my enjoyment of this gasoline-powered audio system probably contributed greatly to our low observed fuel economy, but anyone who’s interested in being the guy in the Boss would likely drive in a similar manner.
The 5.0-liter engine block (borrowed from the Mustang GT) is enhanced with upgraded intake components that add to its 32-horsepower bump over the standard GT model. Looking at the numbers, the Boss is actually down on maximum torque (380 pound-feet versus the GT’s 390) but you wouldn’t know it from behind the wheel. The 302 pulled and pulled hard every time I burrowed my right foot into the accelerator, regardless of what gear the single-option six-speed manual transmission happened to be in.
The shifter itself featured a moderately short throw and a mechanical-feeling engagement (you can almost feel the teeth of the gears notching together), but there’s not much lateral movement to the shift lever. I observed that there seemed to only be a fraction of an inch between the first and third gear gates, and more often than not I’d end up in fourth gear when pulling back from first, rather than second gear. Perhaps this is by design, but it did mean that I had to be significantly more deliberate about my shifts.
Another transmission bit that I had to be deliberate about was the clutch pedal, which was almost ridiculously heavy. (Don’t be surprised if, after a week with the Boss 302, your left leg is noticeably more muscular than your right.) Fortunately, it features good travel with great feel that makes the Boss as easy to drive in a traffic jam as it is to drive full bore. I did have a hair-raising time inching the Boss up some of San Francisco’s almost vertical climbs in stop-and-go traffic, but with plenty of torque on tap, stalling was never an issue.
Tackles corners like a Boss
The Boss may haul ass like a muscle car (and guzzle gas like one), but it handles corners like a vehicle much lighter than its 3,631-pound curb weight. Tossing the Boss into a fast bend, I was surprised by how neutral the car felt as it simply went where I pointed it. Hitting the apex and opening the throttle to accelerate out of the bend, I found the Boss was also surprisingly planted. There was no fishtailing or snap oversteer. The Boss simply dug in and powered out of the turn sans dramatics. I’m left with the impression that you’d have to be a significantly better or worse driver than I am to get the Boss out of sorts on public roads and, for the vast majority of drivers, the Mustang’s performance will provide ample thrills without ever threatening to kill you.
However, unlike tightly sprung track specials like the Hyundai Genesis Coupe R-Spec, the Boss 302’s ride is also surprisingly comfortable and supple. This is the kind of car that you can drive home from the track without getting your kidneys bruised over potholes and expansion joints. All of our editors spoke of how the 302’s suspension soaked up the bumps without feeling numb and disconnected–such praise is normally reserved for premium German sport sedans.
If there is an Achilles’ heel in the Boss 302’s handling prowess, it’s the stoppers. Despite featuring upgraded Brembo brakes at all four corners, the Boss didn’t bleed off speed as quickly as I’d have liked and also had rather poor pedal feel. It’s easy enough to compensate for this by simply braking earlier, and the system didn’t exhibit significant fade over the course of my testing, so at the very least the brakes don’t get worse as you go. However, I expected a bit more from a car that goes and bends like the Boss.
As good as the Mustang Boss 302 is on the street, there is a way to make it better at the track. Ford has made available a feature called TracKey, which is an actual second key for the car that unlocks a second set of engine and performance tuning to optimize timing, fuel delivery, and throttle response, and tweak over 600 other parameters to increase low-end torque and on-track performance. I understand that even the engine’s idle is gets tweaked for a more lopey, muscley sound. Unfortunately, because the TracKey is optimized for the track, it makes certain compromises where emissions are concerned, which has gotten the attention of the California Air Research Board (CARB). At the time of our testing, the TracKey was yet unavailable in the great state of California pending CARB’s approval.
In the cabin, the Mustang Boss 302 was upgraded with Recaro sport seats that offered bolstering that did a fantastic job of holding the driver in place while cornering without feeling uncomfortable for long stretches behind the wheel. At least one of our editors complained about the seating position, the Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel’s positioning, and the lower dashboard repeatedly hitting his knees. I didn’t run into any of those issues, although I did find squeezing between the seat’s lower side bolster and the steering wheel upon entering and exiting the vehicle to be a bit uncomfortable. (The simple solution: just never get out of the Boss.) Your mileage, as always, will vary depending on your height and build.
The market is full of cars that make compromises, whether to keep the price down, to decrease emissions, or to increase luxury. The 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302 also makes plenty of compromises in the pursuit of performance. As I stated earlier, the lack of cabin comfort options and advanced power train technologies results in a lowish score from us for the Boss. But the score is only part of the story. More important than the numbers is the fact that the Boss 302 is a car with singular purpose: driving. It offers no distractions from that purpose, but it also places very few electronic nannies between you and the 444-ponies under your right foot. The Boss demands your attention (and the attention of everyone within the audible range of its V-8 bark) and if you give it that undivided, this modern muscle car will reward you with one of the great rides of your life.
The 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302 bases at $40,310. The only option available is a $1,995 Recaro seats package that adds a helical limited-slip differential and, of course, the Recaro seats for the driver and front passenger. That’s it. There are no tech options, but if you’ve gotten this far into the review, I’m sure that you won’t care. Add a $795 destination charge to reach an as-tested price of $43,100 for our Kona Blue Metallic tester.
If you want more on-track performance, the TracKey will be available for an additional $302 charge (estimated) when CARB decides that it’s street-legal. The truly serious can also step up to the Ford Mustang Boss 302 Laguna Seca package, which includes the Recaro seats and limited-slip differential plus a track-tuned suspension, stiffer sway bars, a chassis-stiffening cross-member where the rear seats would normally go, more aggressive aerodynamics, stickier race tires, and an even gaudier color scheme for the paint and graphics for a flat $48,100 (destination fees included). That price is dangerously close to the more powerful (and more comfortable for commuting) Mustang Shelby GT500, so perhaps the Laguna Seca package isn’t such a great deal for the less-than-hard-core set.