Photos by Zerin Dube & Ford Motor Company
When Ford resurrected legendary 5.0 engine with the 2011 Mustang GT, muscle car enthusiasts everywhere waited with bated breath for the seemingly inevitable return of the iconic Boss 302 nameplate. With Dodge heating up the muscle car wars with the Challenger 392 and the Chevy Camaro SS flying off the showroom floors, it only made sense for Ford to slot a higher-performance model in between the already competent Mustang GT and range-topping GT500 models. Enthusiasts didn’t have to wait long, as Ford proudly announced the return of the Boss 302 for the 2012 Mustang model year.
The story of the 2012 Mustang Boss 302 starts in the Ford engineering department where the mechanical wizards took the standard 5.0-liter Mustang GT engine and turned it into a high-revving masterpiece. Ford updated the 5.0 in the Boss 302 from the top down, starting with a new runners-in-the-box plenum/velocity stack intake manifold. To further help the Boss 302 breathe, Ford upgraded to aluminum-alloy cylinder heads designed to provide better airflow at higher RPMs without giving up that ever important low-end torque.
Forged aluminum pistons and forged connecting rods, along with updated crankshaft and main bearings, provide the extra strength needed to spin the engine to its 7,500-rpm red line. Oiling was improved over the standard 5.0 by fitting the Boss 302 with an engine oil cooler and oil pan baffling to help keep oil flowing under the hardest cornering maneuvers.
These mechanical changes combined with aggressive software tuning help the Mustang Boss 302 produce a very impressive 444 horsepower and 380lb-ft. of torque–a gain of 32-horsepower over the standard Mustang GT. And for those who are counting, even though the Boss 302 gives up 10 lb-ft of torque to the standard Mustang GT, the power curve is broader, creating a much more linear torque curve overall.
Exhaust gasses escape the Boss 302’s engine by way of an all-new quad exhaust system. This new exhaust system features two pipes that exit from the rear of the car, while two pipes exit just aft of the doors below the rockers. A not-so-secret secret of the Boss 302’s exhaust system is that the side exhaust pipes have removable baffles that can further uncork the sound of the 5.0.
Power is transferred to the rear wheels by way of a short-throw six-speed manual gearbox with an upgraded clutch and a 3.73:1 rear axle with a TORSEN differential.
In the handling department, Ford fitted the Mustang Boss 302 with fully adjustable shocks, higher spring rate coils, stiffer bushings and a larger rear sway bar. Visually, the Boss 302 sits 0.4 inches lower in the front and 0.04 inches lower in the rear than the GT.
The Boss 302’s braking system is the same as a Track Pack Mustang GT with 14-inch Brembo four-piston calipers up front, and 11.8-inch rears but with a higher performance brake pad compound and better ventilation. Fitting over the Boss 302s brakes are lightened 19-inch wheels with Pirelli PZero tires.
Numbers and specifications can only tell part of the Mustang Boss 302 story though. To truly appreciate what all these enhancements mean to the driver, one needs to book a few hours at the nearest road course they can find. For those of us in the Houston wing of Speed:Sport:Life, this means a trip out to see our friend Michael Mills at MSR Houston in Angleton, TX.
Mills is the Director of Operations at MSR Houston and gladly allows us the opportunity to test cars at the facility so long as one condition is met: he gets to drive anything cool we bring out. Done and done.
With helmets on and a few recon laps of the 2.38-mile road course in my own Audi S4, I was ready to unleash power of the Mustang Boss 302. It wasn’t long before the Mustang Boss 302 showed me how serious Ford was about building a world-class muscle car turned sports car.
Power from the revised 5.0 came on smooth thanks to the linear power curve, and throttle response was excellent. The chassis felt tight and neutral, never giving me the sensation that the car was going to snap around mid-corner, although you could easily rotate the rear by modulating the throttle.
Unlike Mustangs of the past, the Boss 302 felt completely planted over the two crests at MSR Houston and I gained enough confidence to keep the loud pedal to the floor than I thought was reasonably possible. I was shocked at how responsive and nimble the Boss 302 was, especially compared to the GT500, which can be a handful out on the track.
Brake fade was slightly noticeable after 6-7 laps, but I feel that the car behaved admirably considering the ambient temperature was hovering near the 100-degree mark.
To make a long story short, the Mustang Boss 302 provided one of the best track experiences I’ve ever had in a showroom stock car. I always felt completely connected to the car and the Boss 302 always went where the steering wheel was pointed without any argument from the suspension, brakes or tires.
I do know my limits however, and a racecar driver I am not. The Boss 302 had more grip than I was comfortable using and I didn’t feel like pushing my luck. To truly put the Mustang Boss 302 to the test and see if it was a Bavarian beater from the streets of Detroit, I handed over the keys to Mills. Not only has he driven more laps around MSR Houston than anyone else, but he’s also an accomplished driver in the Mission Foods GT3 Cup Trophy series. If anyone could get the Boss 302 to its limits, it would be Mills.
To ensure we had accurate lap times, Mills strapped a transponder to the front of the Mustang Boss 302 and set out for a few hot laps. Once he was comfortable with the car and how it was going to behave around the track, Michael headed out to set a fast lap time in the Boss. The result was a fast lap time of 1:45.3. To put that in context, Michael had set a time earlier in the day of 1:50.5 in my tuned 2010 Audi S4, and a 1:49.7 in a Mercedes-Benz C63 with the performance package.
Though the Boss 302 crushed the S-car and AMG’s times in the Mustang, neither was the German competitor Ford had their sights on when developing the car. The target Ford had in mind is the benchmark for driving experience and fun, the BMW M3.
Luckily, there just happened to be a stock E92 M3 sitting around in the paddock. We strapped a transponder to it and sent Michael out. After a couple of warm-up laps, Michael was able to set a fast lap of 1:46.6 in the M3. Yes, the Mustang Boss 302 beat the gold standard of German performance by over a full second, and that’s without the help of the optional Boss 302 TracKey that provides an even more aggressive software tune.
That’s pretty damn impressive and becomes even more so when you consider that the base price of the Mustang Boss 302 is only $40,310. Our tester had a price-as-tested of $43,100, including the $1,995 Recaro seat package and destination charges. That’s over $17,000 cheaper than the BMW M3’s base price.
Though all of us at the track that day stood next to the Boss 302 in awe, none of us that had driven the car were all that surprised. The Boss 302 is hands down the best Mustang that Ford has ever built, and I’ll argue that it’s the best muscle car that America has ever seen. More importantly, it’s so good that I’ll argue that the Mustang Boss 302 is one of the best sports cars the world has ever seen.