After 42 years, the Mustang Boss 302 is back, channeling race car driver Parnelli Jones and his exhilarating 1970 Trans Am series win at Laguna Seca raceway in California.
Jones’ success in the Sports Car Club of America’s championship that year memorialized the horsepower wars among famous American nameplates in that era.
Yet, the new, expressively styled, 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302 — with optional hockey stripes on its sides — is way more than a drive down memory lane.
With an honest-to-goodness 5-liter V-8, it growls with 444 horsepower, 53 percent more than the 290 horses of the original Boss. Zero-to-60-miles-an-hour time is between 4.0 and 4.3 seconds compared with 6.5 seconds in the original car, which had a 302-cubic-inch, or 4.948-liter V-8.
Best of all, steering, handling and ride, which are sporty at the get-go, can be further tuned for buyers who like to race at raceways on weekends — or not. The test Boss coupe was surprisingly balanced with a firm ride and programmable steering that encouraged daily driving, too.
Yes, the new Boss is a racetrack-ready sports coupe that’s street legal.
And with a government fuel economy rating of 17 miles per gallon in city driving and 26 mpg on the highway, it doesn’t even incur the federal gas guzzler tax.
Purchase price, though, isn’t cheap. Starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $41,105 for the 2012 Mustang Boss 302 with six-speed manual transmission. This is $18,000 more than a base, 2012 Mustang with 305-horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6 and manual transmission and $10,600 more than the $30,505 starting price than the 2012 Mustang GT with 412-horsepower V-8.
In comparison, the 2012 Chevy Camaro SS Coupe with 426-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8 and manual transmission starts at $31,920.
In price and engine power, the new Boss is between the V-8-powered 2012 Mustang GT and the 2012 Shelby GT500, which has a 550-horsepower, 5.4-liter V-8 and a starting retail price of $49,605.
Like the original Boss that was engineered and built by Ford Motor Co. as a secret project for the SCCA’s Trans Am race series, the 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302 comes from Ford, not a customizing shop.
“The Boss 302 isn’t something a Mustang GT owner can buy all the parts for out of a catalog or that a tuner can get by adding a chip,” said Dave Pericak, Mustang chief engineer.
The Boss’ engine is based, though, on the Mustang GT’s double overhead cam 5-liter unit. Ford engineers didn’t add a supercharger. Instead, they kept the engine naturally aspirated, changed the camshaft profiles and crankshaft, improved airflow in the aluminum alloy cylinders and added new runners-in-the-box/velocity stack plenum intake.
An oil cooler is standard; so is a redesigned oil pan to make sure the hard-working engine is never without proper lubrication.
There’s a quad exhaust system that helps account for the deep, throaty sounds emanating from the Boss. Even when the test car was at idle, my passengers and I heard the engine, sort of purring deeply the way a wild tiger might while resting.
Note the new exhaust system helps keep the Boss street legal by keeping noise volume down. But at a racetrack, the exhaust baffles can be easily removed so the exhaust system can be unrestricted.
Elsewhere, brakes in the test car grabbed quickly to slow the Boss down. Its brakes come from Brembo and have 14-inch, vented front brake discs.
The Boss’ wheels are lightweight alloy and black in color for a sinister look. Tires are 19-inch Pirelli PZeros, a summer tire with tenacious grip.
So, while the test car tracked well on curves and turns, there was considerable road noise. Indeed, between the engine growl and road noise, I had no way of knowing if the Mustang Boss had wind noise at highway speeds.
The wide tires also tended to require driver steering attention on rippled, grooved pavement as the tires wanted to track along with the ripples and not necessarily where I wanted to go.
Torque peaks at 380 foot-pounds at 4,500 rpm, and acceleration came on smoothly and strongly and certainly never lagged in the tester.
But I managed only 14.9 mpg in combined city/highway travel.
Speed-sensitive steering, adjusted to sport mode, gave precise, quick response.
In the driver’s seat, I could see out better than I could in a 2012 Camaro, but I still never saw the front of the long and raised Boss hood.
Optional Recaco cloth sport seats held me in place expertly. But these seats block forward views for rear-seat passengers who have some 34.7 inches of legroom and who sit under the rear window glass.
Drivers who are short in stature have to work to get comfortable behind the steering wheel. At 5 feet 4, I moved the manual driver’s seat up on its track quite a ways to be able to fully depress the clutch. The Boss doesn’t come with an automatic, of course.
But then I was sitting just a few inches from the steering wheel, and the federal government wants people to be at least 12 inches from the steering wheel air bag for safety.
Since the Boss’ steering wheel tilts but doesn’t telescope, I wound up adjusting the recline of the seatback to get my chest farther from the air bag. But reclined, I lost some visibility out of the car, and it took some time to feel comfortable in this position.
There’s a decent 13.4 cubic feet of cargo room in the trunk, but much of it is under the rear window, and the trunk opening is small.