God only knows how fast we were going, but we were flying. From my vantage point in the passenger seat, I could not see the speedometer, and Editor Glad was busy scanning a path through traffic on the congested 405 freeway. What neither of us missed was the unmistakable black and white roof of a California Highway Patrol Crown Victoria. We were in the left lane on the southbound side as he was approaching on the northbound side. Our ’12 Boss 302 Mustang must have seemed like a Competition Orange blur rocketing past, and the monolithic concrete divider was the only thing between us and massive points on Doug’s driving record, because it was impossible for him to make a U-turn and come after us. “He flipped his lights on, did you see that?” Doug asked later. Apparently motivated by either frustration or outrage, the Chippie had fired up his light bar for a few seconds as if to say, “I saw that. I can’t come after you, but I saw you speeding.”
We were headed to Long Beach to shoot this new Boss—which we had on a three-day loan from Ford—together with Kenny Maisano’s meticulously restored ’70 Boss. On the way, we stopped briefly in Irvine to pick up Doug’s ’06 Mustang GT. Arriving at the photo shoot rendezvous, Doug leaped out of his car. “Sit in this thing. It feels nothing like the Boss.”
The differences were startling.
In the ’12 Boss 302, the clutch feel feels light, and the engagement is progressive. One wouldn’t exactly say the same about the ’06. It doesn’t feel bad, but it requires more effort. And while most of us assume more effort equals more power, that theory is disproved after driving the Boss—a car with more power stock but with a lighter-feeling clutch. The same holds true with the shifter. The Boss has very short throws and really close gates; the handle practically falls into the next gear. The ’06 is much less precise, and Doug has complained for several years about missed shifts at high engine speeds, especially at the 2 to 3 upshift, a result of the remote-mounted shifter handle. The seats feel different, too. Yes, the Boss has Recaros, so of course they feel better, but the seating position and relationship to the steering wheel are better than the other ’06.
It’s amazing the difference just six years made in the development of the Mustang. Both of these cars are technically the same platform, the S197, yet just a few minutes behind the wheel of the Boss had Doug contemplating trading in his ’06 for a new 5.0-powered car. It really is that much better. Which brings us to the point of this article: If you are in the position (financially or otherwise) to buy a new Boss 302, do it. You will love the car—we guarantee it. For the majority of us who can’t go out and buy one, here are some options to make your car feel and drive better.
We address Mustangs this month, but hang in there, Dodge and Chevy guys. We will follow up in the next couple of months with versions for your cars, too.
Old Boss vs. New Boss
Meet the new Boss. Same as the old Boss. We mean that in a good way, though. In the late-’60s, Ford engineers wanted to create a car that would win SCCA’s Trans-Am series. For those unfamiliar with Trans-Am, think of is as Super Stock racing around a road course. Certain modifications were allowed, but the cars were basically the same as when driven home from the local Ford, Chevrolet, or Dodge/Plymouth dealership. It was exciting racing, and the competition among the Big Three was fierce.
Ford complemented its new-for-’69 body style with a high-revving 302 with a forged reciprocating assembly and the massive-port cylinder heads from the then-new 351 Cleveland engine. According to Ford’s own literature, the chassis engineers were issued a mandate from President Bunkie Knudson to build “the absolute best handling street car available for the American market.” Their efforts paid off when Ford took the Trans-Am championship in 1970.
The original Boss 302 was produced in the ’69 and ’70 model years only, with a combined production of 8,641 models. It was replaced in ’71 with the Boss 351.
Fast-forward about four decades and Ford has finally brought the Boss 302 back. Again, it will be a limited-production model, and again, the philosophy was to build the quickest and best- handling Mustang ever made. “A beautifully balanced factory-built race car that [customers] can drive on the street,” describes Mustang Chief Engineer David Pericak. To accomplish those lofty goals, Ford made a number of small but significant changes to the powertrain and chassis of the just introduced ’11 5.0 Coyote-powered S197 car. The engine was upgraded with a forged rotating assembly (regular 5.0 engines have cast pistons), more aggressive camshafts, CNC-ported cylinder heads, and a short-runner, velocity stack intake manifold. All these changes are good for 444 hp and 380 lb-ft, compared with 412/390 from the plain-Jane Coyote. The Getrag six-speed transmission is a carryover from the Mustang GT, but the clutch material was upgraded, and a Torsen limited- slip differential is available as an option. To improve handling, the Boss was upgraded with higher-rate springs and adjustable shocks and struts, with five different valving options that can be easily changed at the top of the piston—you don’t have to crawl under the car to change the settings. Brembo brakes are standard on the Boss, and the front-brake rotors are an inch larger. In addition, Boss 302s have more aggressive brake pad material than that of the GTs.
Scott Mortara, testdriver for our sister publication Motor Trend, describes the ’12 Boss as, “definitely the best Mustang I’ve ever driven, and it’s also one of the most fun to drive cars I’ve driven in the last couple of years.” Strong praise coming from a guy who’s driven every car sold in America as his job as road test editor since 2006.
The Boss 302 is a benchmark car—one that only a few people will be able to own but many will aspire to. Even if you can’t afford one, it is possible to build your own car to match or possibly exceed the high standards of the Boss 302.
Let’s address a bit of bad news first. There is no way to make an old car feel like a new car. We talked with the owners of three different suspension companies—Maximum Motorsports, Maier Racing Enterprises, and Global West Suspension—and all were in agreement on that point. “You can get them close, but if you want a new car, you should buy a new car,” Mike Maier says. “There is only so much you can do with a 40-year-old chassis.”
But one of the most common questions suspension companies are asked on a regular basis is how to make an older car feel like a new car. We were as guilty as the next guy. After driving the new Boss 302, we were trying to think of ways to make all our cars feel that good. And for lack of a better term, that feeling is what most people refer to as ride quality. The problem, though, is that ride quality is such a subjective term, and there is no good way to quantify it. To some, a car with good ride quality has a stiff autocross suspension and really responsive steering, while to others, it’s a quiet drivetrain with little NVH in the chassis or interior. For the sake of this article, we’re going to dismiss the latter notion as crazy talk, and assume if you read this magazine on a regular basis, you will agree with the following statement: A car with the best ride quality has the ideal combination of acceleration, braking, and cornering abilities, given the dimensions of the vehicle and what it is mainly used for. Daily drivers don’t need alignment settings of 4 degrees negative camber and 1 degree of toe-out, but some auto- crossers do. Likewise, an autocross car does not need 600 hp to be competitive, but an open-track or street/strip car might.
“The first thing we determine is how the customer uses his car—drag race, autocross, road race, or street driven,” says Maximum Motorsports’ Chuck Schwynoch. “We also have to ask how often the car is used that way. When some people say they don’t drag race very often, it means they only get to the track twice a month, instead of every week. For others, not very often means only a couple of times a year. So we have to ask a lot of questions to determine the best combination of parts for that application.”
Global West’s Doug Norrdin echoes that statement. “We need to know what the customer wants the car to do. You can make these things handle with the right combination of parts.”