Steve Turner
Former Editor, 5.0 Mustang & Super Fords
April 18, 2011
Photos By: Courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Horse Sense: Obviously the Boss 302 is built for the road course, and Ford is well aware that many new owners might need some training to get the most from their new vehicles. As such, all new Boss 302 owners will get free training at Miller Motorsports Park in the form of the Boss 302 Track Attack. The event will feature driving instruction and track time with engineers and racers. For more information, check out www.bosstrackattack.com.

It was the moment I had been waiting for since I laid my hands on the keys to the ’12 Boss 302. After being stuck behind seemingly endless parades of California traffic in and around Monterrey, there was finally a clear stretch of road. I slowed the car to a crawl and banged through a couple gears, taking the revs beyond 7,000 each time. After gaining my composure and temporarily reverting back to a responsible citizen, I was overcome with emotion.

No, I didn’t break down into tears. I just started giggling. Feeling the power come on around 3,500 rpm and charge all the way up to the limiter was intoxicating. Could this really be happening? Just a year after bringing the Coyote into the world, Team Mustang had transformed the new 5.0 into a whole new animal. No need to wait for a full moon in the new Boss 302. It is ready and willing to howl at the limiter.

Of course, there is far more to the story of the ’12 Boss 302 than just a high-revving engine, but it is a major arc in the plot. In fact, a second Boss 302 took 42 years to return because Ford needed the right engine to make it happen. They briefly considered supercharging 4.6s to make it work, but that just isn’t in line with the high-revving Boss 302 legacy. No, it was the advent of the Coyote 5.0 that allowed the legend to return.

“The core group of engineers on the Boss 302 engine understands and respects the heritage of the name and the history behind the original engine,” explains Mike Harrison, Ford V-8 engine program manager. “The first Boss 302 was a specially built, free-breathing, high-revving, small V-8 that gave it certain desirable characteristics on a race course—and we capture that essence in the new engine.”

It was no small challenge to surpass the 83-horsepower-per-liter output of the base Coyote 5.0, however. That was the biggest concern the engineers had going into this project, but it was the advent of the manifold that spur the development of the whole program. After just one ride in a standard Mustang equipped with a prototype Boss manifold, and Chief Mustang Engineer Dave Pericak was ready to take on the challenge.

“In keeping with the spirit of the original, the new Boss 302 engine achieves its maximum power output at speeds at or above 7,500 rpm,” Mike says. “Unlike the original engine, however, low-speed torque and driveability are uncompromised thanks to twin independent variable camshaft timing technology and computer-aided engineering design tools.”

With those tools, the same team that brought us the wonders of the new 5.0 got to tune it up to near race-car levels. Besides the aforementioned short-runner intake, the Boss engine features an all-new cylinder head casting beefed up for CNC porting. It is completed with more aggressive exhaust cams and lighter valves. They top a short-block built with sturdier forged rods and pistons, and a crank riding in race-spec bearings. In total, the results are an impressive 444 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque at the flywheel. They achieved their lofty goal with 88 hp per liter.

In practice, the Boss 302 is a marvel. It made me giggle climbing the ladder to 7,500 rpm for the first time, but in spending some time in the car on the street it was impressive that the car acquits itself at low rpm without feeling soggy. Even lugging it in low gear up a hill, the Boss just soldiers on without complaint. When a call to action is heard, then the engine is ready to rev at a moment’s notice. What’s all the more impressive that this engine is tuned like a racer, but behaves like a stocker. Its idle is smooth and locked in, and the car still features all the street amenities.

A race engine tuned for the street is impressive from a major manufacturer, especially when you consider the lengths engineers went to prove out the durability of the concept. Even Ford’s dynos required re-engineering to harness the output and rpm range of the Boss 302. More impressive yet, is that this engine was proven on the track before it ended up in the car. Usually, it’s quite the opposite.

“Ford Racing had challenged the Boss engine team to give them the first available Boss 302 engines,” Mike explained. “They came to us in August 2009 and told us they needed engines as soon as possible to build a limited number of Ford Racing Boss 302R cars for the January (2010) Daytona race. They got the engines 12 weeks later and the team got five Boss 302R cars prepped for the January race. This gave us a fantastic opportunity to be able to get full-on race experience with the engine so early in the program.”

With a durable, race-proven engine between the shock towers, it was a matter of creating a car worthy of backing up the Boss name. That meant revamping the car from front to back. Improving the aerodynamics, cooling system, exhaust, interior, and differential. Of course, when it comes to a Boss Mustang, the suspension gets the most attention. This led to higher spring rates, larger sway bars, and stiffer bushings. Adding control to that package is a quartet of five-way adjustable dampers.

“The team at Ford wanted to offer fellow Mustang enthusiasts something really special—a beautifully balanced factory-built race car that they could drive on the street,” explains David Pericak, Mustang chief engineer. “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. This is a front-to-back re-engineered Mustang with every system designed to make a good driver great and a great driver even better.”

That’s a great sound bite, but in practice the Boss really is a reassuring partner on the road. Prowling the streets of California it proved a well-mannered escort. The suspension was a bit more communicative than a GT’s, but with the dampers dialed back to the number-two setting, it was perfectly pliable. You knew it was tauter, but that’s what a Boss is all about, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

On the curvy Cali hills, the car simply did what you wanted it to. It was a driver/car union somewhat dampened by traffic and speed limits. The track was what the Boss was born for, so the concept of unleashing it on the legendary Laguna Seca was titillating. After a couple of recon laps with a qualified, skilled driver, it was my turn. Clearly Ford has never seen me drive, but they gave me a helmet and a Boss Mustang and said, “Have fun.” Indeed, on certain days, this job really is the best.

The protocol was to make one warm-up lap, one rager, and one cool-down lap. So it was a tentative start on an unfamiliar track, but as I gained confidence, the Boss became my best friend. I’m no race-car driver, but the car made me feel like one for brief moments. The Boss 302 is such a superb balance of power, handling, and braking that while on track the car’s Pirellis just seemed to dig into the pavement and put the car right where you wanted it. You can feel the car’s center of gravity right in the middle of the car where it’s easy to control. When, not if, I made a false move, the Boss was there to forgive, pat me on the shoulder, and start hauling again.

As I started to pick up the pace, the car was right there with me. Its limits were well beyond mine, especially the brakes. Quite often I was braking before I needed to, as I wasn’t used to brakes that good. Not only does the car have the familiar Brembo calipers, but low-expansion brake lines and a track friendly pad material. These things flat out worked, and unlike many press drives, where cars fell by the wayside for maintenance, the Boss only needed to stop for fuel and it was ready for more abuse.

It turns out that proving a combination on the track is exactly the proper way to prove out a track-capable production car. In fact, while discussing the car in the pits it was posed to me that this car is most reminiscent of the fabled Cobra R. The last R-model has long been one of my favorite Mustangs for its ripping, high-rpm power and made-for-the track persona. However, the ’12 Boss 302 is a much better car in nearly all respects. It revs higher, goes faster, rides better, and it still has a full interior and a radio—and that’s just the base Boss with the street tuning.

Looks like it’s time to rearrange that list.

5.0 Tech Specs

’12 Boss 302

Engine and Drivetrain

Block Coyote aluminum
Crankshaft Forged steel
Rods Forged steel
Pistons Forged aluminum
Camshafts DOHC w/Ti-VCT operating range of 50 degrees for intake and exhaust
Cylinder Heads DOHC, four valves per cylinder, variable intake, variable camshaft timing
Intake Manifold Composite shell-welded with runner pack
Fuel System Sequential mechanical returnless
Exhaust Stainless steel tubular headers, quad exhaust tips
Transmission Getrag MT82 six-speed manual
Rearend 8.8 w/3.73 gears (optional Torsen differential)

Electronics

Engine Management Spanish Oak (optional TracKey)
Ignition High-energy coil-on-plug
Gauges MyColor

Chassis and Suspension

Front Suspension
Independent MacPherson strut with reverse-L lower control arm, 34.6mm tubular stabilizer bar, strut tower brace, and manual adjustable strut damping
Brakes 355mm (14-in) x 32mm vented discs, and four-piston Brembo 40/44mm fixed aluminum calipers
Wheels 19x9-in wide-spoke, painted aluminum wheels
Tires 255/40R-19 Pirelli PZero max performance

Rear Suspension
Three-link solid axle with limited-slip differential, performance coilsprings, Panhard bar, 25mm stabilizer bar, and manual adjustable shock damping
Brakes 300mm (11.8-in) x 19mm vented discs, single-piston 43mm floating-iron calipers, and Performance Friction pads
Wheels 19x9.5-in wide-spoke, painted aluminum wheels
Tires 285/35R-19 Pirelli PZero Max Performance

Key to Power

Incredible as the Boss and Laguna might be, there is one feature launching on this vehicle that has far reaching potential beyond the Boss 302. Currently, only the Boss 302 can enable the optional TracKey feature, but we can’t imagine that this feature will stay on just one Mustang for long.

What started out as a concept to take advantage of twin independent variable cam timing for a simple lopey-idle button on the Boss, sent engineers off and running with the concept of combining extant MyKey technology with performance tuning. Soon Boss 302 owners can enable this feature at a Ford Racing dealer for only $302.

“We installed the 302R software on the same PCM that held the stock Boss software,” Jeff Seaman, Mustang powertrain engineer. “Then the controls engineers developed a software system to activate one or the other, depending upon which key was used to start the vehicle. Really, all the parts to make this work existed—the Ford MyKey system was already using the PATS transceiver to perform specific actions based on the key used to start the car, and the PCM was flexible enough to handle multiple control modules. It was just putting everything together.”

Perhaps most impressive about this system is that it functions using the same Copperhead PCM controlling all post-’11 Mustangs. No additional memory or processing power was necessary, yet enabling the TracKey alters no less than 400 parameters to tune the Boss 302 for maximum performance on pump gas. “Anything that could possibly affect all-out performance is deleted from the TracKey calibration,” said Dave Pericak, Mustang chief engineer. “Throttle limiting and torque management—any daily driveability enhancements are removed and replaced with a pure Ford Racing competition calibration.”

As you would expect, the TracKey cranks up the aggression the ignition timing, adds some overlap to the variable cam timing, and deletes the skip-shift. However, besides the numerous tweaks for more performance, TracKey also adds a launch control feature, like a two-step. You just run through some settings with the steering wheel controls, set your launch rpm, and then mat the pedal. It will hold your rpm at the preset level till you dump the clutch.

This feature was first seen on the Cobra Jet, and while it seems a bit out of place on the road-racy Boss 302, but it is cool as ice. If you are buying a Boss 302, TracKey is a must-have option.

Treasure Map

Boss 302 legend largely stems from Parnelli Jones showing the competition the proper way around the track in the original Boss. So, it was not only appropriate that Ford consult Parnelli for a blessing on this new Boss, which was received, but that they also develop an even racier edition named after the famed track. Yes, if a Boss 302 isn’t enough for you, there is the Boss 302 Laguna Seca edition. A race car with license plates.

“When we built the Boss, we had to step back and ask ourselves, ‘How do we improve on this?’” said David Pericak, Ford Mustang chief engineer. “That car is so strong we realized the Laguna Seca package was going to have to be just a fraction of a step back from the Ford Racing 302R to top it. So we went back and threw daily driver practicality out the window, cut some things we couldn’t cut on the volume model, like the back seat, and built it the way we would set up a production Boss for pure competition.”

The Laguna Seca edition is most distinguishable by its red accents and rear badge emblazoned with a map of the legendary track. However, much like the base Boss, the Laguna is no sticker package. There is plenty of substance behind that flashy style. Take one peek into the Laguna cockpit, and you’ll know it is built for business. The rear seat is gone, supplanted by a red chassis brace. There are three Ford Racing gauges on the dash, and the Recaro seats are standard (you can option them on a base Boss).

“Balance is the key on Boss, and even more so on Laguna Seca,” Dave said. “A winning race car has to do everything well, and we’ve had the ability to test all the engineering that went into Boss Laguna Seca on the Ford Racing 302R. It’s not for everyone: It’s stiffer, there’s no back seat, and the aero package is designed for downforce, not speed bumps in the mall parking lot.

Oh, and balanced it is. The Laguna rides on R-compound Pirellis, rolls on unique damper valving, and grips with a standard Torsen differential. For long life on the track, the Laguna adds to the already upgraded Boss cooling system with additional cooling ducts for the brake and transmission. Essentially, this car is as tuned as closely to the race-car edge as it can without losing its street-legal status.

After the track, I actually wheeled the Laguna on a street lap and found it perfectly acceptable on good roads. It’s more evocative on the rougher pavement, but I could drive it everyday without complaint. Everyone has a different level they can take, but this car is no buckboard wagon. It is far more compliant that the Cobra R, and we sure haven’t heard the wine-and-cheese crowd complaining about live axles in a while!

Intoxicating is the only way to describe the Boss 302 Laguna Seca. It simply amplifies all that’s good about the Boss and makes it better. Granted, my time in the Laguna was also my time to experience the more aggressive TracKey calibration, but with more power, more grip, and a lopey idle to boot, the Laguna is catnip for corner carvers. Once I drove a TracKey’d Laguna on its namesake track, I simply didn’t want to drive any other car. Even with more of everything, that familiar balance and control remained.

Eventually, I just had to cut myself off cold turkey. If I kept driving the Laguna, I was going to need one.