Ford’s Jim Farley is well-known among auto journos for off-the-cuff remarks, but as he stands in a Laguna Seca garage, facing approximately twenty members of the Press As A Whole, he manages to deliver a real bunker-buster, one which speaks directly to this humble writer’s heart.
“This car… it isn’t meant to be stored in a garage somewhere. It should be on YouTube… maybe doing something illegal.” Oh, yes. Let’s immediately go out and do that. It isn’t until I’ve reached the top of a Monterey canyon, my ears and eyeballs vibrating from the past few minutes’ violent, screeching, Pikes-Peak-style run, that I come to my senses and delete the footage from my Android camera. We’ll let someone else lose their press-trip privileges following the big man’s advice.
That turns out to be a smart move, because an hour later I’m sitting at the pitlane entrance with a broken, smoking BMW M3, a dashboard full of warning lights, a squawking handheld radio, and a feeling that I will need to use all my accumulated goodwill in this industry, whatever miniscule amount that may be, just to survive the afternoon.
Nearly a year ago, I drove the five-liter Mustang GT at Summit Point Raceway and proclaimed it to be far, far better than the competing big-inch ponycars. A better foil for the high-horsepower GT’s abilities, I suggested, would be the Corvette C5 Z06. That may be true, but the Mustang team at Ford didn’t have much interest in drawing direct comparisons with used cars.
Instead, when the idea for a new “Boss 302” was floated around Ford’s corridors, it was decided to tilt at one famous modern windmill: the V-8-powered BMW M3. I know the M3 pretty well, having found myself a few tenths of a second behind one at Monticello during the CTS-V Challenge. It’s a solid all-around performer, capable of whipping the lower half of Porsche’s lineup around most racetracks. Only the dismal, depressingly low-spec brakes keep it from being perhaps the most well-rounded four-seat performance car… in the world, as they say.
What would it take for a Mustang to beat an M3 around Laguna Seca? The easy way to do it would be to chip-tune the car to within an inch of its life, fit bigger tires, drop the gearing, and add a couple of caveats to the claim like “Specially prepared vehicle used for testing”. Think of those Nurburgring videos where mystery-boost GT-Rs and fully-caged Corvettes go wild in the hands of generic-label race drivers.
That’s what they could have done. What they did was the following: There are two completely revised aero packages, one for the “plain” Boss and one for the “Laguna Seca” model, about which more in a bit. The engine has a — wait for it — completely unique set of heads with extra polishing, bigger exhaust valves, a new exhaust cam, special bearings, a redesigned crank, and new valvetrain components. The nominal improvement is modest — up to 444 horsepower from 412 — but on the road it feels more Daytona Prototype (or, to be accurate, ContiChallenge GS) than street car.
The “Brembo package” is standard in this car, with new pads by Performance Friction and improved brake lines. The suspension now has five-position manual dampers and revised spring settings. The payback: this car has the kind of precision damping you’d expect from “Koni Yellows”. There are side-mount exhausts to make it louder, a bigger swaybar to make it rotate, and special 19-inch wheels with 285mm P-Zeros at the back. Serious hardware.
On the back roads around Laguna Seca, I quickly discover that the 302’s monstrous pace is far too much for the brakes. This is a car which can be regularly catapulted on short straightaways to speeds that are multiples of the ol’ 55 limit. Imagine braking from 110 or 120 to 50 or 60, over and over again, and you will start to understand why I’d want a set of Baer eight-piston stoppers on my Boss. As has been the case for the last few years, the infamous live axle is almost imperceptible to the driver, although if your commute takes you through downtown Boston that won’t be the case. On smooth roads, however, the Boss combines the composure of an old BMW E46 and the wailing buzzsaw thrust of a 289 Cobra.
It’s with a sense of relief that my co-driver (and racing coach) Brian Makse and I arrive at the controlled environment of Laguna Seca. We’d been the first car on the road and one of the last to return, and I’m hearing stories of furious cops who dismissed any hope of catching our orange Boss and instead lay in wait for those behind us. Now it’s time to put on our big-boy hats and drive for real.
Ford claims that the standard Boss 302 is about a second faster than an M3 around Laguna Seca, with the special-edition car being faster still. To prove the point, they’ve brought a white M3 to the party. With a low option load and the carbon-fiber roof, this particular M3 looks the business. Naturally I’m the first one to drive it. I haven’t been to Laguna Seca since I faced Brian in the Skip Barber Media Challenge, and I’m anxious to come back up to speed.
My “out lap” is uneventful, and I’m conscious of being the only car on-track as I pass the corner stations on my single flying lap. The M3 is a trustworthy friend out here, with a near-perfect driving position, great visibility, and controls that almost operate themselves. The timer fitted to the car records my lap as 1:50.1, which is pretty far away from the 1:45 turned in by Ford’s Rolex GT crew, but hey: I haven’t been here for a year and I don’t want to wreck the car.
As I enter the pitlane, however, the BMW goes insane, flashing the dashboard and abruptly braking me to a shrieking, clattering halt without my intervention. I radio for help and the car ends up needing to be restarted a few times before deciding to let go of the brakes. This is, frankly, terrifying. What if the brakes had “grabbed” while I was negotiating the infamous Turn Nine? Worse yet, the journos are gabbing that I “broke the BMW”. I prefer to think of it as ensuring that my drive impressions were unique, since the BMW promptly goes in paddock garage and never reappears.
Time to try the “Laguna Seca” edition 302. This costs $47,150 against the standard car’s $40,140. You get a shocking aero package with a street-illegal splitter, bigger wheels, Lamborgini-OEM R-comp tires, a Torsen diff, brake scoops, and an underbody transmission cooling scoop that is certain to be shorn off by a racetrack curb somewhere. The back seat is gone, replaced by a contrast-color X-brace. This car is almost obscene-looking in its aggression. I love it.
Love at first sight, maybe, but the Mustang will never “fit” like the BMW. Where the Bimmer inspires confidence in its driver positioning, the Mustang makes me feel like there’s no perfect way to adjust the seat. The dashboard is tall and the cockpit is dark. The controls are bulky and awkward. Oh well. Time to head out. I notice that the stability control system on this car is off by default.
Just four turns later, I’ve decided to buy My First Mustang. This is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the most neutral-handling street car I’ve ever driven on a track. Understeer is nonexistent and the tail can be rotated at will once you reach the approximate limit of the tires. It would be easy to “stunt drive” this car sideways around Seca — and Brian, in our drive together, does just that — but I’m already on probation so I concentrate on extracting some time without abusing the machine.
Here, as on the street, the revamped five-liter impresses, pulling in strong and linear fashion all the way across the tach. Only the heavy flywheel destroys the impression that one is driving a racing-prepped Mustang. Not that the last racing Mustang I drove, a ’95 Cobra running in NASA CMC, would be able to touch this car. It’s seriously quick and I have no trouble seeing how it’s a few seconds faster than an M3, perhaps very close to a C6 Z06. The unibody feels like it’s a solid casting and I have no concerns about using a little bit of left-foot braking to tighten my line through Nine.
This Laguna Seca Edition is a revelation, a joy, a wonder, but the standard Boss is garbage. Just kidding. If anything, the “regular” car is more fun to drive, a little looser and nimbler on its smaller rear wheels, different tire compound, and sensible spoilers. I guesstimate Brian at 1:45.5, counting seconds on my imprecise IWC Spitfire UTC, and I turn a less dramatic but probably not much slower lap myself a few minutes later. We’re only two seconds or so away from the pros, and those last few ticks would certainly arrive if we had more than six laps at Laguna Seca to learn the car. It’s just plain fun to drive.
If only it stopped. Brian’s hot lap takes all the brakes out of the car for mine, and I’m momentarily concerned as I crest the long straight before Seca’s “Corkscrew”. I understand why Ford can’t fit a $5000 brake system to a $40,000 car, but I’d recommend that Boss owners in the real world think about addressing it. Yeah, you can “manage” the brakes, as Ford’s tame drivers do in their media-ride hot laps, but I don’t have to manage brakes in my Porsches and I don’t want to do it in this car, either. That sounds too much like work.
You’ll need to do some work of your own to find a Boss 302. Fewer than four thousand will be available. Do the math and it’s easy to see that some dealers won’t get one to sell. The Laguna Seca edition will represent a small percentage of those. Instant factory collectible. Boo hiss! Talk to your dealer now, rather than later.
At dinner later that evening, a fellow journalist whom I deeply respect expresses his complete lack of enthusiasm for the car. “It’s fast on the track, but it’s a 3600-pound Mustang that costs a lot of money.” I understand his concern. There’s nothing socially relevant about this car. There’s nothing particularly shocking about the idea of another fast ponycar. It doesn’t do anything for the economy, the industry, or the climate. That doesn’t mean I don’t want one, and if you have the chance to drive the Boss, you are likely to want one, too — even if your current car is an M3.