By Steven Cole Smith, Special to Tribune Newspapers
February 7, 2012
For dedicated performance enthusiasts, it always seems like a good idea: A manufacturer cranks out a limited-edition run of some hot car with equipment that makes it ready to take to the race track. Which is great fun if you are, indeed, ready to take it to the race track. But if you are buying it primarily for transportation, the novelty can wear off quickly.
It does, for example, with the Porsche Cayman R, a lighter, very basic version of the Cayman. And the early Dodge Viper ACR models — ACR stood for American Club Racer — were brutal in city traffic, especially with the extra-heavy-duty clutch that almost made you want to use both feet to press it down.
So after having driven, and appreciated, the 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302 Laguna Seca on the race track — at Laguna Seca in California, appropriately — I was anxious to see if the car could serve as daily transportation, or whether you'd be better off with the slightly less performance-minded Boss 302.
The Laguna Seca model, an extra $6,995, "is aimed at racers more interested in on-track performance than creature comforts," Ford says in the car's specification list. "The Boss 302 Laguna Seca has increased body stiffness, a firmer chassis setup and an aerodynamics package carried over almost in its entirety from the Ford Racing Boss 302R."
The chassis is stiffer largely because Ford removed the rear seat entirely, and replaced it with welded-in cross bars. The suspension is firmer, and the rear springs are stiffer. There are cooling air ducts for the front brakes, and — perhaps most visible, if you somehow missed our test car's rather garish black and red paint scheme — an enormous NASCAR-sized front spoiler that sticks out like a pouting child's lower lip.
It is guaranteed to scrape on every steep driveway entry, and in parking lots, you must be conscious of the curbs in front of you. Fortunately, the lower spoiler is removable — really, it would only come into play aerodynamically at high speeds, helping keep the front tires planted to the pavement — and after I destroyed a couple, I'd probably leave it off until I went to a racetrack.
Even without the Laguna Seca package, the Boss 302 is a potent, playful car. The original Boss 302 Ford Mustang was sold only in 1969 and 1970, and since there were only 8,641, the survivors are certified collector's items. The Boss 302, so named because the engine was 302 cubic inches, or 5 liters, pumped out 290 horsepower, a lot for a relatively small V-8 engine then. The car was light, emphasizing handling instead of horsepower, something else that was comparatively rare in 1969.
When the 5-liter V-8 came back in 2011, Ford saw an opportunity. Then as now, more powerful, bigger-engined Mustangs are available, but the Boss 302 emphasizes handling as much as raw horsepower. The new 5-liter engine pumps out 412 horsepower in the regular Mustang GT, but engineers made a lot of changes to bring the Boss 302's horsepower up to 444 with new cylinder heads, a new intake, hollow-stemmed valves, a new camshaft and lighter pistons and rods. The GT's regular six-speed manual transmission was deemed beefy enough to take the extra horsepower with no changes, though for the more powerful Shelby Mustang, this transmission was considered too delicate. The EPA-rated fuel mileage is a not-bad 17 mpg city, 26 mpg highway.
The suspension is manually adjustable at all four wheels. Using a screwdriver, the owner can select one of five settings, ranging from firm to extremely firm.
The Boss 302 is also fairly basic inside. Yes, there is air conditioning, but if you want a truly premium stereo or even satellite radio, you'll have to add it yourself later.
On the race track, the Laguna Seca model is marginally quicker than the regular Boss 302, but it feels more sure-footed. The Pirelli tires that come on the Laguna Seca are of a soft racing compound — during the winter, even if you only get a lot of rain, you'll want to swap them for something with more tread.
Yes, the Laguna Seca, even with the suspension on the softest setting, is rough-riding on bad roads, but it's always tolerable, and on smooth pavement, it's very comfortable. The exhaust note is pronounced but never invasive. The Recaro seats are superb. The six-speed manual transmission shifts well, and I appreciated the old-fashioned cue ball-styled shifter knob.
Base price for the Boss 302 is $40,145, or $48,100 for the test car with the Laguna Seca package and $795 in shipping.
Will it be a collector's item? Ford is building fewer than 1,000 Laguna Secas for 2012, so I'd say, yes, it probably will — one indication being the difficulty in finding one now anywhere close to list price. I'd love to have a Laguna Seca, especially if it came with a half-dozen extra front spoilers.
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