I am that Mustang critic—the one who snidely whispers under his breath, "solid axle rear" whenever Ford's iconic pony car is mentioned. In the age of magnetic dampers (Camaro ZL1) and even passenger vehicles using a multi-link rear, Ford's setup seems as outdated as an Ed Hardy wardrobe. So imagine then my furrowed-brow skepticism when the 2013 Ford Boss 302 Mustang and 2013 Ford Shelby GT500 rolled in front of our Yahoo! offices.
But I was at least half wrong, because the Boss 302 suffered none of the stereotypical live-axle quirks. Its diamond-hard chassis works in Zen-like harmony with the suspension, and the striped pony car is pleasant, even supple, on longer drives. The rear never get too jittery on rougher roads. There's a mountain road I take every weekend that has a turn with a nasty mid-corner bump, which unhinges even most independent-rear-suspension (IRS) cars. The Boss 302 confidently hustled over it, making me wonder if Caltrans actually fixed the road. But then I drove over that same patch with an Infiniti IPL G37 and it hopped over the outcropping. I concluded the state is still glacially slow with road maintenance, but more importantly that the Boss 302 doesn't need an independent rear—it's perfect as-is.
There's a magic to certain cars, where all the little touches culminate into an endearing bond between man and machine. The 2012 BMW M3 has it, and so does the Boss 302. Ford sweats the details, like the Alcantara steering wheel that's soothingly soft to the touch. Or the coddling, suede-like cloth seats (a must-have option package that includes a Torsen helical differential) that prevent you from getting tossed like a ragdoll in hard cornering. Not to mention, the industrial-metal accents on the dash and stealth-black fabric headliner appropriate for its premium price tag.
There were only a couple issues that prevented the Boss 302 from perfection—the burbly exhaust tone has a menacing snarl that makes you feel like Steve McQueen for the first couple days, but eventually gets tiresome due to the unrelenting drone. Its ivory-white cue-ball shifter may be a classy nod to hot rods of yore, but after a week my palm was aching for a knob larger than a locquat. And the steering could tell a bit more of what's happening in the tires, even when setting the Electronic Power Assist Steering to Sport.
Nonetheless, the Boss 302 is confidence inspiring. The lively 444-horsepower V-8 is smooth across its rpm range, and the car goads you to step on the throttle out quicker and quicker out of the turn with its tenacious grip and predictable chassis. The clutch engages cleanly and easily, and the short throws are just long enough so you know when you've clicked into gear. As one who's been ambivalent to Mustangs, I had to admit—I want this car.
So you might think the Shelby GT500 takes all the admirable qualities of the Boss 302 and supercharges them, but it's old-school muscle that throws chassis refinement out the window. The GT500 is thrilling, if you enjoy handling unexploded ordinance: the hair-trigger throttle, aggressive clutch bite and neck-jerking low-end torque demand fearful respect, especially on the street. Its rocky suspension searches for footing as it crashes over bumps, and the punishing ride quality gets old even on short-errand runs. Even with the leather Recaros—which don't hold as well as the Boss 302's grabby suede—it feels like bouncing on a bed of rocks. The manic muscle car also seems incapable of putting all the power to the ground; at half throttle the rear nervously floats and dances on the asphalt in lower gears, even when the wheels are laser-straight. In corners, oversteer is but a dab of gas away, and more often than not you'll be reacting to it rather than willfully inducing the rotation. At least the Shelby breaks away smoothly.
The GT500's only saving grace is the savage power lurking beneath its hood. The 662-horsepower V-8 aided by a mammoth 2.3-liter supercharger frantically gallops to the quarter mile in less than 12 seconds, and makes a Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 feel like a V-6 by comparison. From idle to its 7,000-rpm redline there's enough torque to pull a house, and the throttle delivery is smooth—even if the rest of the car can't handle it. Although Ford boasts a 5 highway mpg improvement over the ZL1, romp on the accelerator and the trip computer will quickly show single-digit fuel economy.
Sure the Shelby GT500 has the name and legacy of the late Carroll Shelby behind it, but the Boss 302 is better both as a track car and tourer. If you have $42,200 to spare, it might not even be worth waiting for the IRS model coming in 2014--because "solid" not only describes the Boss 302's rear axle, but the superb execution of the entire car.
2013 Boss 302 Mustang
2013 Ford Shelby GT500
5.0-liter N/A V-8
5.8-liter supercharged V-8
7.8 tons CO2/year
8.1 tons CO2/year
Highway exhaust drone
Bumpy ride, twitchy rear
The complete package