Dodge has promised an all-new and significantly evolved Viper for 2003. So if the original species has slithered into your heart, you need to catch one now before they become extinct.
Although entering its 11th season, this snake is still the behemoth of the jungle, suffocating its rivals with outrageous styling and brutal torque. The Porsche 911 and Chevrolet Corvette are each more refined and easier to drive. They each possess a longer pedigree in the sports car world. But they also convey a very different image. If the Porsche is Wagner, and the 'Vette is Jim Morrison, then Viper is Mettalica. Armed with sledgehammers.
And in just over a decade, the Viper has established a pedigree of its own: Vipers won the GT Class at Le Mans in 1998, 99, and 2000. They earned international GT2 and GT championships in 1997, 98, and 99. A factory Viper team won the class title in the American Le Mans Series in 1999. Then a Viper won the 2000 24 Hours of Daytona outright, bettering the European prototypes that were assumed to be faster. It remains the hot setup among production street cars, if Car and Driver magazine's One Lap of America is any indication. As a sports car with real credentials, the Viper doesn't have to apologize to anyone. Not that it looks like it's going to be making any apologies.
RT/10 Roadster ($69,225); GTS Coupe ($72,225)
The Viper is a steely eyed squint, a duster pulled back to reveal a Colt .45. It isn't so much a challenge, as a preemptive strike to would-be challengers.
Dodge has changed nothing in the Viper's final year, except to add new color choices. Charcoal seems to be the in shade for 2002, and accordingly the Viper roadster and coupe have both added Graphite Metallic to their pallet. The coupe offers the additional option of silver stripes.
Those stripes, of course, are homage to the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe; the Viper GTS is the spiritual successor to that car. If you grew up thinking the Shelby coupe was the coolest-looking machine on the planet, then the Viper GTS should light your fire.
Stoke that fire further by looking under the hood. Tubular headers and cast-aluminum intake runners appear race-worthy. Even the engine block is a work of art. Its massively deep-skirted design, with six-bolt main bearings, seems clearly intended for racing, despite its prosaic origins. (The Viper's aluminum 8.0-liter V10 is based on the cast-iron Dodge Ram truck engine.) The six-lug wheel hubs may create the impression that the Viper has a one-ton payload capacity, but massive amounts of torque and Indy car-sized contact patches call for serious reinforcement.
Getting in and out of this thing is difficult. Perhaps that's why we never see TV private eyes driving Vipers.
The competition-style seats are very comfortable and supportive. They are much better than the seats in any new Porsche. The five-point harness (part of the ACR package) is cool to have; I had to resist the urge to don a racing suit and helmet. But the full harness quickly becomes a nuisance around town, because it is so restrictive of movement. Fortunately, the Viper also has a conventional three-point harness for daily use.
There is a mile of headroom, thanks to the Dan Gurney-style roof bubbles. They leave plenty of room for a helmet. The foot well is quite deep, as you might expect from a car with a hood as long as the Viper's, so the car can probably accommodate NBA-grade altitude comfortably.
The exhaust no longer exits through side pipes, as on earlier models, but the Viper is still loud and hot inside. But the weather was cold during our test, and we can report with satisfaction that the heater works very effectively. We wonder, however, how well the air conditioner will cope with summer weather, plus the heat welling up through the door sills and the sun baking in through the large rear hatch.
The hatch area is not as roomy as the Corvette's, but it is roomy enough to almost classify the Viper as a practical sports car. There is plenty of space to haul several five-gallon jugs of racing fuel to the track. In an emergency, you could also carry half a dozen bags of groceries.
The 200-watt Alpine stereo rocks! Who would have expected it? It seems a wonder the Viper has even a rudimentary radio, much less this killer-amped, sub-woofered boom-box sound machine. Radio reception is decent, which is also surprising considering its single strand of antenna embedded in the windshield. The dashboard features traditional round analog gauges, with orange-on-white graphics. They are clear, legible and nice-looking.
The pedals are positioned perfectly for heel-and-toe downshifting. But there is no dead pedal and no space for the left foot. That's awkward for long drives, or for racing. Nevertheless, the Viper proved more livable day-in and day-out than we expected.
Viper's styling is perfect for a road-going race car. It is like driving Speed Racer's Mach Five. Left-lane hogs actually retreat to the right when it appears in their mirrors. The Viper is so wide and squat that it could look a little squished, if not for the slimming race stripes.
Still, our impression of the Viper is that it is just too much: too massive, too rough riding, too loud, too powerful. In truth, the Viper is even faster than the driver realizes. Wind it up in second and you're doing 70. Snap it into third and you're soon past 100. Corners arrive quickly.
If American muscle cars are renowned for having bags of torque, the Viper supplies its torque in Hefty Cinch Saks. Try to stuff the Viper's might into an ordinary trash bag and you'll be left with messy foot-pounds all over the driveway.
First gear seems too low for anything but straight-line launches: Press too anxiously on the gas pedal when the Viper is not pointed straight, and the car will soon be facing the other way. There are quicker methods for turning the car around than shifting into reverse: Just crank in some steering lock, punch it, et voila, instant 180.
Second is much more useful and flexible. The V10 has enough low-rpm grunt to pull out of any corner in second where, relative to first, the driver has a little margin for error. Once the car crouches a little, as the weight transfers to the rear wheels, the driver can safely pour on the power and rocket up to 80 mph, where it's time to shift into third.
Third, of course, is an all-important supplier of speed in the rapid transition from second to fourth. But it's also a great gear for driving around town, allowing the Viper to happily chug along in slow traffic, while still keeping the revs below the drone point at higher speeds. It's a fun gear.
Fourth is pretty much a highway gear. It's also the highest useful gear for most race tracks. It would take a long straight to hit the redline in fourth. Fifth is for Interstate highway travel. Sixth is for the EPA, and it contributes to the Viper's unrealistic 21-mpg highway fuel-economy rating. (We saw 11 mpg in mixed driving.) In sixth gear, the engine loafs at 1700 rpm at 80 mph. If the Viper could pull to its redline in sixth gear, it would have a top speed of 280 mph.
The Viper's extremely powerful four-wheel-disc brakes provide huge stopping power and are easily modulated at the limit. They have the fine controllability race drivers require.
So much for ability. Now let's talk about personality.
A Porsche's flat-6 shrieks with Continental verve, as if it were always on its way to Monte Carlo. A Corvette's V8 thunders and rumbles, the fuel-injected embodiment of Rock'n'Roll.
The Viper's truck-based V10 sings with as much melody as the backup generator at Bellevue.
Okay, so the V10's sound doesn't exactly encourage you to delay a shift, but it does have a certain remorseless efficiency to it. You can hear the difference between the dopey woof of your neighbor's Golden Retriever and the threatening bark of the vaguely Rottweiler-looking mongrel in the junkyard. When the Viper barks, it pays to be on your guard. The hefty, long-throw shifter suggests that the driver is contributing significantly to the Viper's forward progress. This is no push-button auto shifter. Unlike a Porsche, the Viper doesn't seem smarter than its driver.
The ride is rock hard. The Viper bobs on bumps, and it's a handful on rough-pavement corners when the hammer is down. Like most high-performance sports cars, the Viper demands attentiveness. The driver's seat is not a good place for making telephone calls. Even rubber-necking at all those young hardbodies looking your way can get you into trouble. The steering is quick. If the car hits a bump when the driver has only one hand on the steering wheel and the other on, say, the shifter, the impact is sharp enough to cause the single arm to pull the steering wheel to the left. (Note to se
To be sure, a Porsche 911, or even a Chevrolet Corvette, would be more practical and livable as commuter cars. But the Viper works surprisingly well from a comfort standpoint. It suffers from a rough ride, and climbing in and out is difficult. But it steers easily; the engine will chug happily around town at legal speeds; the seats are supportive; the heater, wipers, and other foul-weather gear all work well. And the stereo cranks out tunes loudly enough to drown out the omnipresent exhaust note.
For those only mildly interested in maximum performance, the Corvette is a bargain and is more comfortable to drive than the Viper. The 911 costs about as much as the Viper, and also great fun to drive; but it is an entirely different breed of animal.
This car demands constant driver involvement, which can be viewed favorably or not. For maximum performance and maximum impact on bystanders, the Viper has no domestic equal. Where else can you get a V10?
Mitch McCullough contributed to this report.