People shout at you when you drive the Viper, the performance flagship of DaimlerChrysler's Dodge division, and the things they shout seem sincerely respectful.
"You gotta nice car, bro" is by far the most common comment we heard in New York, from both pedestrians and other drivers who admired while they idled. This is the sort of car in which you can cut off a line of 15 cars waiting at a toll booth, and still nobody will mess with you (expect perhaps the authorities).
The Viper, raw and unapologetic, is a classic American muscle car and, as a convertible with two seats slung low to the ground, an evolution of the classic sports-car form.
It is also one of the most popular cars that Dodge makes. Although small compared to the rest of Dodge's product line, Vipers are a hit. According to DaimlerChrysler, year-to-date sales through October are 1,868, up from 1,389 for the same period in 2002. But with an MSRP of more than $80,000 (our fully loaded tester was $84,795), it is easy to see that even though it might appeal to the mass market, the mass market will never be able to afford it.
Its exhaust sound alone is not to be believed. Among American cars, only General Motors' Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Motor's new GT supercar make as nasty a growl. Like those vehicles, the Viper makes you feel like a race car driver. This is not only because of its gigantic, 8.3-liter, 500-horsepower V-10 engine, but also because, like a race car, it can be a hot and uncomfortable place to be.
The Viper has actually become more and more refined since its introduction in 1992. The 2004 Viper SRT-10 (SRT is a performance designation; Dodge's hot-rod sedan is the Neon/SRT-4, and the pickup with the Viper engine is the Ram SRT-10) adds white as an exterior paint option and standardizes the bright red brake calipers that you see within the wheels. But the Viper was completely overhauled for the 2003 model year.
The new, third-generation Viper has a longer wheelbase, an all-new V-10, a lower hood with a larger grille opening and a much-needed new HVAC system.
Dodge can give it all the refinements it wants; the Viper still has virtually no manners. People ask me if it shakes while you drive it. Let's put it this way: When you get out of the car, you look like the cartoon character that was using a jackhammer and continued to vibrate after it was taken away, as if he were still jackhammering.
The ride is still pretty primitive. The Viper bucks and grunts like the most uncooperative horse you have ever ridden, and slowing it down doesn't help matters. As my girlfriend said, "Every time you slow down, it says, 'Whoa-ho-ho! What are you doing, buddy? Let's go!' "
But the nice thing about the Viper is that if you can keep your cool and look confident while driving, or getting in and out of it, other people won't know how uncomfortable you are. They will just see the styling, and/or hear the engine, and politely give you all you the room you need.
The first thing you have to do when you get in the Viper is get back out. The top doesn't fold down automatically, so you have to run around and open the trunk like a chump. (A flaw it shares with the Corvette; what is it with American muscle car designers? Haven't they heard of automatic folding ragtops?)
Then you can get back in. But be careful: If the car has been running for a while, the rocker panels will be so hot that you will burn your calf if it touches them. I warned my girlfriend about this and she still burned her leg getting out, which made for a quiet walk to dinner. It's funny how "Didn't I warn you about that?" doesn't smooth things over -- or doesn't seem like an excuse you should have to make for an $80,000 car.
And you will have an especially tough time hurdling the rocker panel while you are also slinging your legs over the edge of the Viper's deep bucket seat. The best move seems to be situating your butt onto the edge of the seat and then sort of jumping off.
The Viper's cockpit -- which is a standard-issue, cheapskate Chrysler plastic bath -- gets so hot under the strain of the engine and exhaust that there must surely be other ways to burn yourself just by riding in it. At a stoplight, you will routinely see heat waves wafting out of the Viper's hood scoops. In the summertime, when the air-conditioning can't totally offset the engine's thermal energy, you will wish you had a Corvette.
But now that we have complained for a little while, we can talk about what makes the Viper different from the Corvette. Yes, it is considerably less comfortable than the 'Vette, but it has 150 more horsepower. In fact, never mind the Corvette; the Viper is a masterpiece of American performance motoring, one of the best sports cars of all time, and faster than pretty much anything else on the road.
Dodge estimates that the Viper does 0 to 60 mph in under four seconds. Ninety percent of the vehicle's 525 foot-pounds of torque is delivered from 1,500 to 5,600 rpm, meaning that your head will be pinned against the headrest at pretty much any point in the drive. You will reach 30 mph in first gear. You will pass every other car on the road with third or fourth gear, and marvel at how much acceleration and power are still in reserve. We used fifth gear maybe one time, and we fear to imagine what happens in sixth.
The speedometer, which sits on the sidelines next to the center-mounted tachometer, tops out at 220 mph, even though Chrysler estimates the Viper's top speed at 190 mph. Chrysler recently applied its Viper engine to a limited-edition motorcycle called the Dodge Tomahawk, and estimates that that vehicle can go over 300 mph.
From the minute you get into the Viper, the focus is totally on speed, and on that engine. You turn the key to the "on" position, but ignition doesn't happen until you press a big, red button on the center console that says "ENGINE START." Then the noise begins. When parking attendants start your vehicle on the other side of the lot, you never miss it.
You need to feed the Viper a lot of gas just to get it going. As you inch forward at a toll booth, you can see in your rearview mirror the unhappy riders behind you who are eating your exhaust. Somehow, even with 12 mpg in the city and 20 on the highway, the Viper is a low emissions vehicle.
All we know is that we picked the car up at Newark Airport and managed to burn a quarter-tank of gas before we even got to New York. Of course, we were hooting and cackling for a large percentage of the time, as we delighted in the acceleration, exhaust noise and -- the sleeper of the Viper's performance characteristics -- the Brembo brakes, which are as smooth, powerful and responsive as the engine and ride are confrontational.
It's hot. It's noisy. It's rude. We absolutely love it.
Do you need to haul anything of any kind? Then, no. Do you and your passenger like to be comfortable? Then, no.
We think that anybody considering a Viper should cross-shop the Corvette, which has two fewer cylinders, 150 less horsepower, 30,000 fewer dollars on the asking price and infinitely more comfort. You should probably also check out the Porsche 911 Turbo, which isn't particularly comfortable either, but adds a certain amount of European chassis refinement that your spine and backside will thank you for.
One thing we can say for certain is that the Viper is a much better car than the similarly raw Ford SVT Mustang Cobra. This is not a particularly fair comparison, since the Cobra is about $40,000 less. Still, it has only 110 horses less than the Viper, but driving it truly hurts. The Viper has an enormous stick shift, but it at least makes for quick, tight gear changes. You will wrestle with the Cobra's Cobra-shaped shifter, and loathe its long throws. For whatever reason, something about the Viper forgives its difficulties, while the Cobra seems unacceptably clunky and crude.
If you have $80,000 to burn, and you love America and preferably own stock in an oil company, few cars will pad your ego like the Viper. Yes, you can buy a Mercedes for that price, but that's more about spoiling and comforting yourself. The Viper is about driving, and if you haven't driven it, you haven't seen the top-shelf of American performance.
Color options: Viper red, Viper black, Viper bright silver metallic, Viper white
Suspension type: front, independent; rear, independent
Acceleration: 0-60 mph: under four seconds (estimated)
Engine type: overhead-valve 8.3-liter V-10
Horsepower: 500 @5,600 rpm
Torque: 525 foot-pounds @4,200 rpm
EPA mileage: city, 12; highway, 20