Two goals drove the 2003 Dodge Viper to its numerical bragging rights of 500 horsepower, 500 pounds-feet of torque and 505 cubic inches of engine displacement: 1) Getting to 100 mph as fast as possible. And then 2) getting back down to 0 mph even faster.
The previous Viper made the round trip in 14.5 seconds. The new one should do it in 13.2 seconds.
Improvements to the low-volume sportscar didn't stop there: The new Viper is more aerodynamic, more refined, quieter, quicker, and better handling than the original, which went on sale in December 1991. It even has a cup holder. But the Viper has not been transformed into a sissy: Dodge says it tuned this car for the guy who likes to rip huge pieces of pavement out as he goes around a corner. It still makes the raunchy noises that side-exhaust Vipers did from 1991 to 1996.
There have been Ferraris that don't look as good as the 2003 Viper SRT-10. This roadster is completely restyled, and looks significantly sleeker than the Viper everyone's seen on posters and at car shows from 1989 to 2002. Granted, there are those who think the new Viper looks too refined.
Vipers are tough to spot on the street, simply because there are only about 14,000 in the world. We think the new Viper looks better than the old car, mostly because the front and rear overhangs are smaller, so the car looks better balanced between its wheels. While the new Viper shrinks almost an inch in length, the wheels are moved outward 2.9 inches. The new Viper is wider, too, which adds to its more balanced shape. If you're used to looking at Porsche Boxster and Honda S2000 roadsters, the Viper seems huge. It appears larger than life. Even though a Corvette is almost five inches longer, the new Viper is more than 11 inches wider.
The headlights are slanted wedges similar to the original Viper's. The grille is substantially larger, and the enormous side exhaust pipes make the car look potent. The new convertible top looks like it's supposed to go with the car, versus the ball cap-style removable roof of the previous Viper roadster.
Underneath, the new car retains its backbone frame, and on top is a largely plastic body. The hood is separate from the fenders, and opens from the rear. The previous Viper's whole front body lifted forward for engine access. An aluminum double-A-arm suspension was added to the Viper in 1996, and carries over to the new car. The new frame, although three inches longer and 35 percent more rigid, is 40 pounds lighter. Overall, the '03 Viper is about 100 pounds lighter than the previous car. Chrysler promises production cars will weigh just 3357 pounds. The 8.3-liter all-aluminum pushrod V10 gains 50 horsepower over the previous 8.0-liter, bringing it to 500 horsepower.
Tall folks will still need to work out a method to gracefully enter the 2003 Viper. Our favorite ingress is to plant our left foot on the floor in front of the driver's seat, and then swing and slide our right foot and leg toward the pedals as we lower ourselves into the seat, all in one motion. This has to be done, of course, with the top down. If we try to enter using our right leg first, it gets hung up on the steering wheel. Besides, our maneuver makes us look like Tom Selleck hopping into his Ferrari 308 in reruns of the Magnum P.I. television show.
The seats coddle you more than before. They hold you tighter and at the same time are more comfortable because of their form fit. After you insert and turn on the ignition key, you reach in front of the six-speed shift lever and push a red starter button to start the engine, the same procedure needed for the Honda S2000.
The instruments and controls are angled toward the driver, instead of displayed on the center of the dash like the older car. A huge tachometer with a 6250-rpm redline sits directly in front of the driver, and to its right is a 220-mph speedometer. Every switch and vent is easier to see and reach. The climate control is not as abbreviated in function as the old car's was: Instead of having all heat go only to your feet, you can select dash vents for warm air, just like a real car. That helps a lot when it's chilly and you've got the top down. With practice, you can drop the top using just one hand while sitting at a stoplight.
Outward visibility is not as good as the old car, however. The new Viper's roof is slightly taller, yet lanky drivers still peer into the top of the windshield frame. The top corner of the driver's side A-pillar is just two hand-widths from your forehead. Looking rearward is more difficult because the height of the trunklid blocks some view. The roll hoops over the seats, however, don't get in the way, we noticed. Chrysler says the new tail is higher to promote more downforce on the rear wheels at speed, which is estimated to be 190 mph (the speedo goes to 220). The shape of the tail creates less drag, too, according to the company. There is also a bellypan under the car to cut drag, although its final shape hadn't been determined at the time of our test drives.
The pedals are closely spaced like the previous car's, enough that we could heel-and-toe without effort, but they are centered in front of the driver, instead of being offset to the left side of the cockpit. A new addition is a real dead pedal for your left foot, which we used to hold us into the seats during our drive on a twisty test track. You won't be moving your legs around while you're driving, since the extra three inches of wheelbase adds room primarily to the trunk, which now holds enough for two pack rats for a long weekend.
Mash the long-travel throttle pedal and the reason for the Dodge Viper is clear: monster acceleration. The big aluminum V10 can spin the large rear tires without being revved very high, and the new viscous limited-slip differential means both wheels leave rubber. Acceleration while underway is equally exciting, and the engine pulls from almost any rpm in any gear.
We found the 2003 Viper to be as blunt in its behavior at speed as its predecessor. It can still surprise, as we found out watching the Viper project boss gracefully spin our Viper in a corner on the test track. Up to that moment as we rode with the Chrysler group engineer, the car felt uncannily smooth, as if the big, loud creature had been domesticated.
If you can discipline yourself to drive the new Viper like a commuter, it treats you nicely, much more nicely than the previous car. Wind buffeting with the top off is greatly reduced. Seats are more supportive and the crazy bump-steer of the '90's Viper is almost all gone. Famed car guy Bob Lutz claimed during the introduction of the original that, "This is not a car that you can drive with your arm around a girl." But such a posture is easily accomplished in the new car, at least while cruising slowly on a boulevard. On the twisty test track we found the steering had much more feeling, but was heavy enough to require both hands. The steering gear is no longer related to the Grand Cherokee unit pulled off the parts shelf for use in the original Viper. It remains as heavy as the previous car's, but it also feels more calm, less likely to dart you into the wrong lane if you sneeze.
In corners the car sticks like a racecar, and if there's any body roll, we couldn't feel it. Front tires are a monstrous 275/35ZR18 size, and the rears are up to 345/30ZR19. Wider rear fenders were necessary to cover the enormous rear tires, and are responsible for the car's nearly 85-inch width. The rear wheels are a whopping 13 inches wide. Tires are run-flat Michelins, so a spare is unnecessary.
The brakes feel overqualified for their job, which adds confidence when you drive the new Viper quickly. They are upgraded to a new Brembo system with twin opposing pistons on the front calipers, which clamp 14-inch discs. These brake rotors are as big as Honda Civic wheels, so we're not surprised that we never felt them falter.
The only transmission available is the Tremec 6-speed, also used in the Corvette, Aston Martin, and Ford's Mustang Cobra. We think it felt a bit lighter while shifting, although little has changed in the linkage design.
The all-new 2003 Dodge Viper is faster and more civilized than the previous car. It's among the fastest production cars sold in America.
The previous Viper had to meet more than just racetrack performance goals to continue production. Its low sales volume, about 1300 per year, meant it had to be a low-tech roadster. (The rival $49,000 Corvette sells 20 times as many.) So anti-lock brakes and other technologically advanced systems weren't found on the original Viper.
The new Viper was designed to make money through better design and a less complicated build process, says Chrysler. Anti-lock brakes now come standard. The new refinements and performance lead us to guess the '03 Viper's price to be just below $80,000. At the astounding performance levels of this car, which rival that of $300,000 exotics, we think it's a car nut's bargain.
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