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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.
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.