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So far, there have been three generations of the Dodge Viper. The first was the original low-roof roadster with the terrible top mechanism and fussy side curtains, and later came the dramatic, race-winning, championship-caliber GTS coupe.
The third is the 2006 convertible with a top that works, combined with the new coupe, both called SRT10s. We don't want to heap fault on the previous GTS Le Mans-winning coupe, but the new coupe feels about twice as good on the road and on the racetrack.
The engineers at SRT, Dodge's in-house tuning company, Street and Racing Technology, have tuned up the coupe with a stiffer frame, a more competent, less thumpy chassis and suspension arrangement, and a few more creature comforts, without sanding off all of the Viper's visceral edges.
The Viper SRT10 convertible is pretty sleek with its top up or down, but the new coupe is simply stunning, with its double-bubble roofline for helmet clearance, tucked-in taillamps and bawdy side exhausts. There is more bump to the rear fender tops, and the Viper sits nose-down and ready to rock with its big, big stickies mounted on five-spoke 18- and 19-inch wheels built for maximum brake cooling.
The car is handbuilt around a central cage structure using various kinds of reaction-injected or sheet-molded plastic body panels, door skins, hood and decklid. The cage makes its presence known in the form of the very tall, wide central tunnel that houses the shifter, handbrake, and window switches, newly turned out in brushed metal instead of black plastic. They have left plenty of room for a roll cage inside the car.
The first and second generation Vipers were pretty wavy here and there, but the plastic body panels on the Vipers we drove were straighter, flatter, better fitting, and more uniform than on any previous Viper, so they have apparently improved their plastic parts manufacturing processes while they were finding more power, more torque and more chassis stiffness.
One thing the Viper doesn't lack for is interior room for two tall Americans and a little bit of stuff or luggage. On the convertible, there is a great deal more headroom than on the last folding-top Viper. The top goes up or down with one hand and latches easily. The 2006 Viper is almost a foot wider on the outside than the 2006 Corvette, but not all of that width translates into additional occupant space. It's not easy to get in or out of a Viper (or a Corvette, for that matter) with any grace, but once inside, there's plenty of comfort and lots to see.
The form-fitting tall bucket seats will hold your upper body in the corners very well, and the seat will bump up against the rear wall when extended all the way back, and that's it. No more rear travel or recline. If you're very tall, you'll be more comfortable in the convertible. The floor pedals can be power-adjusted by a dashboard button through four inches of reach, a big improvement over the old manually adjustable pedals.
The new instruments and controls are canted to the left in the new car, toward the driver, and you can see all the faces in one quick left-to-right sweep of the eyes. The large tachometer sits directly in front of the driver, to its right a smaller 220-mph speedometer (but 190 is more like it). All of the switches and vents are easier to see and reach.
The throttle, brake and clutch pedals are closely spaced for heel-and-toe downshifting. A new feature is the dead pedal for your left foot, good for bracing in the corners at the race track or on your favorite country road. A returning feature is the use of acres of cheap plastic on the interior.
The Dodge Viper is really, really quick, able to cover 0-60 mph in well less than 4 seconds flat, with 60-0 braking distance of less than 100 feet, better than a Porsche 911, and a 0-100-0 time of 12.5 seconds, which is 0.7 seconds quicker than the previous Viper and leads the league in under-$100,000 sports cars. It's got massive amounts of torque from 1000 to 6000 rpm, then you might as well shift up a gear and try it again. The new viscous limited-slip differential means both tires will leave rubber behind if you get too aggressive. The engine pulls from almost any rpm in any gear and will drive away in sixth from 1500 rpm.
Thankfully, the throttle modulation on the Viper is very good, the clutch pedal is light, with a short pedal travel, and the six-speed manual needs a strong, precise hand for maximum driving rewards. One key to the Viper's performance is its monster tires, 275/35R18s in the front and 345/30R19s in the rear, special Michelin high-performance run-flat tires that eliminate the need to carry a spare, jack and lug wrench. Michelin has been the Viper tire supplier exclusively since Day One, and they continue to upgrade the wet and dry handling capabilities and torque handling capacity with each succeeding generation of tires.
We can't say enough about the consistently excellent performance of the huge 14-inch four-piston Brembo antilock brakes. Combined with the giant footprints made by the tires, the brakes pull the 3500-pound Viper down from speed like it was a 150-pound race kart, all day long.
The new steering system feels like it has been slowed down and calmed down a bit. It doesn't hunt around all the time like the original Viper did, but neither is it dull or slow, with a hefty weight and solid on-center feel, like an American sports car. SRT has arranged a static weight balance of 49.6 percent front, 50.4 percent rear, which is as close to 50/50 as you can get, and that helps make it turn in very forcefully. The suspension is near race-quality in terms of the way it keeps the body perpendicular to the road, but will not shake your nerves and rattle your brain until the road surface gets really grim.
One of the things you buy when you buy a Viper SRT10 is exclusivity. These cars are carefully handbuilt in Detroit, and there are only about 15,000 Vipers total after 13 years of production. That exclusivity, and the fact that it is less technically sophisticated than the much less expensive Corvette and probably more fun to drive because of it, must enter into any discussion of value and worth. The interior leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to material quality, fit and finish at these prices, but the rest of the car is more than ready to do battle.
The 2006 Dodge Viper is quicker, faster, and more civilized than the previous car, among the fastest production cars sold in America. It is stiffer by far than the convertible, which leads to palpable improvements in steering, stability and handling. It is even more powerful and more torquey than the original V-10. The lightweight plastic body has more built-in downforce for high-speed handing. It is huge fun to drive approaching the limit, and then you really have to be careful. If we had the kind of discretionary income that it takes to own one of these cars, we'd buy one in a hot minute, put slicks on it, and take it to the nearest race track every weekend. Or, just drive it to work, the longest way possible.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from the Detroit area.
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