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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 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.