The Dodge Viper ranks among the fiercest, most raw, visceral machines sold in showrooms anywhere. Only a few cars come as close as the Viper to a street-legal race car: Ferrari F430 Scuderia, Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera, Porsche 911 GT3RS, Chevrolet Corvette ZO6, Honda S2000CR. Only two of these cost less, and none come within 95 hp of the Viper.
For most automotive tasks the Viper is overkill, like using a six-pound sledgehammer to swat a fly. Ridiculously fast and able to slosh your eyeballs about in their orbit rounding a bend or under heavy braking, it didn't really need any more power. But with archrival Corvette Z06 at 505 hp, that's just what Dodge did for 2008. They made the engine just 0.1 liter bigger but added 95 horses to make a nice round 600. The fly would still be dead, but now you have a bigger hammer.
Along with the increased power, the gearbox has been strengthened, the shifter revised, the clutch tweaked for more grip on less effort, and the hood has been reshaped. Almost irrelevant are addenda like a navigation radio.
From any angle, a quick glance shows the Viper means business, with a body shaped as much for function as style. It is made of composite materials over a steel frame, with aluminum sills and strengthened cowl. If a Viper is menacing, the ACR is version is downright evil incarnate.
The Viper's sharp front edges and gaping maw are Braille for "get out of my way." A deep front spoiler and sloping hood wedged between two fenders help keep it from going airborne at three-mile-a-minute speeds, as does the subtle rear wing, rear suspension belly pan and the sizable diffuser under the rear end; don't back this up anywhere near a curb.
Cooling air is funneled in through the trademark four-slot grille and exhausted through six extractor vents in the hood; when idling or moving very slowly the hot air wafting out those vents makes the forward view distorted much like the rear window glass. Even the bubble top roof serves a purpose, enabling the occupants to fit with helmets on.
The roadster's folding soft top is manually-operated and stows neatly behind the seats but you must get out of the car to complete the five-second operation. The glass rear window has a defroster so visibility equals the coupe, and headroom is similar.
Xenon headlamps are standard, finally endowing the Viper with suitable vision for night drives; the snake's head center brake light continues. And like the earliest Vipers, the exhaust pipes, even on GTS coupes, exit right under the door ahead of the rear-wheel; expect drive-through attendants to ask you to turn it off so they can hear you.
The fuel tank is a bit smaller at 16 gallons (compared with the previous 18.5), but the engine is more efficient so range isn't severely impacted. Besides, 2.5 gallons of gas is just an extra 15 pounds you don't need in a race car.
Eight color choices are offered, with five choices in stripe color to complement or counter the primary shade. There are also three choices in wheels, although none is said to be significantly lighter than the others, so choosing them is mostly a style consideration.
The term cockpit applies as well to a Viper as any other car. A simple push on the button release atop the door pops it open, and it's not a big opening requiring a smidge of slide and contort slightly to get in. However, once inside you will find surprising head and legroom given the car's external dimensions (less than four feet high) and the fact that you are essentially wedged between the engine/gearbox and exhaust pipes.
Although the seats sport long cushions for thigh support and big bolsters to keep you contained, you wouldn't slide far without them given the wall-size center console and door adjacent. Seat controls are manual and limited to forward and backward; there's no lumbar or cushion height adjustment, but the tilt wheel and power adjustable pedals help everyone fit. The pedals are offset to the left a bit and include a dead pedal to brace your left foot on when not shifting, but the floating gas pedal is not ideal for heel-and-toe pedaling.
Leather trims the steering wheel and shift knob, while seats have suede-like center sections with color options; the seat sides and interior are all black. It's not fancy in here, with plastic a frequent surface because it's light, inexpensive, easy to clean, and easy to cut up to add a roll cage, light and radio switching, and so forth.
Dead ahead of the driver is the tachometer, with fuel to the left and speed to the right; the Viper won't run to the top number (220 mph) but it will go well 'round. Some mental recalibration may be in order as most cars are not traveling 110 mph with the needle straight up.
Sloping down to the right of the wheel are oil pressure (closest to line of sight, where it should be), oil temperature, water temperature, and voltage. All instruments are black numbers on white faces and an easy read, although the oil pressure gauge reflects in the windshield at night. The bezels around the gauges may be optioned up in different trim.
In keeping with its strictly (go fast) business attitude, the steering wheel has just one button on it: the horn. And there are no cup holders. You might feel tempted to Zip-tie your commuter cup to a roll bar and run a hose out of it for sipping, through your helmet, of course.
Air conditioning is standard and quickly cools the tiny volume of air space inside, and in warm weather the engine and pipes surrounding you can quickly turn the cockpit into a mild oven. You can now add navigation to the electronic entertainment, but your phone should be stowed; they'd never hear you over the din.
Visibility is relatively good for a low-slung beast. The mirrors aren't filled by the fat rear fenders and although the glass backlight might distort them, sizable objects are easily detected behind. The windshield doesn't blend in to the roof as on some cars, so the forward view upward is marginal; you may need to lean forward and peer up to see traffic lights, and the rearview mirror and right front fender conspire to make a very small area to see what's up and to the right, such as sharp uphill right-handers or merging traffic.
Dodge claims trunk space of 14.6 cubic feet under the large hatch opening, but that seems optimistic; maybe they're including the rear suspension and fuel tank in that figure. That said, the GTS does have enough room for a couple of overnight bags or maybe your helmet and driving suit. There's no spare tire, instead there's a small air compressor and fix-kit; that makes sense because there'd be nowhere to put a massive, flat tire.
The roadster's trunk is notably smaller but it can still hold a wheeled suitcase and carry-on bags. If the top is up there is space behind the seats for jackets and lighter items; this space disappears with the top down but trunk space does not change.
The roadster also comes across as quieter sometimes as it's less of an echo chamber, but it is otherwise similar to the GTS and just
Rotate the key to ignition, depress the clutch, push the red Start button, and the Viper shatters Sunday morning silence with a cacophony of odd-firing sounds from its V10 engine and bellowing pipes. And you thought it only looked loud.
From here on, everything you do must give the car due consideration for its abilities, and unless you race regularly or work in automotive testing, your own lack of abilities. This is the only production 600-hp car sold in the United States that does not have all-wheel drive, electronic stability control, or both, and as such is not recommended for inflated egos or the inexperienced. The Viper is a brutally honest car and if you direct it to do something stupid, it will do something stupid.
That said, the Viper is actually quite docile trundling around town. The new twin-disc clutch takes less effort and offers smoother, more precise engagement, so you can get in motion without even using the throttle.
The fastest launches are not done with your foot on the floor as that would merely spin the back tires; on many road surfaces you'll need second gear before the Viper gains good traction and lunges toward the horizon like a greyhound with ears laid back.
When it reaches the heart of its power in second gear, you've passed the legal speed limit in most states, with four gears remaining. If you took the average interstate on-ramp as fast as possible you'd hit the highway doing somewhere north of 120 mph. Find an open track long enough, and the Viper coupe is said to top 200 mph. Our experience suggests it pulls hard at any speed. Expect no more than 20 minutes out of a tank of fuel at peak velocity.
On the other hand, you can drive around never exceeding 1500 rpm (out of 6300) and still reach 80 mph in the same time most plebian cars do. Extremely tall gearing means a Viper will idle at more than 40 mph in top gear. Its low-rpm torque and excellent tractability allows it to go uphill at 1000 rpm in fifth gear without complaint. The new shifter and gearbox are a big improvement over the old one, but they retain the irritating skip-shift function that sends the lever from first to fourth in slow-speed acceleration to help achieve a better EPA fuel-economy rating.
And despite raising horsepower by nearly 100, the car is more efficient, with EPA ratings up to 13/22 for 2008. Making the ultimate sacrifice (driving a Viper sensibly) we recorded better than 16 mpg in everyday driving. Moderate weight and tall gears have their advantages.
Five- and six-hundred horsepower cars are more common everyday, but nothing with this power level weighs as little as the Viper's 3450 pounds. Indeed, only some non-U.S. exotics and the Bugatti Veyron, at more than a million dollars for its 987 horsepower, offers a significantly better power to weight ratio.
Ride comfort is par for the course on a car that changes direction like this and can pin your own weight against the door or seatbelt. Run-flat tires are no longer employed and the foot-wide Michelin Pilot Sport 2s give superb grip without the small-bump punishment run-flats impart. Suspension bits are all aluminum and nicely calibrated for poor road compliance and razor-sharp response. Some super-serious types might like a bit more rebound control in back, easy to accomplish using aftermarket parts.
Brakes are immense and easy to modulate; a light touch of the pedal brings mild slowing, with retarding increasing directly with more pedal pressure. Fade is not an issue, the ABS is ideally tuned, and the net effect is a controlled crash with no damage.
A few cars may brake as well, generate similar lateral grip, get around a race course with similar lap times, or accelerate like this, but few can do all like a Viper, and none can do it for the money.
The Dodge Viper is the bad boy for under $100,000. Bang for your buck literally can't be matched, as you will likely spend more to better any battle of numbers bench racers are apt to argue about. It's in your face, your ears, your nose and all over the competition. If you're smart enough to show the respect it demands, it might be the race car you're looking for. And did we mention the 600 horsepower?
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G.R. Whale filed this report in Los Angeles.
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