- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 12, 2006

Chrysler Corp. (pre-DaimlerChrysler) first unleashed the Dodge Viper on the world in 1992, drawing rave reviews from press and public alike. It was a limited-production two-seat roadster and skeptics speculated that nobody in his right mind would buy a car with no real top and no roll-up windows.

So much for the skeptics and what they know. There was, and very definitely remains, a market for fast-paced, high-profile supercars with practicality entering the scenario not one whit. To the nonowner, a host of questions arise about the Viper whenever one can be found stationary. The questions most often asked include: “How fast does it go?” “Who makes it?” “How much is the insurance?” “How many tickets have you gotten?” “What is it made out of?” and “What kind of gas mileage does it get?”

The answers given in order: More than fast enough — 0-60 mph in under four seconds; a special (SRT) Dodge team; I failed to check on the insurance question — but if you have to ask … ; none so far (knock on wood); the Viper is a composite-bodied car with a tubular steel frame, powered by an all-aluminum V-10 engine; and the gas mileage has diminished from earlier models with the increase in power, but 20 miles per gallon on the highway in sixth gear is possible with your foot out of it.

The Viper was completely redesigned in 2003, with an all-new two-seat convertible introduced with power coming from an all-new 8.3-liter, 500 horsepower V-10. Visually, the Viper still falls into the exotic class, but it is now much more attractive, with its dynamic contours and aggressive stance instantly suggesting that it is not a car to be taken lightly in the performance department.

The Targa-type roof is no more, with a more conventional, manual soft top replacing it. The front end no longer folds forward to reveal the power plant, replaced by a rear-hinged contemporary hood with two release latches and a gas-assist strut. The headlamps take on a new look with jewellike units, and the side cove now somewhat resembles that of a Corvette from a distance. The lake-style side exhaust pipes are enclosed, and the car rides on 18-inch wheels and tires up front and 19-inchers aft.

The Viper’s cockpit remains suggestive of serious business, but has undergone both a practical and more attractive restyling. The bucket seats are both comfortable and supportive with adjustable lumbar supports that tend to balance the heavy feel of the car and its very firm ride to equate in a pleasurable and exhilarating driving experience.

The test Viper Convertible came with a base price of $81,895. The “gas-guzzler” tax and destination charges bumped the final amount to $85,745.

The Dodge Viper SRT-10 convertible remains a nostalgic throwback to the super cars of yesteryear with incredible power output through the rear wheels while at the same time offering a wealth of technological innovation.

It is still both exciting and perhaps even a little scary to drive for those equipped with only everyday driving skills. It might not even be a bad idea for those potential buyers with modest levels of common sense or fear to be required to obtain advanced performance driving certification.

Convenience features now include: adjustable pedals; a tilt wheel; and ABS brakes. A not-so-convenient addition is the electronic first-to-fourth gear skip shift feature — it’s really more of an annoyance. The manual soft top is easier to lower and raise than the old Targa top operation, but still poses its own level of inconvenience.

The Viper offers a lot of bang for your buck, and if it’s attention that you seek, the Viper assures plenty of it.

However, I prefer Dodge’s SRT-10 Ram pickup, which delivers blistering performance while providing a seemingly smoother ride, more civilized handling and a higher degree of functionality for less money. The latter is actually less trucklike than the convertible, which for some reason, seems now to be more crude in terms of ride and handling than its predecessors, despite its greater visual appeal.

The SRT-10 Coupe is the big news for 2006 though, with several new styling elements and the same level of performance. If money is no object, however, try on the GTS-R competition Coupe for size, which starts at $130,000, and is race-ready.

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