- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

If the idea is to pass under the radar unnoticed, you would stand a far better chance of doing so by painting yourself purple and running buck naked down the main drag in Tupelo, Miss., than cruising the streets of any American city in a fire-engine-red Dodge Viper SRT10 Coupe.

Even in car-jaded South Florida where a Bentley or Ferrari is commonplace, and Porsche Boxsters and 3 Series BMWs are as plentiful as the cockroaches South Floridians pretend they don’t have by calling them palmetto bugs, the Viper still commands neck-twisting looks and rock-starlike adoration.

Dodge doesn’t sell enough of them to warrant updating the model year each fall, and perhaps the limited number on the road is what manages to keep the mystic alive. Whatever the reason, Viper inspires the same awe today as it did when launched 15 years ago.

With styling that threatens it will eat the heart of anything sufficiently ill-advised to challenge it, Viper looks like an American muscle car should. It screams power and spits speed. The rumble of its 10-cylinder engine and throaty roar of its exhaust can be heard approaching for two city blocks.

Your neighbors will envy you, yet despise you when you cruise through the neighborhood at midnight after an evening out or rev up to head for the gym before work at half-past dark in the morning.

In part, some of the infatuation with the Viper rests in the fact most people have never ridden in one, let alone driven one. And other than rabid automotive aficionados, most people have no clue what one costs.

Ask them and unless they are simply guessing wildly, they will probably respond with $50,000 to $60,000 — amounts reflecting pricing in the early years when Viper was being advertised and getting lots of ink in the automotive press. Revealing the $86,995 sticker that today’s hardtop commands — the roadster is $1,250 less — is usually received with drop-jawed incredulity.

Toss in dual black racing stripes, Sirius satellite radio and upgraded polished-aluminum wheels, and you find the price swelling to the nearly $91,000 the test Viper cost. Yikes!

In fairness, the current Viper isn’t the roller skate with a honking-big engine stuffed into it that the original roadster was. This is a more sophisticated and civilized vehicle, but that is a relative evaluation.

Sure it has power windows rather than zippered plastic ones, but drive a Viper from New York City to the West Coast state administered by the Governator and your left thigh will be the size of Arnold’s from working the clutch.

You may require a little dental work, too, from your teeth knocking together any time the least little imperfection in the pavement sent shivers through the suspension and the seat of your pants to the rest of you.

The Viper is engineered for raw speed and designed for showing off. If you want to drink a cup of coffee while driving without scalding yourself, buy a Chevy Malibu.

The 8.3-liter powerplant is capable of delivering 510 horsepower and 535 pound-feet of peak torque. This is enough giddy-up to launch Viper from a standstill to 60 mph in about four heart-pounding seconds. Sporting a substantial feel, the six-speed manual transmission funnels engine output to the rear wheels. The grabbers on all four wheels are antilock-monitored ventilated Brembo disc brakes with manhole-cover-sized rotors.

Sticking a foot into the throttle and maximizing acceleration sucks fuel through the system at a rate that should impress an Alaska pipeline technician.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency numbers are better than might be expected, they could render a GreenPeace activist positively suicidal.

The EPA rates the Viper’s fuel economy at 12 miles per gallon in the city and 20 mpg on the highway.

Viper’s cabin seats two in buckets with outstanding lateral support. There is not a lot of room left over once the passenger becomes situated. With only 6.3 cubic feet of cargo space, the trunk is stingy as well. The low-slung seating position doesn’t provide a commanding view of the road; however, you’ll probably approach things faster than your eye-brain functions can process them anyway. All controls are easily accessed by the driver. Power accessories, air conditioning, a multispeaker audio system with six-disc in-dash CD changer and a power trunk lid release are all standard.

The Viper is a brute. There’s not a soft side to it. It’s raw, hard-charging and demanding.

There is no stability control to help bail out drivers pushing this monster beyond their skill and it’s easy to reach that point in the blink of an eye. Getting in and out of it is for the young and flexible.

Having said that, if your idea of happy motoring is blasting along with gobs of acceleration just a throttle goose away and a package sure to leave wide-eye stares and lusting in your wake, nothing else really measures up.

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