This Viper has a date with the dragstrip. But an hour-and-a-half of highway separates the Motive offices and the 'strip out in the sticks, so I'm hoping to steal glimpses of this car's dark side on the ride out. I hop in the Viper and instinctively hunt for the traction-control-defeat switch. Except that, in the Viper, there is no traction control. Dodge left stability control and launch control on the shop floor, too. A well-modulated clutch pedal and driver finesse are the only things keeping the Viper on the narrow path between bogging down and burning out. With 600 horsepower it would be all too easy to henceforth reference venom and fangs and bites and all other things serpentine, but I won't. Because none of those words really capture the gestalt of the Viper.
This car is from another era. Its spiritual predecessors took part in the golden age of American motorsports, when road races were still held on public roads. When sports cars were driven to the venue, run hard, and then - with any luck - driven home. When American contenders with big V8s fought it out with leaner, more sophisticated European machines. It was a more dangerous time, but one when the connection between driver and vehicle was pure, unfettered by electronics.
Dodge's all-American supercar has been a hatchet in a world of cutlery from the beginning, doing its business with brute strength rather than refinement. With an engine originally designed for the Ram pickup, its drivetrain has always had a coarse, almost gleeful, lack of table manners. But for 2008 the old blade gets a sharp new edge, gaining an astonishing 90 horsepower from a mere tenth of a liter gain in displacement and the miracle of variable exhaust valve timing.
Chrysler figured the old V10 needed some honing to meet new emissions requirements anyway, so the SRT crew pulled out the big toolbox and bolted on new cylinder heads with larger exhaust valves, new exhaust headers, and all-new intake plumbing. They stuffed lots of other trick hardware under the vented hood, too. From the forged, powdered-metal connecting rods and larger wrist pins to the new, higher-capacity oil pump, the 8.4-liter V10 is built for speed and durability. For true racers, Dodge provides access in the trans case for the addition of an external oil cooler.
Indeed, the Viper's racing-car soul is ever-present: Highways feel best taken in third gear, which allows for warp-speed passes. In sixth gear at 80 mph, the engine is turning a mere 1500 rpm, chuggling its discontent throughout the body shell. The V10 is happier above 2000, and ecstatic above 4000. It's intoxicating to dip into the throttle at those speeds, especially with the windows down and the blatting exhaust exiting two feet below my ears. Despite the brutality of its engine, the Viper rides quite well on the road. Sure, it's firm, but the 49-year-old men Dodge says will buy this car won't need to worry about dislodging kidney stones.
With such tall gearing, it's hard to imagine using fifth or sixth gear on a regular basis. But it's because of that gearing, and the engine's bountiful torque, that the Viper can now cross the 200-mph threshold. Dodge fitted a new transmission to handle the engine's additional power, and made the gears ten percent thicker than those in the transmission it replaces. Its stoutness can actually be felt through the linkage - some shifts seem like they would be better executed with two hands.
On this ride to the dragstrip I encounter gawks and stares and thumbs-ups, especially after the sun has started its descent into the horizon, when the Viper's Snakeskin Green Metallic glows electric. In the dusk I'm isolated from the outside world, focused on that moment when the Viper will meet the timing lights.
It's here that SRT's work pays huge dividends - 60 mph comes up in less than four seconds, and the 6-speed manual transmission requires only one shift to achieve that speed. The quarter-mile flies by in less than twelve seconds at a speed of more than 120 mph.
With all that it's managing, you might expect the clutch to be as firm as a Marine's handshake, but this is not the case. The old large-diameter single-disc flywheel is gone, replaced by a smaller dual-mass unit that reduces the clutch's rotating mass by 18 percent. The third pedal won't give drivers a charley horse in stop-and-go traffic, yet it gives excellent feedback for accurate engagement.
Launching the Viper hard on the strip still requires practice, though. Even with a speed-sensing limited-slip differential and super-grippy Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires, breaking traction is no problem. Thankfully, there are brakes aplenty. Dual opposing calipers at the front and rear squeeze fourteen-inch Brembo rotors. Like the car's other major controls, the brake pedal returns accurate information about what's happening at all four corners.
Because the dragstrip and the highway aren't places to evaluate a car's handling, I head to The Tire Rack's test track in South Bend, Indiana, to get a feel for the Viper's behavior when the road stops going straight. Betraying its road-racing heritage, the car's four-wheel independent suspension is a well-tuned combination of aluminum control arms and coil-over shocks. The steering is fast, reacting instantly and precisely to every input. The chassis is wonderfully neutral up to its limits, but it snaps to oversteer once its crosses the line.
Though the curvaceous exterior, powerful engine, and quick-witted suspension give pleasure, the interior deals out mostly pain. Despite the benefit of air conditioning, the footwells are small ovens. The side exhausts, too, can be felt through the bodywork, slowly cooking the driver's left leg or the passenger's right. Nothing about this car's cockpit is gracious, and white-faced gauges with black numbers call out the vitals - engine speed, road speed, oil temp, oil pressure. The trimmings are as classy as a short-sleeve tuxedo, but that's not why you buy a Viper.
The $83,145 Viper SRT10 is unabashedly American. Sure, it's loud and obnoxious and bordering on rude, but it's also immensely capable, more refined and dialed in than the rest of the world is willing to admit. It also makes friends wherever it goes. It might be the strongest link to the road-racing Cobras and Cunninghams of the past. God bless the men and women who fought to keep it free of stability and traction control.