Chief Viper development engineer Herb Helbig likes to call his pet snake "anything but a civilized car," but that's just his macho, gung-ho, Corvette-baiting side spouting off. Hammer Dodge's racer into a sweeper at 90 mph, and it sinks fangs into the pavement with well over 0.90 g of grip and not a whiff of anxiety. Whip it through a slalom course, and multiple cornering modes are available to suit your pleasure. Sneak up on the grip limit with gentle hands on the wheel and twinkle toes on the pedals, and the front tires courteously advise you when the end is near. Or you can hustle into the same bend with too much speed, initiate the turn-in before braking is completed, and enjoy a stylish exit pirouette with the steering wheel locked dead-straight ahead. The third and most entertaining choice is to forsake steering and braking altogether. Here, you worship the throttle and place your faith in the mountain of torque at the other end of that linkage, because it will cure all ills. A little tickle remedies understeer the same way Motrin soothes headaches. With each additional ounce of pedal pressure, the tail drifts another manageable increment wider.
Trust us, sports cars--especially those with a 500-horsepower honker under the hood--don't get any more civilized than this. Memo to Herb: Eat your baseball cap.
While the original Viper was a true reptile, at times ill suited for polite company, the new one poised to hit the showrooms this fall has been taught proper social graces. Raw edges have been polished off its exterior, the chassis is tuned for performance and poise, and practically all of the first generation's silly shortcomings have been corrected.
This is not to say Helbig and crew have turned a venomous serpent into a garter snake. Convincing proof that their heads are on straight is found in this car's mission statement. Top priority: Maintain the Viper's status as the ultimate American sports car. Other priorities: Make the car a real convertible, fine-tune the in-your-face exterior, advance all facets of performance, and honor the original Viper's back-to-basics philosophy.
Project VGX (DaimlerChrysler's internal code for the 2003 Viper) commenced four years ago with the simple notion of bolting a decent soft convertible top onto the old roadster. It soon became clear that so many exterior panels would need revision that a whole new body made more sense. Helbig's headaches began as soon as the full overhaul was approved. "The biggest task we faced," he notes, "was maintaining the back-to-basics nature of the Viper as customer advocates kept raising expectations higher. We wanted to let the car evolve without abandoning its fundamentally simple roots and its road-racing lineage. The challenge was determining what should and shouldn't be in the car. The performance crowd is on our wavelength; power and handling are all they want. But there are Viper customers who inquire, 'How come I can't get an electric seat?' and 'Where's the cruise control?' I politely take them aside and explain what Viper's really about.
"Thankfully, no one's asked for an automatic transmission. And you heard it here first: There is no plan for an automatic. Ever."
In spite of Helbig's best efforts to block evil influences, civility keeps creeping in. Anti-lock brakes were added as standard equipment for 2001. Helbig explains: "Frankly, we were tired of getting beaten in comparison tests, because it takes more skill to achieve short stopping distances without ABS. As soon as our customers tried it, they loved ABS, so, of course, that refinement made the leap to the new car. The new four-piston Brembo calipers clamping massive, fourteen-inch vented rotors give the Viper awesome stopping power.
"There are other instances where equipment decisions were out of our hands. For example, we've got a digital odometer. Ordinarily, such a frivolity would be deemed inappropriate. But there was no room available for a bulkier mechanical trip meter, so I acquiesced to that compromise."
It's doubtful anyone will begrudge the digimeter, not when there's so much energy on tap to advance the numbers in its display. Viper engineering director John Fernandez calls the 8.3-liter V-10 new from the ground up. "The basic architecture is the same, but practically every part is new," he notes. "Both bore and stroke are larger to achieve the 500 targets we established for power and torque. The new intake manifold consists of two staged throttles feeding a single plenum and runners that are significantly shorter than before to fit in the space available under the hood. We also trimmed a few pounds of weight with the new engine."
When you push the start button to stroke those ten cylinders to life, a whopping-big growling grunt rumbles out from under the hood. Across the expanse of asphalt at Daimler-Chrysler's Arizona proving grounds, the sound is more locomotive than automobile--deeply guttural, octaves lower than the keening shriek emanating from your average Bimmer or Ferrari. At idle, there's enough nervous energy to shake the whole car, enough injector noise to trip distant intrusion alarms, and nearly enough heat boiling out of the floor in this underinsulated development mule to alter climatic conditions.
Dropping the short-throw, low-effort shifter in gear sends you off with no throttle necessary. Engine speed is irrelevant when the torque curve starts high and stays flat for thousands of rpm. It's as if an electric motor powerful enough to lift an elevator were hidden inside the aluminum engine block.
Since engine calibrations are still in a state of flux and Helbig is worried about the inevitable abuse of his $50 million mule, testing was discouraged, but we knocked off a few quick measurements anyway. In spite of the 5800-rpm fuel cutoff dialed into the powertrain control computer and limited opportunities to optimize the acceleration-launch procedure, the 2003 Viper clocked a 4.4-second sprint to 60 mph and a low-twelve-second quarter-mile run. (While the mule's tach was redlined at 6500 rpm, production intent is a 6000-rpm redline and a 6100-rpm fuel cut.) Data fans in the audience will note that these acceleration figures are roughly equivalent to those of today's Viper, in spite of the 50-horsepower gain, less weight, and improved traction. Be not dismayed, snake aficionados: We'll be back to update the performance profile as soon as there's a chance to do so.
No such apologies are necessary for the measurements we took in braking and cornering categories. The one-g-plus limits observed during mid-speed slalom runs and straightline braking exercises are testimony to the major chassis gains implemented and the strict diet imposed throughout the new Viper's development program. Under the heading of weight savings, two special features stand out. The front inner fender panels providing structural support for the forward half of the body are carbon-fiber-reinforced composite plastic to save 30 pounds. The forward wall of the cockpit is one elaborate magnesium casting. According to Fernandez, this component replaces at least thirty pieces of welded sheetmetal and saves an additional 30 pounds or so. The Viper's main structural element--a spaceframe comprised of stamped and welded steel panels--is similar in concept to the original design but somewhat lighter and 35 percent stiffer in torsion, thanks to the use of computer-aided-design techniques. The new car's advertised weight is 3357 pounds, approximately 85 pounds lighter than the 2002 edition.
Suspension components follow the same evolutionary path. There are subtle geometric alterations, such as reduced anti-dive and anti-squat characteristics, along with dimensional changes. The wheelbase has been stretched 2.6 inches to facilitate a more comfortable (civil?) cockpit layout. The front track is 1.8 inches narrower, in anticipation of accommodating racing rubber beneath the air-penetrating front fenders of the FIA and/or ALMS competition coupe. At the rear, the track dimension grows by a scant 0.3 inch. However, the muscular rear haunches house Michelin Pilot Sport radials that are one notch larger in section size and rim diameter (345/30ZR-19s versus the outgoing car's 335/30ZR-18s). Asked if there was a loss of adhesion with the move from conventional to run-flat rubber, Helbig responds, "Absolutely not. In fact, we gained performance with the new tires. The Michelin development team helped create an awesome package for this car."
The most ingenious solutions to design problems are actually hidden under the car, where few will notice. Reintroducing side exhaust outlets required a particularly clever bit of engineering. The challenge was to pass drive-by noise-level tests with the larger engine and a desire to avoid restrictive mufflers. Helbig reveals, "Our solution is extra pipe length. Exhaust from the left bank runs down that side of the car before crossing underneath to dump out the right side. Where the two 2.5-inch pipes pass in close proximity to each other, we added an H-connection to combine two sets of five firing pulses into one more melodious ten-cylinder sound." Each bank has a warmup catalyst close to the engine plus a regular catalyst and a resonator in the sill. In addition to satisfying pass-by noise regulations, the new Viper's exhaust plumbing also avoids the UPS-truck blat that plagued first-generation cars.
Viper engineers also invested about 1000 hours in wind-tunnel testing. Starting with knowledge gleaned from the racing Viper coupe, the goal was positive downforce at 150 mph to stabilize high-speed handling. A full-length underbody panel was too heavy and trapped too much heat, so the final design is a partial belly pan with what Helbig calls "under-car tricks." Strakes (vertical ribs hanging low in back) help straighten air flow and augment the downforce generated by designer Osamu Shikado's high-riding deck-lid lip. Louvers ahead of the windshield and openings slashed into the flanks relieve underhood heat and air pressure. Final lift and drag figures aren't available, but Helbig expects excellent stability, a slightly reduced drag coefficient, and about the same drag area (the Cd multiplied by the car's frontal area) as in the first-generation Viper.
The tire kickers will glide right past these aero subtleties on their way to the new Viper's interior delights. Watch the kids' jaws drop when they discover a speedometer calibrated to 220 mph. Serious drivers are more likely to appreciate the huge tach located just slightly to the right of center above the steering column and the four vertically stacked secondary gauges. The quality of trim materials smartly leapfrogs the Corvette, although that's hardly a paragon. While the bucket seats tightly wrap your ribs, their elegant leather skin is too slippery for life in the one-g lane. (Acknowledging that concern, Fernandez admits he's investigating suede inserts and other grippy materials to improve lateral restraint.)
Climbing into the car demands mild contortions. Although the cockpit is still cozy, at least there's no fight with the engine for leg space, and a proper dead pedal is included. Top-down turbulence is surprisingly low, thanks to subtle deflectors on the windshield pillars and short hoops behind the headrests. Ingenious top and deck-lid hinge designs guide the manual top into its storage well in a jiffy. The forward section of the roof is rigid to serve as an integral cover in the alfresco mode.
Fernandez, Helbig, and their dedicated band left us only one detail to gripe about: needlessly tall transmission and final-drive ratios inherited from the previous model. If you buzz the engine to the redline in first, you'll hit 59 mph before a shift comes due. Sixth is worth (a purely theoretical) 315 mph. For all intents, fourth through sixth gears are excess baggage.
The gear-ratio gaffe is a venial sin in light of the improvements throughout the new Viper. This is the first dashing Dodge that demands to be taken seriously. Now that the King of the Hill throne is under attack by both the Viper and the hot Fords warming up in the lab, reaction from the Corvette camp bears watching.