It's difficult to remember what a powerful statement the very first Dodge Viper made when it exploded on the scene as a concept car at the 1989 Detroit auto show. Or when, miracle of miracles, it actually made it into serial production with the 1993 model year.
Then again, the real truth is, it's kind of difficult to remember much of anything when you're attempting to get down and get funky around GingerMan Raceway, a well-groomed but sneaky little 1.88-mile track about six miles from the shores of Lake Michigan.
Expansive memories are in particularly short supply, we find, when you happen to be visiting GingerMan for the very first time and are getting to know the fairly technical course in one of the very first second-generation Vipers in existence, which you are driving as ambitiously as you know how, also for the first time, while trying desperately not to lunch it.
It's hard to focus on the past when the new Viper cranks the model's already brutal performance game up another hefty notch, with a redesigned and even larger 505-cubic-inch, ten-cylinder engine, capable of raising titanic twin towers of thrust: 500 horsepower and 525 pound-feet of torque.
You don't come up with numbers like this by accident. Do you get the feeling Dodge has something to prove? Everywhere but at the Greenpeace retreat, 500/525 gives you bragging rights out the wazoo. Even if the new Viper's extroverted exterior is at once somehow less svelte and less cartoonishly outrageous in appearance than its predecessor, its owners will have something to talk about for a while, at least. Adding 50 horsepower and 35 pound-feet of torque to the previous-generation Viper's already absurd complement helps this aluminum, 8.3-liter (up from 8.0) exercise in internal combustion ground-rocketry get close to the magical four-second 0-to-60-mph barrier. It goes some considerable length to justifying a speedometer that now reads to 220 mph. This would be, to put it mildly, a fast car.
But it's not as simple as a big engine. Credit for memory fade on the track also goes to the Viper's newfound levels of grip, a byproductof a redesigned chassis and monster 345-series Michelins mounted on nineteen-inch rear wheels. (By the way, it's just as well the Viper hangs on as tenaciously as it does; traction control is still not an option.) And a big hats off, too, to the snake's new brakes, better and more powerful than those of any Dodge we've ever driven.
Yet I must confess there is another reason, somewhat personal, making it impossible for me to conjure the Viper's storied past. You see, I am on fire. Not literally. Flames are not visible, and my life is not flashing before my eyes. But on a very hot summer day, the Viper is turning out to be the most accelerative two-seat deep-frying apparatus I've ever come across. Way too hot. Not too hot to handle--otherwise an altogether more civilized proposition to drive than its predecessor. Just way too hot to sit in. As I brace for another hard left-hander, I feel the polymer doorsill cover--underneath which lies a Brobdingnagian side pipe--starting to burn my left leg as it comes in repeated close contact.
I should have expected as much. Over to GingerMan on the 120-mile ride from Ann Arbor (with the top down, of course), the air-conditioned-but-still-boiling interior of the Viper managed to make me recall venerable old frycookers like my Austin-Healey 3000--in which I've roasted heartily many a day and nearly perished on a few--as palaces of supreme chill-essence.
I was swooning after two hours in the Viper, and that was before I took a few exploratory test laps at GingerMan with executive editor Mark Gillies, who, it emerged, was alarmingly familiar with the course, enabling his dedicated hotshoeness to recalibrate more finely the relation of my internal organs to one another, with disabling, permanent effect, as we hurtled faster and faster around the track. For its part, DaimlerChrysler says the problem with excessive heat is a pre-production hiccup. I'd like to believe them, but eyeing the Viper's giant side pipes in the hot sun, I'm not so sure. Chrysler (as it was then known) yanked side pipes from the Viper first time around early in its production run; they'd come under criticism when they were found in actual service to be a leading cause of burn injuries among its clientele, which is one of those customer complaints you just can't ignore. The exhaust system was further observed to be less than mellifluous, with five-cylinder pulses on either side adding up to less than the sum of their auditory parts.
Side pipes never stopped looking butch, so Dodge was encouraged to solve at least one part of the vexing side-pipe dilemma for Viper 2.0. The system has been redesigned to let the exhaust gases of all ten cylinders commingle via a crossover pipe before exiting on either side of the car. A more sonorous note results, at the expense of channeling yet more heat underneath the cockpit--heat, you will have gathered, that passengers won't require. Heat is the second critical side-pipe issue, which DaimlerChrysler may or may not have licked. Looking at pictures, you can see the side pipe is largely under cover in the new design, but just try touching the cover, as you inevitably will. Ouch. I'm behind the wheel now. Prolonged proximity to the hot-to-the-touch sill and cabin heat, which continues to soak directly into my person courtesy of the long and giant V-10 riding just inches away, have distinctly harshed my mellow. Discomfort seems to mount with every corner I load myself and the Viper into. Twice each lap, I get to draw breath and cool my trousers down a few key degrees while the road stops bending and the g-forces start flowing backward, keeping my leg away from the sill. Accelerating flat-out down GingerMan's two short but tasty straightaways, thought temporarily reappears.
And here's the one that appears most frequently: Perhaps, I think, I really ought to be driving the 2002 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 we've brought along for comparison purposes. We're pretty sure by now that the fast and furiously grippy Viper will give the Z06, the Vette we love most (and Automobile Magazine's 2001 Automobile of the Year), a run for its money on the track--and it does. At least self-immolation won't be on the Vette's menu of driver delights. But let's pause a moment. In spite of the heat, overlight steering, and gearing designed to satisfy EPA monitors and intergalactic travelers more than short-track racers, it must be said that the Dodge proves a rapid and strangely appealing track companion. Its four vented discs with four-piston Brembo calipers just won't say die. The center pedal stays reassuringly firm after dozens of laps, where the Vette's pedal swiftly expires, along with most of the brakes with which they are in constant communication. Advantage Viper.
The Viper's standard selection of gear ratios includes a sixth cog that spins the engine just 1000 rpm for every 52 mph. Meaning 60 mph translates to a mere 1150 rpm in sixth and a theoretical 310 mph at the redline. (In reality, the Viper tops out at something closer to 180 mph.) And if you guessed that the gearing isn't on our side at GingerMan, where no straightaway lasts longer than a quarter of a mile, you're right. Third and a little second are all we'll require today. But with all that torque and horsepower and a chassis as neutral, unflappable, and grippy as this (a real step up from its predecessor, which would assume the sideways state at the merest provocation), the new Viper will go on to equal our best times in the Vette around the track, albeit extracting a high price in driver comfort while doing so.
When I take my turn in the yellow Z06 technical editor Don Sherman has brought along, it's like coming into the air-conditioned clubhouse, undeniably a more comfortable place to be than the SRT-10 (standing, I've become convinced, for seared-roasted-toasted in ten minutes, or your money back). It doesn't sound like much in this company, but the Vette's 405 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque are still deeply meaningful sums. To be sure, the dash plastics and fittings are cheesy in the Corvette, as is GM's wont, but they're shoulders above the synthetic fare of the Dodge, which, however much improved over the previous Viper's, still needs more improvement. The Vette scores heavily for ergonomics and a height-adjustable seat that makes looking behind the car when you're driving an option. One sits much lower in the Dodge's seats, despite its being a considerable three inches taller than previously, taller even than the old GTS coupe. The advantage comes in reduced wind buffeting, but, with no seat-height adjustment, the view out the rear-view mirror is now available only to the tall. (Check out the power-adjustable pedal box in the Viper, though. It's useful and trick, an elegant way to accommodate all shapes and sizes of drivers.)
On the track, a few more things to recommend the Z06 make themselves known; steering less corrupted and more enjoyable than the Viper's, to start, and a six-speed shifter handier and sweeter to use than the Dodge's. You also get gear ratios that actually make sense with the Corvette and an exhaust note that belongs in the Exhaust Note Hall of Fame.
Ultimately, it may be that extra bit more demanding of the driver to run fast in the Corvette, but the responses are so much more rewarding. Here's a car that wants to powerslide, or, as an alternative, offers the keen driver the choice of using the standard traction and stability control system in Competition mode. It's a smart idea, a sporty compromise, keeping things moving in essentially the right direction but letting the driver direct a little more of the action. Like its strong but short-lived brakes, the Vette's Goodyear Eagle F1 SC tires head south sooner than snowbirds from Syosset at the track; after only a few laps grip is gone. Still, there's no denying it. For most people's taste, the Vette provides more thrills and day-to-day driving pleasure than the Viper in a package that feels more chuckable, more easily accessed, and more practical. A lot of crucial pluses, even without taking the Viper's price into account. At $80,000, the Viper has moved itself a substantial $8000 increment up the sports car food chain. The Corvette isn't getting any cheaper, but at a hair over $51,000 for a more fully resolved car, it seems the clear value choice.
Unfortunate news in this rarefied egocentric league, few love the new Viper's redesign. Stylists Osamu Shikado, Eric Stoddard, and Dave Smith are each credited with elements of the Viper's still-attention-grabbing new look. Design-by-committee may partly explain how this otherwise bold machine can look so unexceptional, comparatively. The car is nominally (0.9 inch) shorter, although its wheelbase is extended 2.6 inches, and it is wider, even though the front track is narrower. The payoff comes in the cabin, which has more leg, hip, and shoulder room than before for considerably more comfort. More's the pity, then, about the infernal heat in our tester. By our lights, the Corvette isn't the most beautiful sports car that ever was, either. But it's handsome enough and continues to grow on us. And at the end of the day, it just seems more like a serious production automobile. Despite which, I find myself being strangled by the Corvette's seatbelt in hard cornering. And on the subject of cornering, my Viper-singed calf collapses the Corvette's door-mounted loudspeaker grille every time I brace against it to counter the lateral g's. Unchanged from the last time I had a Z06 on the track, almost two years ago.
It would probably be wrong to infer too much from the annoying things these two cars do to you when you're hammering your total ass off in them on a racetrack. Those of greater vertical stature won't necessarily suffer quite the same afflictions as the short people. And yet the flaws do reflect the economic and technical realities all car companies--including big, mainstream ones--face when attempting to build limited-edition sports cars. Losing the rough edges costs money, and money, now more than ever, is tight.
When first shown, the Viper was built to telegraph the return of the once-ailing Chrysler Corporation. A little smoke-and-mirrors display and all-around morale builder from the great Chrysler showboating team of Lutz, Castaing, and Gale, it gained traction on the show circuit and went into production by popular demand, signifying in grand fashion that Chrysler was back.
Not just from the ashes of the headed-for-bankruptcy, shabby behemoth era of Lynn Townsend and the 1970s. The Viper signaled life beyond the post-federal-bailout money spinners that sprang from Lee Iacocca's unsporty mind. Here was a car from a future universe that was to be far removed from the world of K-cars, minivans, and dreary derivatives. More even than the leap marked by the cab-forward LH sedans, the Viper said that there were engineers at Chrysler enthusiastic about something other than forging faux landau irons and cutting costs. Like the voiceless tappings of miners trapped underground, the first-generation Viper was the sign that there was hope, that they were still alive down there.
Since it started selling them nine years ago, Dodge has sold a few more than 14,000 Vipers, chicken feed in the world of cars. It's not bad in the world of exclusive cars, but as nothing compared with Chevrolet, which sells more Corvettes every six months than Dodge has sold Vipers in its entire history. For this reason, Chevrolet has been able to do a lot more development work on the Corvette. Selling more in the vicinity of 30,000 each year for the last several, GM achieves greater economies of scale, allowing it to sell a better-sorted car for less. On some very basic levels, the latest Viper is a better car than the one it replaces. But is all that development work the reason you're being asked to fork over a ten percent price premium over the first-series car? Is it pay-as-you-go time for Dodge's loss leader? The Viper always was that extra step more raw than the Vette, and so it remains. Of course, today, Chrysler as we knew it is no more. So what the new Viper means must be something different, too. Because things are different. The point that needs making now is not that Chrysler is a viable company but rather that Daimler-Chrysler can conquer the world. It's a point that's a lot more complicated to make, what with all the losses at Chrysler and all the different and sportier brands already under DC's wing (Mercedes-Benz SL500, anyone?). The Viper can't really be expected to make all the points for every one of Daimler's domains.
So, while you wouldn't call it a half-hearted effort, it seems fair to assume that the Viper team may have encountered some more fundamental ambivalence within DaimlerChrysler toward their baby, its mission, and the cost of developing it. It had (and has) an audience in America, but it's not clear that the latest redesign will do any better job of appealing to that audience, much less broadening it. One gets the sense that the Viper is not so much the highly focused rebel yell of a small but scrappy domestic carmaker as it is an obligatory diversion for a multinational juggernaut that has its corporate mind all over the map. As its exhaust system warmed up, the Viper we drove today felt hot, then hotter, and then hottest. Warm to the touch, then positively crisping, the roadster began to smell unpleasantly of melting plastics and adhesives. DaimlerChrysler spokespeople called it a pre-production aberration. We hope so, but we don't know so.
Is the new Viper a serious daily-driving (including summertime) proposition? Or is it better viewed as an $80,000 popcorn maker with a propensity for going extremely fast? We'll have get back to you on that. Meantime, we're driving the Vette.