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."