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.