Sports Car Comparison Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests
  • Comparison (1)
  • Long-Term

1997 Dodge Viper Coupe

(8.0L V10 6-speed Manual)

  • Comparison Test

Murphy's Law of Automotive Journalism: Whenever a comparison test is scheduled - any comparison test, even if it was set up months in advance - all carefully laid plans will fall apart at the last minute. Take, for example, this comparison of four high-performance dream machines. To the casual observer, the scheduling of a product review is transparent. We automotive scribes simply obtain the vehicles from the Car Fairy, drive them, and write about them. Nothing could be simpler.

Except it's never quite that easy. In this case, the scheduling started two months before we wanted to conduct the test. Each manufacturer had to be contacted individually so we could reserve the cars for the necessary time, and the individual scheduling of course needed to coincide with the availability of each of the other cars in the comparison. As a final headache to consider: The more popular the car with other automotive journalists, the more difficult it becomes to reserve test time.

Since we were not interested in conducting a Civic vs. Cavalier vs. Neon vs. Golf comparison, we expected the scheduling to be tricky. Fortunately, we were able to secure tentative reservations for our desired sports cars right away. It was the confirmation of those requests that presented problems.

To make a long story short, the Porsche was canceled at the last minute because Playboy needed to take pictures of it (Playboy sells more magazines than anyone else in the world, so they get top priority when it comes to test cars). Next, the Viper we were supposed to drive was involved in a wreck and was totaled the night before we were to pick it up. Then, naturally, the NSX had wheel bearing problems and needed to visit the shop. And the Corvette? Typically, it was in perfect working order and was delivered on time.

When Murphy's Law strikes, the only recourse is to strike back by cursing the world, cruel fate, Mother Nature and Hugh Hefner. The next thing to do is to devise a Plan B. We had to compare something to the Corvette. Miraculously, a little luck somehow drifted our way at the eleventh hour and Acura called, saying that another NSX had become available for the test. Two down, two to go.

When you're stranded out of town without a car, what do you do? You rent one. We tried Budget Rental Cars of Beverly Hills (1-800-729-7350 ext. 136), just to see what it would cost to run the comparison test on our own. The folks at Budget turned out to be our guardian angels. "Edmund'sB.? You need a Viper and 911? You got 'em." Edmund'sB. Law: When at first you don't succeed, beg.

Perhaps the most telling sign of how difficult it would be to rate these cars occurred at Budget's office. The angel behind the desk looked up at fellow editor Karl Brauer and myself and asked, "Which of you wants the Viper and which of you wants the Porsche?"

There was a long pause as Karl and I tried to comprehend the question and wondered if it was some sort of trick. "Uhhh," we managed to grunt in unison. We hadn't expected to have to make such a difficult decision so early on in the test. Finally Karl muttered, "I'll...take the...Viper."

Murphy's Law of Automotive Journalism: Whenever a comparison test is scheduled - any comparison test, even if it was set up months in advance - all carefully laid plans will fall apart at the last minute. Take, for example, this comparison of four high-performance dream machines. To the casual observer, the scheduling of a product review is transparent. We automotive scribes simply obtain the vehicles from the Car Fairy, drive them, and write about them. Nothing could be simpler.

Except it's never quite that easy. In this case, the scheduling started two months before we wanted to conduct the test. Each manufacturer had to be contacted individually so we could reserve the cars for the necessary time, and the individual scheduling of course needed to coincide with the availability of each of the other cars in the comparison. As a final headache to consider: The more popular the car with other automotive journalists, the more difficult it becomes to reserve test time.

Since we were not interested in conducting a Civic vs. Cavalier vs. Neon vs. Golf comparison, we expected the scheduling to be tricky. Fortunately, we were able to secure tentative reservations for our desired sports cars right away. It was the confirmation of those requests that presented problems.

To make a long story short, the Porsche was canceled at the last minute because Playboy needed to take pictures of it (Playboy sells more magazines than anyone else in the world, so they get top priority when it comes to test cars). Next, the Viper we were supposed to drive was involved in a wreck and was totaled the night before we were to pick it up. Then, naturally, the NSX had wheel bearing problems and needed to visit the shop. And the Corvette? Typically, it was in perfect working order and was delivered on time.

When Murphy's Law strikes, the only recourse is to strike back by cursing the world, cruel fate, Mother Nature and Hugh Hefner. The next thing to do is to devise a Plan B. We had to compare something to the Corvette. Miraculously, a little luck somehow drifted our way at the eleventh hour and Acura called, saying that another NSX had become available for the test. Two down, two to go.

When you're stranded out of town without a car, what do you do? You rent one. We tried Budget Rental Cars of Beverly Hills (1-800-729-7350 ext. 136), just to see what it would cost to run the comparison test on our own. The folks at Budget turned out to be our guardian angels. "Edmund'sB.? You need a Viper and 911? You got 'em." Edmund'sB. Law: When at first you don't succeed, beg.

Perhaps the most telling sign of how difficult it would be to rate these cars occurred at Budget's office. The angel behind the desk looked up at fellow editor Karl Brauer and myself and asked, "Which of you wants the Viper and which of you wants the Porsche?"

There was a long pause as Karl and I tried to comprehend the question and wondered if it was some sort of trick. "Uhhh," we managed to grunt in unison. We hadn't expected to have to make such a difficult decision so early on in the test. Finally Karl muttered, "I'll...take the...Viper."

Fourth Place - Dodge Viper GTS

As you may have noticed, our test car was a 1997 model (that's the last time blue with white stripes was available). Since beggars can't be choosy, we could not complain. Besides, the bright red '98 Viper we drove just two weeks after this test differed only in color, a lighter-weight exhaust manifold, some upgraded interior plastic and a passenger airbag cutoff switch. The beastly nature was the same.

The Dodge Viper is the sheetmetal equivalent of Jimi Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner: it's raw, obnoxious, loud, powerful, boisterous, obscene, contemptuous and undeniably American. The fact that the Viper is street legal is a tribute to freedom and democracy. Or a threat to it.

Our test car was not spangled with stars, but its metallic blue exterior was decorated with a pair of white racing stripes, just in case everyone within a half mile didn't take immediate notice. And they did. Even bystanding cars took notice of the Viper, their alarms activated by the terrifying exhaust note. The sort of attention garnered by this car is not always desirable, however, as one of our drivers noted while being handed a speeding ticket after tagging along behind a GMC Suburban through a speed trap.

Upon stepping into the Viper, my initial thought was, "Damn, that burns!" I was thinking reflexively, of course, about the skin on my left calf, which was being singed by the Viper's illogically located exhaust pipe. The wide sill dictates that driver and passenger must contort into various awkward angles to avoid touching the car's hot lower sheetmetal whether entering or exiting the ride. Minus one point for comfort.

Inside, the Viper greets its occupants with seats that comply about as obligingly as Iraqi chemical plant workers during a surprise U.N. inspection. The pedals are adjustable, but they can't compensate for the tight footwell that seems to push everything just to the left of natural. The center console is immensely wide and makes a comfortable armrest. An obscene parking brake lever rests on the passenger side of the console, but doesn't intrude on the living space.

The low-rent plastic dash and crummy Alpine stereo plate did nothing to enhance our love for this car's insides. We could go on about the annoying interior shortcomings, but who cares? The Viper is a sports car, and it plays the part well. No hoity-toity luxury accouterments like wood trim, powered seats and traction control, just pure muscle and performance -- and lots of it. One added feature for 1998 is a passenger-side airbag cutoff switch, so when you're not busy scaring small children with this car, you can safely tote them around.

One of our editors compared the Viper to an enormous clown shoe. It has a huge bulbous toe, you sit in the heel, and the appearance is pretty ridiculous. Around town, the Viper is completely inappropriate and out of its element - it hasn't a clue how to behave in the civilized world. It hits bumps hard, it's noisy, and engaging the heavy clutch is like doing one-legged squats. But take it to the track, and this car takes on a much more sensible personality.

Around the skidpad, we averaged a super-tight grip of .97 g. Zero-to-60 was timed at 4.8 seconds, and keep in mind that Willow Springs is not a sea-level track brimming with oxygen. Braking is athletic at 138 ft., though the brake pedal's feedback is about as helpful as a dead pedal, and 138 ft. turned out to be the longest stopping distance of our assembled sports cars.

Around the turns of Willow Springs Raceway, we experienced the Viper on its home turf. The engine is a 450-horsepower 8.0-liter V10 complete with 490 tire-shredding foot-pounds of torque. Wanna go faster? Just push down the right pedal. Torque is so readily available that the revs aren't important. Steering is surprisingly precise, and it's a good thing or the car would be even harder to manage. The fact is that with this much power on tap, the Viper can get out of hand in a hurry. When the tires finally do break loose at about 1.0 g, the car is probably going faster than the driver can comfortably control.

The Dodge Viper is one of the least practical sports cars money can buy. The interior reeks of cheap plastic, the gaps between exterior panels could pass for fault lines, and if the drivetrain lash doesn't slap some sense into you, nothing will. But while the Viper is easily the best performer of these cars, its ancient engineering, lack of refinement and lofty sticker price knock it to the bottom of the heap.

Third Place - Porsche 911 Cabriolet

Never in my life have I imagined I would someday place a Porsche anywhere but first place in a comparison test. It couldn't be. It's wrong. It goes against everything I feel and love about cars - everything I was taught, in fact. Saying that a Porsche is not a winner borders on heresy and blasphemy. So we're heretical blasphemers. So sue us.

The 911 is a marvel of modern technology. Who could have ever imagined a rear-engine car that handles like Barry Sanders? As one of our staff said, "It's amazing how well put-together this car is despite the fact the engine's in the wrong place."

In fact, the 911 appeared at first glance to have finished in second place, beating the NSX handily due to the price factor. Then we remembered to add in the $3,215 leather seats. And the $2,656 wheels. And the $750 stainless steel exhaust pipes. Oh, and we mustn't forget the $880 aluminum-accented shifter and brake handle. Add them all together, and the fun-per-dollar margin wasn't thrifty enough to eclipse the NSX.

Our borrowed test car came with the six-speed manual transmission and convertible top, but, Murphy's Law of Automotive Journalism the totalitarian order that it is, the convertible never dropped all the way down. It became stuck at the approximate midpoint of its descent, locked in a Z-shaped pose, as if it couldn't remember what to do next. The folks at Budget came to our rescue the first time the top froze (yes, we tried it more than once just to make sure), and we were able to coax the top back up by tugging the roof frame forward. Since the mechanical motor still worked, the problem probably rested with the hydraulically operated tonneau cover.

We were left with all of the inconveniences of a convertible and none of the open-air fun. The rear window of the 911 Cabriolet is smaller than its coupe counterpart, and the C-pillars provide less visibility. In addition, lateral stability is reduced and wind noise is increased due to the soft top. The 911 probably lost a few points in the eyes of our editors for acting up, reminding us that Porsche reliability is not quite up to Acura's high standards.

Still, it's easy to forget that the car is a convertible when the drive is this engaging. The current 911 feels more planted than the previous 911, and the rear-out characteristic inherent with rear-engine design is well behaved, despite the fact that we didn't have to exert ourselves to get it to wiggle around.

The steering provides a tight connection to the road, a feel unmatched by any previous Porsche. On our skidpad test, however, the 911 felt loose and gripped only .84 g's of lateral force, the worst of the bunch. Our roadholding tester of the day, Karl Brauer, tried some intentionally bonehead maneuvers in each car after the limit was achieved - just for fun and to see how the cars would react in a controlled environment. In the Porsche, a quick lift of the throttle and stab of the brake resulted in a 720-degree spin. Karl and his already queasy stomach were not amused.

In fairness, the cabriolet version of the 911 is not as solid as the coupe. It would have been interesting to see how the stiffer body of the coupe would have helped lateral stability, but you play the cards you're dealt.

The 911's styling leaves room for argument. Some of our staff raved over it, claiming that the 996 (the current iteration of the 911) is the most beautiful sports car ever made. Others were less than thrilled, drawing comparisons to the half-as-pricey and similarly-styled Boxster. Both arguments have validity. The car looks great, but when seen in the rear view mirror, the 911 will frequently be mistaken for its less exclusive brethren.

Say what you will of its looks - the 911 is still a great driver's car. The 3.4-liter flat six-cylinder water-cooled engine is good for 300 horsepower of fun, the shifter is a snap-snap-snap to operate, and the 2+2 seating configuration means there's a handy luggage bin for storing groceries or a briefcase. We even fit a child seat back there, complete with child. But if you're using an $83,000 car as a family hauler on a daily basis, you're stretching the budget a little thin.

Second Place - Acura NSX-T

The Acura NSX is the best car I have ever driven (current company included), and several of my colleagues share this sentiment. Well-balanced, perfectly poised, easy to drive, powerful, graceful -- the NSX is a precision instrument that is forgiving enough to make drivers of diverse skills feel like pros.

Though largely unchanged from the NSX of seven or eight years ago, the current NSX is still a dream ride. The mid-engine design provides excellent weight distribution, keeping the wheels securely planted around turns. Braking is also an NSX strong point: we measured 121 ft. from 60-to-zero.

Inside, the NSX is as comfortable to drive as the Honda Accord. All controls are logically placed, the seating position is nothing short of perfect, the targa top is easily stored and visibility is better than the rest. The NSX beat the 911 soundly when it came to interior design. Where the 911's only useful display is its tachometer, the NSX was clearly well-planned to accommodate the driver.

If you can overlook the fact that the car's styling has not been touched since its introduction, the NSX is still quite attractive. For an exotic car with an exotic price, however, the NSX looks too much like a squared-off Corvette (Or maybe the Vette is just a rounded NSX?).

As a purist test of automotive excellence, the NSX is unsurpassed. The shift action is simply amazing, the clutch and brake pedals are well-placed and provide excellent feedback, and steering is razor-sharp. Where the car fails, however, is in the price of greatness. It's too expensive. For the same price as a three-car garage complete with Chevrolet Corvette, Jeep Wrangler and Honda Accord, one can afford a single NSX. The exorbitant price may also deter the amount of fun one can experience while driving. One driver noted, "I was thinking about how much it was worth the whole time I was in it. What fun is that?"

Money no object, the NSX wins this test, safely ahead of the competition. But for the sheer pleasure of driving and excitement brought to the table by the others, the NSX price was hard to quantify, and it was certainly not $48,000 more car than the Corvette.

First Place - Chevrolet Corvette

When these assembled sports cars are lined up before an unbiased audience, the Corvette may be humbled by the popularity of the rest. The 911 and NSX are exotic. The Viper is eye-catching and unashamedly American. The Corvette is, well, a Chevrolet. It's a Camaro on performance-enhancing steroids, right? Admittedly, the Corvette turned out to be the least fought-over ride amongst our staff - at first.

Driving these cars back-to-back, the Corvette lost points in several categories. The suspension was not as firm as the NSX. Throttle response is fast, but not on par with the competitors - torque delivery is a bit shy at low rpms. The Corvette's transmission felt more refined than the Viper, but not in the same league with the NSX or 911; it's too balky, and the shift knob is too bulky.

But put the numbers side by side, and the Corvette competes with some of the best cars money can buy. It's a blink of an eye slower to 60 than the NSX. It holds the road better than a 911, though not as well as the NSX or Viper. Its LS1 V8 engine generates more torque than the NSX, but not what you'll find in the Viper. Stopping distances, however, turned out to be the best of the bunch, an unexpected plus on the Corvette's side.

Our test car was equipped with the optional Active Handling System, something we left switched off except when familiarizing ourselves with apexes on twisty turns. Actually, during the road portion of our test, I was surprised at how transparent the system behaved. Wow, I thought, did I just get the rear end to come out? Then I realized that the system was indeed off, and I had been pushing the limits without a safety net. Oh well. The Vette always kept its composure and had plenty of reserved power whenever it was needed.

A new optional feature for 1999 is the Heads Up Display (HUD). This fighter jet-inspired technology is more than a marketing gimmick. While carving along canyon back roads at high speeds, the Corvette driver need not take his or her eyes from the road to check the tachometer or speedometer and is thus rewarded with the feeling of safety.

The Corvette provided the most comfortable ride of all. Besides Active Handling and HUD, the seats are plush, the ride isn't jarring, and that little voice in the back of my mind was not constantly whispering, "Do you know how much this thing costs?!"

The current generation Corvette is undeniably better than any of its ancestors. It's smoother, quieter, handles better, yet it's still blazingly powerful. The Corvette is no longer a mean car, and, like its new rounded exterior styling, it seems to have lost some of its edge. But if you want an edgy, unrefined car, pop the extra $30,000 for a Viper. Or shop downmarket for the Camaro or Firebird.

Ultimately, the Chevrolet Corvette is not the best sports car money can buy, but it is the best sports car you can buy for the money. The Vette is not perfect in any single category, but performance numbers are respectable enough to better some of the competition all of the time. And when you figure in the car's bargain basement price, the competition suddenly evaporates. Nothing can touch the Corvette in sheer bang-for-the-buck. For the enthusiast on a budget, the Corvette is a sure thing. Now, with all the extra money you've saved by buying the Corvette, how about treating yourself to a vacation? Maybe even indulge in a specialty rental car from Budget.

Averaged scores are displayed below:

Acura NSX

Chevrolet Corvette

Dodge Viper

Porsche 911

0-60 seconds

5.7

5.9

4.9

5.9

60-0 feet

121

119

138

129

Roadholding g

.95

.90

.97

.84

Observed mpg

15.4

14.3

10.6

14.4

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