2003 Dodge Viper SRT-10 First Drive

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2003 Dodge Viper Coupe

(8.3L V10 6-speed Manual)

An oft-uttered complaint about the original Dodge Viper went something like this, "It looks like a cartoon. Like some sort of caricature of a real car." My response to these claims was usually along the lines of, "Uh-huh. Well guess what? It also performs like a cartoon car, in the sense that when you stomp on the throttle or crank the steering wheel part of your face feels like it stretches out before sling-shotting back into shape."

Saying the Viper looks "too wild" is like saying the American flag looks too patriotic. In both cases it would be impossible for the appearance of said items to overachieve their intended purpose. The American flag is an unmitigated symbol of our patriotism, and the Dodge Viper is a symbol of uncompromised automotive performance...at least that was its original mission when it arrived in showrooms back in 1994. As a vehicle designed to trumpet Chrysler's return to its performance heritage, the Viper was more effective than the acne-treatment commercials aired during "American Idol." Everyone from Jay Leno to John Elway wanted one (a Viper, not acne treatment). How many Chrysler products in the 20 years prior to the Viper's debut can claim that level of widespread passion?

Now comes the first full redesign of Chrysler's icon. Sure, the 1996 release of the Viper GTS coupe was a major upgrade for the line (including many simultaneous improvements to the original RT/10 model), but, essentially, it's been the same car for close to a decade. Many industry pundits assumed Chrysler would never redesign the Viper. They felt the car had run its course, served its mission and that Chrysler would be loath to invest the necessary capital required to update such a limited-production vehicle. The Dodge folks admitted during our time with the new Viper that the 2003 changes didn't start out as a redesign.

Basically, Dodge wanted to tame the car's behavior a bit while improving performance and interior comfort. The company also wanted to give the car a true convertible top that could be completely stowed. It was decided that all three goals could be accomplished by simply extending the car's wheelbase a few inches. However, once the engineers began working on a longer version of the Viper they soon realized that almost every body panel, and much of the suspension, would have to be reworked as well. Rather than try to contain a much-improved Viper in the old car's chassis and shell, the team's engineers decided to create an entirely new car. Dodge claims there are over 100 chassis changes beneath the all-new skin.

With a redesign underway, Dodge decided to get feedback from key constituents (current Viper owners) about what the new car should offer. What it got back was a list that included more horsepower, bigger brakes and lighter overall weight. The respondents also said the car shouldn't have items like a digital gauge cluster, cruise control, cupholders or styling cues that made it "a bow-tie look-alike." In other words, it shouldn't lose any of its "Viperness."

A gentleman named Osamu Shikado lead the design team that created the 2003 Viper's exterior shape. His previous designs include the 1998 Chrysler Chronos and the 1999 Chrysler Citadel. In Shikado's own words, "The original Viper has distinctive characteristics, but from some angles it looks cartoonish." There's that word again. It's interesting to note that Shikado's version of the Viper first appeared at the 2000 North American International Auto Show in coupe form, but the only coupe version of the new Viper is a limited-production (25-30 total units) full-race version that will not be street legal and should cost around $100,000.

For the production 2003 Viper SRT-10, Shikado lowered the hood lines and added creases to what was originally a very curvaceous shell. Functional changes, like a partial underbody tray and a reworked rear fascia, reduce the car's coefficient of drag by 7 percent over the previous RT/10. The louvers in the hood (now a conventional rear-hinge design) work with the large grille to effectively move air through the engine compartment. The A-pillars are three inches forward from their previous position and combine with the 2.6-inch wheelbase stretch to create larger doors for easier ingress/egress.

There's no denying the functional improvements afforded by the new Viper's exterior design (not to mention the collective sigh of relief by every new Viper owner's insurance agent due to the elimination of the expensive one-piece, hinged front end). But the question remains: Does the new design take away from the car's "Viperness?" Dodge's PR people have dubbed it the logical next step in the Viper evolution, but critics claim it's "a Corvette/Camaro/S2000 knockoff."

Having experienced the car in person, we can tell you that, from the driver seat, the two vehicles give a completely different visual impression. In the original you looked out a short windscreen over a smooth, gently curving hood, similar in effect to sitting in a high-powered speedboat. In the 2003 model the narrow, flat and ridged hood is bracketed on each side by fenders that rise, almost violently, up to sharp ridges before quickly dropping away again. To this author's eye, the new design doesn't seem any "less cartoonish," but it does seem less cohesive.

Scratch the surface of the 2003 Viper SRT-10 and you'll find many of the same basic ingredients that made the original an automotive icon. The front-mounted V10 engine remains, but a new bored and stroked aluminum block bumps displacement from 488 to 505 cubic inches. Peak horsepower climbs to 500 at 5,600 rpm, while torque tops out at a nose-flattening 525 pound-feet at 4,200 rpm (with 90 percent of that torque available from 1,500 to 5,600 rpm). The previous Tremec T56 six-speed manual transmission is retained in the new model, but internal components have been updated to deal with the 2003 model's increased power.

This drivetrain rests in an updated chassis that offers a 31-percent increase in torsional rigidity (Dodge claims it's stiffer than the outgoing 2002 GTS Coupe). The Viper's four-wheel independent suspension has also been revised to give the car greater predictability when driven at its limit. Being the responsible automotive journalists that we are, we didn't drive the Viper at its limit, but we drove a 2003 model back to back with a 2002 RT/10 and can confirm that the new version offers noticeable gains in ride quality and handling. Over rutted pavement, where the old model felt skittish and jarring, the 2003 SRT-10 was composed and confident.

Stopping confidence was no doubt enhanced by the new Viper's improved Brembo brake calipers that grab 14-inch rotors (front and rear). Antilock brakes are standard, and Chrysler is claiming a 60-to-0 braking distance of less than 100 feet. Brake pedal modulation and overall feel are much improved (and appreciated) compared with the old model.

Assisting the car's braking, acceleration and handling prowess are a vast assortment of tires and wheels; up front roll 18-by-10-inch forged-aluminum wheels with 275/35ZR18 Michelin tires. The Viper's colossal rear wheels are the widest stock wheels offered on a U.S. production car. At 19-by-13 inches, and wearing 345/30ZR19 tires, these units did an impressive job of containing the car's horsepower. In fact, the Viper's immense contact patches and lengthened wheelbase combine to give the Dodge a surprisingly buttoned-down feel when accelerating out of sharp corners. We could still rotate the Viper using the throttle pedal, but it required a heavier foot than in the previous version. Generally speaking, that's a good thing...unless you were a big fan of the old car's easy-to-rotate (some might dub "precarious") nature.

Nobody was a big fan of the original Viper interior. As one of the last modern production cars with kit carlike build quality, the Viper constantly took hits for it low-grade cockpit. The new model has addressed this issue with a complete cabin makeover. It still feels like a Viper inside, but now it's a Viper interior that wants to be taken seriously. A large, center-mounted tachometer sits next to a 220-mph speedometer. Additional gauges reside between the speedometer and center console, angled toward the driver, and all of them have a refined, professional-grade appearance rather than the toylike quality of previous models. Pedal placement is directly in front of the driver, and the long-requested dead pedal finally makes an appearance (though the tight footwell area makes it difficult to utilize). Seat comfort and controls are improved while real metal is used for the interior door latches and shifter boot ring; there's even a real center console storage compartment (but no cupholders — as specifically requested by Viper owners). The audio system similarly made the leap from "slapped-in" aftermarket unit to a fully integrated head unit, complete with a six-disc, in-dash CD changer.

Perhaps the biggest change to the new Viper is its fully-collapsible top. It must be manually operated, but the bi-fold design is easy to manipulate after popping the single windshield header latch. Opening the trunk allows the top to stow neatly below the trunk lid for a clean appearance. The rear window is glass and can be heated to clear fog.

Performance, as one might expect, is almost otherworldly. Of course, the old car was no slug, and, truth be told, it wasn't instantly apparent that the new Viper was any quicker. Let's be honest, once a vehicle is making 460 horsepower, another 40 isn't going to change your impression of it. The previous Viper was fast. The new Viper is fast. Any statement beyond that will require a radar gun and a computer. Dodge tells us the new car is 100 pounds lighter than the outgoing model (much of that reduction coming from a one-piece magnesium dash, magnesium folding top, run-flat tires — meaning no spare — and a lighter exhaust system). Add 40 horsepower while taking away 100 pounds and you're bound to get a quicker vehicle. Throw in a wider rear-wheel footprint to aid off-the-line traction and you could be talking high 11-second quarter-mile times, or better.

This kind of performance matches up nicely to the new Performance Vehicle Operations (PVO) philosophy. PVO is the in-house tuner division of Chrysler, and for Dodge the goal is to produce vehicles that are the fastest, most powerful models in their respective market segments. The "SRT" badge stands for "Street and Racing Technology" and the upcoming Ram SRT-10 and Neon-based SRT-4 are supposed to continue the standard set by this new Viper.

Certainly, at $79,995, plus $800 in destination charges, the 2003 Viper SRT-10 is not the cheapest vehicle in its market segment, but it will likely offer the best performance. The only option is exterior color, which comes down to black, red or silver. Hopefully, nobody out there is trying to decide which shade of Viper they want — with only 1,500 being built for 2003, and all of them spoken for by current Viper owners, you've either already made your color decision — or you won't be given that opportunity.

Yet another example of how quickly the new Viper will move.

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