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Right after it secured $1.2 billion in loans backed by the full faith and treasury of the United States government in 1979, Chrysler set about the serious business of building very lucrative and very uninteresting vehicles. First there were the original front-drive 1981 K-Cars (Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant) that were boxier than most boxes and so dull that even public utility fleet managers wished they had more pizzazz. Then came variations on the K-Car platform ranging from the revolutionary (the brilliant 1984 Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans) to the agonizingly forgettable (1985 Plymouth Caravelle). Sure, Chrysler was able to rapidly pay back those loans and return to profitability, but the corporation was boring itself to death. Then came the Viper.
The Concept: 1989
First displayed as a concept vehicle at Detroit's North American International Auto Show in January 1989, the Viper was everything the K-Cars weren't; sleek, ludicrously impractical, blatantly provocative and ridiculously fast thanks to a massive 8.0-liter overhead-valve V10. Remember, at that time Carroll Shelby was still associated with Chrysler and the Viper was explicitly endorsed by him as a worthy successor to his own 427 Cobra from the mid-'60s.
"The Viper RT/10 is an important showcar for three reasons," commented Road & Track upon first encountering the concept machine. "First, if produced, it will be a heavily muscled sports car with one of the most powerful and unusual production engines in the world — an 8.0-liter V10. In fact, just one hitch slows the current engine program: the lack of a dynamometer with sufficient torque-absorption capacity┐. Second, Viper is a styling signpost that strongly indicates a leap beyond the tightly stretched skins or shells of the Ford aero eggs. Call it sheet metal baroque. Advocates describe the Viper body as passionate, complex and voluptuous. Critics say its form treads a line that borders on the grotesque.
"And third, the Viper was conceived as an exercise in mechanical minimalism. In an era when even econoboxes can be had with all-wheel drive, compact disc players and bun-warming electric seats, this Dodge is a stripped-down, rear-drive throwback. One insider said this car may not even come with a top if it makes it into production."
While it was just a concept, the Viper shown at Detroit in 1989 was an amazingly complete one and full of features that would find their way into the production machine a few years later. There was the 8.0-liter (488-cubic-inch) V10 with 4.0-inch cylinder bores and a 3.9-inch stroke. It was backed by a six-speed manual transmission. The ladder frame under the fiberglass body was similar to what would find its way into production, the all-independent suspension was more or less production correct in general specification and the three-spoke wheels with steamroller tires predicted what was to come, too. There was no roof or roll-down windows.
However, when the concept was shown, Dodge was still talking in terms of 300 horsepower from the V10 (and 450 pound-feet of torque) and showed that V10 with an iron cylinder block. The production Viper would, of course, get a Lamborghini-developed aluminum block.
The Viper Concept was nothing less than a sensation, with show crowds mesmerized by the sheer spectacle of a car so defiantly out of step with political correctness. This wasn't some sort of alternate-fuel vehicle pointing the way to a diminished future, but a beast looking to feast on fossil fuel and fry rubber. And it looked the part, too.
"The body shape really harkens back to the cars of the early to mid-'60s," said Neil Walling, then Chrysler's director of advanced and international design (under then-design chief Tom Gale), to Road & Track at the concept's debut. "Jaguars and, of course, Cobras. They were very full-bodied shapes. That had very full, round fenders. The current aero shape tends to be more of a single round shape. But the cars we looked to had more forms. More negative and positive forms. And, obviously, they were very wheel-oriented also. In the Cobra's case, they took the AC and put larger wheels and tires on it. And then they had to force the sheet metal out around them, which, of course, created the shape. If you look at the cars that came before the Cobra era in the early to mid-'50s, they were kind of flat-sided. But the tops of the forms were fairly round and fairly soft. And when you got to the '60s, they got some plan-view shape to go with that other direction or shape. The result of all that was very soft, very round. There have been so many high-tech midengine rocket ships that this seems almost a simplistic delight. There's no pretense about this car. It makes great gobs of power and puts it through enormous wheels."
Reaction to the concept was overwhelming; it was the only thing anyone talked about at the Detroit show, the media covered it as if Abraham Lincoln had returned from the dead just to drive it and suddenly kids worldwide had something new to draw during study hall. Some said the only question that remained was whether Dodge had the audacity — the beryllium-titanium alloy balls — to put it into production. Others thought Dodge had no choice: If it didn't put the Viper into production it risked having an angry (and probably armed) mob camped out in front of its headquarters for a decade. Which of those groups was right is open to speculation.
All that really matters is that the Viper became a production reality just three years later.
Viper RT/10 Roadster (1992-'95)
At first glance the original production Viper is almost indistinguishable from the concept car. Just as with the concept, the production Viper RT/10 had a side-mounted exhaust, a one-piece nose that seemed a mile long, giant scallop scoops running from the front fenders into the doors, three-spoke 17-inch diameter wheels wrapped in astoundingly wide Michelin XGT-Z tires (P275/40ZR17 fronts and ungodly P335/35ZR17 rears), room for only two people, no real top, no outside door handles and no side windows. Of course compromises had been made for production; the windshield was larger and taller, there was a hoop behind the cockpit to offer some semblance of rollover protection, there were larger headlights and the rearview mirrors were sized so that they might actually reflect what was behind the car. Most couldn't tell the difference between the concept and production Vipers and those that could tell, didn't mind.
Mechanically the production Viper also hewed very closely to what was shown in the concept. There was an 8.0-liter overhead-valve V10 under the hood, a Tremec T-56 six-speed manual transmission behind it and an all-independent suspension (unequal-length A-arms and coil springs in front and back) mounted to the tubular steel chassis. The brakes were enormous (13 inches in diameter in front, 12 in the back) discs at each corner without ABS, the steering was by rack-and-pinion and the fiberglass body was almost phallic in its provocative shape. Let's not be obtuse here — the original Viper was and continues to be visually one of the most astonishing production cars to ever be built wholly in the United States. To some people it just didn't seem possible that something like the Viper could be sold legally in the United States of Nanny Laws.
While Dodge was talking about 300 hp when it showed the Viper as a concept, the all-aluminum V10 that went into production overdelivered that by a full third with a rating of 400 hp at 4,600 rpm and a locomotive-ready 450 lb-ft of peak torque at 3,600 rpm. For 1992 those numbers were most impressive.
Car and Driver snagged the first test of the Viper RT/10 and timed it ripping to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds and crushing the quarter-mile in 13.2 seconds at 107 mph. Both those numbers were better than the times the same magazine had generated for that other domestic performance icon of the early '90s, the Corvette ZR-1. "And with the wind ripping new configurations in your eyebrows and the engine in full honk," wrote C&D in its initial test, "you're not going to give one whit about absent windows or door handles. Because this Viper is one of the most exciting rides since Ben Hur discovered the chariot."
A later test of the '92 Viper RT/10 by Car and Driver had the acceleration improving. That car rocketed to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds and ran the quarter-mile in 13.1 seconds at 108 mph. The test compared the Viper to one of the "continuation" Cobra 427SCs Carroll Shelby was building at that time. That Cobra leapt to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds and destroyed the quarter-mile in just 12.6 seconds at 110 mph.
Still there was room for criticisms in the Viper and the most common one concerned its sound. "Lighting off 10 799cc cylinders will always arouse the spirit," Car and Driver reported. "The sound that follows, unfortunately, doesn't. Good mechanical business and a hungry-mouth intake roar comes from the front, but the separate five-cylinder, side-outlet exhaust plumbing gave the engineers fits. They couldn't tune in a melodious note and meet the federal 80-decibel noise limit. So the Viper sounds oddly like a UPS truck up to 3,000 rpm, then it just roars like God's own Dustbuster."
With such vast tires aboard, of course there was plenty of grip available. But the relatively short 96.2-inch wheelbase (the 1995 Dodge Neon subcompact later sold alongside the Viper RT/10 had a 104.0-inch wheelbase) and stiff springs meant that the car could be twitchy on rougher roads and unforgiving on even the smoothest surface when its (very high) limits of adhesion had been exceeded.
Of course the Viper RT/10 was ludicrously impractical — just getting past the often scalding hot side exhausts could be a challenge. And buying one in 1992 meant paying $55,630, plus a $1,700 gas-guzzler tax.
While the Viper didn't go on sale until 1992, it first appeared in public at the 1991 Indianapolis 500. Originally Dodge had agreed to supply the Dodge Stealth R/T as the pace car for the 74th running of the Memorial Day classic and that 300-hp, twin-turbocharged, all-wheel-drive coupe was more than capable of handling the job. But then someone mentioned that the Stealth R/T was in fact a re-dressed Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4 and assembled in Japan. An uproar of sorts then ensued — American cars had always paced the race and a lot of Indy fans didn't want to see a Japanese car taking that job. So Dodge pulled the Stealth R/T off pacing duties and quickly cobbled together a prototype Viper to pace the race that year. So it's that prototype Viper RT/10 that Carroll Shelby piloted at the start of the 500 in 1991 and it's that car that currently resides (and will likely forever reside) in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's museum.
Dodge didn't touch the Viper in any significant way for 1993. And except for some new colors, the addition of air-conditioning to the options list and a few tweaks like integrating the radio antenna into the windshield, it didn't change much for 1994 or 1995 either. But changes were coming: One magnificent addition and some significant revisions.
GTS Coupe and Viper RT/10 Roadster (1996-2002)
As spectacular-looking as the Viper RT/10 roadster was, the 1996 Viper GTS coupe was even more so. With a roof obviously inspired by the classic Cobra Daytona coupes Shelby American used to win the FIA GT Championship in 1965 and an aggressive ducktail rear spoiler, the GTS Coupe looked simply stunning in vivid Shelby Blue with classic white stripes. It was hard to believe any car could top the original Viper for visual impact. It took another Viper to do it.
Besides the new roof the GTS included such exciting features as roll-up side windows and exterior door handles. Also, the exhaust was rerouted out the back to produce a significantly more pleasing sound and output of the significantly updated 8.0-liter V10 swelled up to 450 hp. Also aboard for the first time were OBD-II emissions controls, aluminum links in the suspension system, dual front airbags and a lighter-weight frame.
That rear exit exhaust also made it to the 1996 RT/10 roadster, which was enough to bump output of its V10 to 415 hp. The roadster also got an improved optional fabric top with better weather sealing.
A production Viper GTS paced the 1996 Indianapolis 500, setting up even more good news for 1997 as the updated 450-hp V10 and airbags from the GTS made it over to the RT/10 roadster.
Edmunds.com got its first exposure to the Viper during a comparison test run in 2000. However, since Chrysler wasn't forthcoming with a Viper for the site back then, we were forced to rent a 1997 GTS from Budget Rent-a-Car in Beverly Hills. That car finished 4th — behind the Corvette, Acura NSX-T and Porsche 911 — in the test.
"Upon stepping into the Viper, my initial thought was 'Damn, that burns!'" our writer reported. "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 sheet metal whether entering or exiting the ride. Minus one point for comfort."
The major complaints were the bland, poorly finished interior, the car's uncivilized around-town behavior and its lack of practicality. "The Dodge Viper is one of the least practical sports cars money can buy," our writer concluded. "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."
For the record, the rented Viper GTS hit 60 mph in 4.8 seconds in the high altitude of California's Willow Springs raceway. If there's one thing the Edmunds.com writers of way back then couldn't deny, it was that the Viper GTS was hair-on-fire quick.
Revisions to the exhaust system, an "Off" switch for the passenger-side airbag and tweaking of the cam specs were all part of the changes to both the Viper GTS coupe and Viper RT/10 roadster for 1998. But except for a new metallic silver paint color, everything else was carryover.
A new "American Club Racer" (ACR) package was part of the Viper offerings for 1999. Intended for buyers who would use their cars on tracks instead of merely on roads, the ACR included one-piece BBS 18-inch wheels, Koni shocks, special springs, a K&N air filter and specific badging. With those changes, output of the ACR Vipers grew to 460 hp. The "regular" Vipers also got 18-inch wheels during '99 and a few other tweaks, but were otherwise very familiar.
There were few changes to the 2000 Vipers other than further refinement of the ACR package. Edmunds.com pitted a 2000 Viper GTS ACR against the Corvette Z06 and Ford SVT Mustang Cobra R in a 2001 comparison test. It finished 3rd.
"Before all the Viper lovers start firing off nastygrams," explained our Brent Romans in the comparison, "allow us to make the following statement: If you want to own the car that comes closest to an SCCA Trans-Am racecar or NHRA drag car, then the Viper should be your pick. The Mustang Cobra R is one of the fastest cars out there and the Viper absolutely shellacked it as far as pure numbers go. Let your mind pulse joyously over these results: zero to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds. A quarter-mile time of 12.3 seconds at 115.9 mph. Of our five instrumented performance tests, the Viper took 1st place in four. On the road course, its fastest lap time was more than 3 seconds faster than the Cobra's. How big is this margin? Racers have been known to kill their mothers in order to shave a mere 10th of a second per lap."
So what held the Viper back? "Used for mundane transportation on the freeway and urban streets, the ACR's uncompromising suspension as well as its cramped cockpit makes long-distance travel unpleasant," Romans concluded. "There is no dead pedal and entry and exit is by far the most difficult of the three because of the wide sill and small door opening. If you look at our editor's evaluations, you will see that the Viper earned the lowest scores for those criteria relating to the interior. Other than the stainless-steel shifter and hand brake, interior materials are low-grade. Switchgear is placed haphazardly and options for storage are few and far between. The optional Alpine sound system is anything but premium; you'll want to replace it with a better aftermarket system if you order the comfort group for the air-conditioning." And then there was its $86,860 price — almost $40,000 more than the winning Corvette Z06.
Standard ABS brakes made it to the Vipers for 2001, and there were a few special "Final Edition" Vipers built during 2002, but it was time for this now decade-old snake to retire. It had kicked asp in its time, but the new century needed a new Viper.
Second-Generation Viper SRT-10 (2003-Present)
Could Dodge top itself when redesigning the Viper for its second generation? Maybe. But it didn't really try, as the second Viper traded some visual impact for greater comfort and practicality. The new 2003 Viper SRT-10 was still a Viper — still quite radical and faster than ever — but dang near usable in everyday driving.
"For the production 2003 Viper SRT-10," explained Edmunds.com's Karl Brauer in his First Drive of the new roadster, "[designer Osamu] 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 3 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.'"
Actually, most of the new Viper's components were quite familiar. The chassis was a refined, slightly longer and much stiffer version of the original and the V10, though it now displaced 505 cubic inches (8.3 liters) and carried a full 500 hp at 5,600 rpm, was still very much the same V10. Even the six-speed manual transmission was a virtual carryover from the old car. But everything was refined.
"Assisting the car's braking, acceleration and handling prowess are a vast assortment of tires and wheels; up front roll 18-by-10.0-inch forged-aluminum wheels with 275/35ZR18 Michelin tires," Brauer further explained. "The Viper's colossal rear wheels are the widest stock wheels offered on a U.S. production car. At 19-by-13.0 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."
But the most noticeable change was the interior that was now covered by a real, genuinely retractable cloth convertible top. "It still feels like a Viper inside," continued Brauer, "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."
Brauer's expectations were that the new Viper SRT-10 would prove quicker than the old one, simply by dint of logic and rudimentary physics. "The previous Viper was fast. The new Viper is fast. Any statement beyond that will require a radar gun and a computer," he wrote. "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 hp 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."
We got a chance to measure that performance in our 2003 American Exotics Comparison Test, where the new Viper SRT-10 met the Corvette Z06 and Ford Mustang SVT Cobra. This new car finished 2nd to the exceedingly well-balanced Z06. "Aesthetics aside," wrote Ed Hellwig, "the Viper's more rigid frame, longer wheelbase and revised suspension tuning yield a slightly more forgiving ride on rutted roads, but don't get your hopes up — it's still a jawbreaker on city streets. Even more troublesome is the heat thrown off by the side-exit exhaust. Cruise around at residential speeds and you feel like you're piloting a 10-cylinder toaster oven. Thankfully, the improved climate control system works well enough to keep things bearable, but for the most part the Viper is still a fish out of water on city streets."
That, however, was really beside the point of the Viper. This car was wicked quick. "Drag-strip testing yielded a 0-60 time of 4 seconds flat and a quarter-mile time of just 12 seconds at over 120 mph," Hellwig reported. "All three numbers represent the fastest times we've ever recorded in their respective categories."
Ultimately, it may be that the Viper SRT-10 was too much even for us. "We like the fact that the Viper is now a more complete sports car rather than just a spec racer with a license plate," Hellwig concluded. "The fact that it loses points because its capabilities are beyond the reach of our driving skills might be a little unfair, but then again we're more the rule than the exception. The Viper may be an American exotic in the truest sense of the term, but when it comes down to picking the one car that puts it all together in the most impressive package possible, it just misses the mark."
There was some new trunk carpeting for 2004, but otherwise the Viper SRT-10 convertible soldiered forward very much unchanged from its inaugural season. There were some new colors for 2005, but not much else.
But 2006 brought with it the Viper everyone expected: the second-generation coupe. This time carrying the same Viper SRT-10 name as the top-dropper, this new coupe was more subdued in its visual presentation than the old GTS, but still mesmerizing to most anyone with any automotive passion. And horsepower output was now up to a full 510.
"Let's take a moment now, turning our thoughts to the 'coupe' part of the Dodge Viper SRT-10 Coupe," wrote Inside Line's Rich Homan on his First Drive of the freshly crowned monster. "As a convertible, the Viper is a gnashing, angry snarl. But the SRT-10 Coupe's fixed 'double-bubble' roof, like that of the Viper GTS Coupe that preceded it, finishes the design. Now, from the Viper's louvered, 10-acre hood to its kick-up rear spoiler and shrouded, wraparound taillights, nothing breaks up the scary, sexy lines formed in composite and steel.
"The only thing diminutive about the Viper Coupe is its two-seat interior. The topless Viper seemed more accommodating because it offered all the headroom in the universe. The coupe closes that option down. The long-legged especially will need to adjust the super-supportive form-fitting seats to find an acceptable headroom/legroom balance point. The pedals are set slightly left of center, and they're tightly grouped, so wear your thinnest pair of driving shoes. How tight was it in the footbox? There were times I swore the brake and accelerator were stacked right on top of one another. Made for awesome heel-and-toe work when I got used to it, however."
With both a new Corvette Z06 and the stunning Ford GT around to challenge the Viper SRT-10 coupe, a revival of the American Exotics Comparison test was inevitable for 2006. In one of the greatest conflicts yet recorded on the Internet, the Viper came in 3rd of the three. "From the very start of this comparison," wrote Chris Douglass, "it was clear the Viper SRT-10 Coupe was going to be a 3rd-place finisher. Through the entire test, it did little to change that assessment. First, it was the most difficult to live with. Getting into the seat is challenging for many. Getting out is a challenge for virtually all. The combination of its long hood and lower seating position makes it only slightly less difficult to park than an Indy car."
But more surprising was the Viper's too-tame handling. "Even when you try," Douglass continued, "the SRT-10's rear doesn't want to step out. Such a setup (combined with a now standard antilock braking system) makes the SRT-10 extremely stable, utterly forgiving and easy to master. But slow. All this is great for owners who lack racing experience, but it limits the car's ultimate lap times when piloted by a veteran. Offsetting this understeer-biased setup are the Viper's super-wide Michelin Pilot Sports, huge 275/35R18s front and gargantuan 345/30R19s on the back.
"At the test track, the only performance test it won was skid pad cornering power (which is more a tire test than a car test) at 0.95 g, and it finished 2nd in only braking (a negligible 2 feet back of the Vette's 60-0 mph), thanks to the combination of Brembo brakes, ABS and sticky tires.
"On top of all this, the SRT-10 is considerably more expensive than its more capable Z06 opposition."
For the record, the Viper SRT-10 was still warp fast — just not as quick as the Z06 and Ford GT. In the American Exotics test it sprinted down the quarter-mile in a somewhat disappointing 12.6 seconds at 117.4 mph while getting to 60 in 4.9 seconds. It should be quicker.
As this is written there are rumors of an even meaner and quicker snake coming from Dodge. (The Viper is essentially skipping the 2007 model year.) With tuning help from DaimlerChrysler-owned McLaren, by 2008 the Viper could be making somewhere near 600 horsepower from its evergreen V10.
After all, this is a car with a mandate to be outrageous.