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More is better. It's the simple credo of the sports car aficionado. So any time you can add 8 percent more power, it's cause for celebration. But when you're talking about the Dodge Viper roadster, that adds up to some even more impressive numbers. In this case: 450. As in horsepower. As in neck-snapping acceleration.
The Viper has never been short of power. Even when it first rolled out of the factory in 1992, there was enough torque to smoke rubber in three gears. But the difference in performance with the '97 roadster (above, in front of the '97 GTS coupe) is nonetheless obvious, as we learned on a tight little handling course set up on the tar lake at Chrysler's Arizona Proving Grounds. But more on that in a moment.
The Viper roadster is just coming back into production after a year's hiatus. It was put on hold so Chrysler could move production to a new plant and then launch the all-new Viper GTS coupe. You hear a lot about continuous improvement from Detroit these days, and both the roadster and the coupe have gone through some changes. But they still live up to the program's original, simple and straightforward philosophy, stresses John Fernandez, the new head of the Viper program who has earned a long list of credits in the racing and performance field. Unlike most Japanese sports cars—and even the new Corvette—the Viper is a paean to the past, to the era when a sports car meant performance and handling. Forget the bells and whistles. (Well, most of them, anyway.) We're talking Shelby Cobra as a role model.
No to side pipes, yes to real windows
It'll take a close look to see the differences between the '96 and '97 roadsters. Perhaps the most apparent cue is the lack of the massive, chromed exhaust pipes that used to curve out of the rocker panels, just behind the roadster's doors. The side pipes were a great look, but they wouldn't pass the increasingly tight noise requirements more and more states have been passing, according to Fernandez. And side exhaust pipes made it difficult to mount—and protect—the sensors needed for the new federal OBD2 onboard diagnostics system. So Chrysler borrowed the rear exhaust system developed for the GTS. Indeed, virtually every change on this year's roadster has been lifted from the coupe.