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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Ripping across the Arizona desert in a new limited edition of the most powerful American sports car is good, clean fun. Isn’t it?
Not behind the wheel of the grand touring variation of Dodge's awesome Viper, it isn’t. It’s big, dirty fun. The Viper GTS coupe totes an enormous engine, with 10 cylinders of muscle pumping up the strength of 460 hp, translated through six forward gears into downright frightening linear speed.
And now it’s gotten even more soiled with the new limited-edition American Club Racer (ACR).
The ACR’s styling cues, drawn from Viper's GTS-R world-champion GT2 race car, give the first clue to its mission. More powerful by 10 hp, lighter by 60 pounds, and fine-tuned with GTS-R shocks and Meritor springs, this snake makes the most of its 18-inch high-performance Michelin Pilot Sport tires.
The result? A steroid-induced Viper that can blow everything else off the road.
Did we mention it’s street-legal?
Not only legal but destined to be quite rare. Fewer than 200 units will be cast at Viper's Conner Avenue Assembly Plant in Detroit. The ACR is one of three 1999 production variations for Dodge's supercar and another in the string of not-so-subtle variations that have prolonged its shelf life since it made its debut in 1992.
The ACR is based on the GTS coupe, which was added to the lineup in 1996 as Viper's first hardtop, with concessions like glass side windows and exterior door latches. For 1999, both coupe and roadster continue, although each now sports four huge 18-inch aluminum wheels and six paint choices — including red, silver or black.
Beneath the dramatic shape, there's a classic arrangement of components in a tubular steel space frame, with the engine up front and rear-wheel drive setting the stage for a neo-interpretation of an earlier snake on pavement: Carroll Shelby's '60s-vintage Cobra.
In any iteration, Viper contains no compromises. It looks vicious, with an exaggerated prow and curt tail. It’s all engine, with sparse cockpit space and room for only the driver and a close companion.
Viper’s fully independent front and rear suspensions employ unequal-length upper and lower A arms with coil-over springs of alloy steel and high-performance gas-charged shocks. For the ACR, Dodge kept the cast-aluminum suspension components that had been prepared for the GTS coupe; the steering, with its exceedingly quick and direct ratio of 16.7:1; and huge 13-inch vented brakes at all four wheels, complete with four-piston front calipers.
The tell-tale V-10
But the real pulse of any Viper comes from its humongous 8.0-liter V-10, the only 10-cylinder sports car engine outside Formula One. With a thin-wall aluminum alloy block to trim weight, the massive V-10 has a 4.0-inch bore and a 3.88-inch stroke. Horsepower is a stratospheric 450 hp, torque an awesome 490 foot-pounds.
Subtle tweaks for the ACR net an additional 10 hp and 50 foot-pounds more of torque. Engine modifications for the ACR were limited to adding smooth intake hoses and a free-breathing air filter to provoke better airflow, but 60 pounds of excess weight were whittled away from the production GTS by removing Viper's air conditioner, fog lamps and stereo audio system.
A sophisticated six-speed manual gearbox, with synch shifting and reverse lockout, mates to Viper's monster engine. Thank goodness Viper has adjustable foot pedals which can move mechanically up to 4 inches in fore-aft range to adapt to an individual driver's legs.
A tight fit
The interior fits tight like Spandex. Twin bucket seats trimmed in comfy perforated leather contain firm cushioning for lateral support when cornering. A three-spoke magnesium steering wheel, wrapped in leather, tilts and telescopes to adjust. Among various instruments in the cluster, the speedometer calibrates to 200 mph.
Safety systems include twin airbags and steel cage construction with steel beams in side doors. No anti-lock brakes or traction control are offered. The ACR competition package makes the Viper a race-ready entry for American GT contests — it's equipped with all of the necessities, including five-point safety belts.
The chance to play with a black ACR Viper occurred recently at Scottsdale, with substantial front-end time devoted to squeezing into the tight cockpit and cinching up the five-point racing harness.
Crank it over and the throaty rumble of Viper's massive engine shakes the body and sends shivers through the skin in anticipation of lightening-quick action. Run fast up the gears and Viper pins shoulders to seat through the first four, each increment building speed and driver's pulse. In turns, it acts with uncanny agility, hunkering low and sticking hard around every bend. How fast is it? In Dodge trials, the Viper GTS ran from 0 to 60 mph in only 4.3 seconds. My unofficial top speed on a track clicked several points beyond 175 mph.
The Viper GTS lists for $68,222, plus a $700 delivery fee and some $3,000 in gas-guzzler taxes. To get the ACR package, plug another $10,000 into the equation. To recover your wallet once you’ve driven one — you’ll have to ask someone else how to do that.