You don’t so much drive a Viper as wear it; it’s a four-wheeled codpiece, the ultimate extension of machismo.
For those looking to spin their tires and turn some heads, it’s hard to find anything else that competes—certainly not for the price. “For my money, you can’t buy a better car, certainly nothing faster,” is how comedian, car collector and longtime Viper aficionado Jay Leno sums things up. And the long-running popularity of the original roadster—now the oldest passenger car in the entire Chrysler line-up—suggests there are plenty of “common” folk who would readily agree.
Those considering the menacing Dodge sports car should be aware up front that the Viper is a brute but charming anachronism in a world where high-tech has become the watchword, even for the “purest” of high-performance products. Chrysler’s big V-10 roadster often is compared to its cross-town rival, the Chevrolet Corvette. But Chevy’s latest sports car incarnation is a miracle of modern computer science. Microprocessors oversee every turn of the drivetrain. Grudgingly, the Viper team conceded the fight and accepted the addition of anti-lock brakes, but stability and traction control remain verboten on the low-slung Dodge.
Ten years after its debut, Viper remains true to the mission laid out by former Chrysler President Bob Lutz. This isn’t a sports car for poseurs. If you’re looking for a car to go cruising with your arm around your baby, you’ve come to the wrong place.
Stomp on the accelerator and Viper’s 450-horsepower, 488-cubic-inch V-10 roars to life with an intimidating burst of torque. It’s 18-inch Michigan Pilot Sport tires scream like a banshee, and the tail fishes from side to side, like an angry shark ready to strike. Push it to the rev limiter, and you’ll be running the risk of a ticket on most roadways even before you shift to second gear. If you’re fast with the shifter, you’re likely to leave rubber all the way up to third gear. Look through the haze in the rearview mirror and you’ll see even the mighty Corvette Z06 fading away.
2001 Dodge Viper SRT
Make sure your insurance is paid up. If you have a Viper, you’re going to wind up driving it hard. And it’s ready to deliver—if you’re willing to work for it. This car is a handful.
Since its debut in 1992, Viper has gone through some notable changes. The original roadster has gained a sibling, the GTS coupe, which now accounts for the majority of Viper sales. Today’s roadster is a hybrid of the original, open-topped sports car and the stiffer-bodied, driver-friendlier coupe. Gone are the ‘92’s zip-up side curtains, for one thing. There are real, power windows and outside door handles. In 1997, a new engine added an extra 50 horsepower.
The cumbersome “toupette” has also been replaced by a removable composite roof. That’s a mixed blessing. Odds were you’d be soaked before you’d get it assembled if you waited for the first raindrops to start falling before you pulled it out of the Viper’s minimalist trunk.. And when it was in place, the toupette made the interior feel cramped to the point of claustrophobia. The new bubble top makes it easier to seat a pair of six-footers, but it’s far too big for the trunk. So if you’re traveling without it, you’d better be ready to brave the elements.
The original roadster’s side-mounted exhaust pipes have been rerouted, to the chagrin of some Viper aficionados. But if you’ve ever burned your legs getting in and out of the original, it may not be much of a loss. In the process Viper’s tight little development team has improved the sound of the engine a bit, though there’s no way to completely disguise the truck-like origins—and sound—of a V-10.
Much remains pure to the original Viper vision, down to the mechanical side-view mirrors. The interior is minimalist to the point of spartan. The sound system has been upgraded, and now can be heard over the engine, even at 80. Viper’s bucket seats are right out of the ‘60s. They’re bound to please purists who simply want to be held, glove-like, in hard turns, without needing a separate manual to understand all the controls and settings.
2001 Dodge Viper SRT
The trade-off? A car that’s going to make you aware of every crack and pothole in the pavement. Unlike some modern sports cars, you can’t point and press the accelerator. You need to work to win, and you’ll pay a price if you think of making this anything close to a daily driver.
Our other complaints? We’d like a smoother-shifting transmission than the current, six-speed manual. Getting in and out, even with the top off is an exercise that would challenge a yogi.
One thing to keep in mind if you’re considering a Viper: you need to enjoy the idea of being an exhibitionist. Even if you never spin the wheels, you’re going to draw plenty of attention with this roadster. And it’s interesting the type of interest people take. During a week behind the wheel, we heard plenty of horns honking, with a surprising number of folks waving and giving the thumbs-up—including the driver of a Z06 we thoroughly overwhelmed during a run down the interstate late one night. Children run over when you pull into parking lots, and the dreamy stares from attractive young women made it feel like 20 years had suddenly melted off our Baby Boom body.
This is the final year of production for the current generation Viper. An all-new model will go into production for an early 2003 model-year launch. The numbers are impressive. Its displacement increases to 503 cubic inches, and the pony count jumps to 500, with 500 lb-ft of torque. The ’03 will feature swept-back fenders and a lower hood, and its improved aerodynamics should significantly improve performance—if not Viper’s unquenchable thirst for fuel. But the new model loses a little of the original’s retro American styling. There are certain to be waiting lists, yet plenty of purists are also rushing to the showrooms hoping to drive home in one of the originals.
The Viper roadster is certainly not for everyone. It’s hard work to drive, but for those who crave such minimalist pleasures, it’s a unique experience.
Base price: $69,225
Engine: 8.0-liter V-10, 450 hp
Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 96.2 in
Length: 176.2 in
Width: 75.7 in
Height: 44.0 in
Curb Weight: 3424 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 11/20 mpg
Safety equipment: Anti-lock brakes, dual front airbags with disabler for passenger side, internal trunk release
Major standard features: air conditioning, AM/FM/CD with six speakers, tilt wheel, power windows and door locks, manual side mirrors, removable hard top
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles