So much for the “Valley of the Sun” — it’s a freezing cold January morning in the Arizona desert, and it poses the morning’s first big question: should we put the top up? With the original Dodge Viper RT/10, the answer likely would have been a resounding “no.” The roadster’s fold-up “toupette” was as ungainly as the folding lawn chair in a Laurel & Hardy short that would always collapse as someone went to sit down. So, with the Viper, you were more likely than not to brave the elements even in a hardy downpour.
Of course, this is the new Viper and it actually has a top easy enough to operate with one hand. Thanks for small miracles. But there are plenty of other, far bigger changes coming with the upcoming introduction of the first complete remake of the legendary Dodge sports car.
It’s hard to believe, but in model-year 2002 the Viper was the oldest vehicle in the Dodge fleet , and despite a continuous stream of improvements and upgrades, the original model was undeniably showing its age. The 2003 is designed to keep kicking asp with a blend of its traditional brute power and an assortment of new features that might actually be described as, well, “refined,” much to the consternation of Herb Helbig. During development, recalls the Viper team leader, “People kept saying we were civilizing the car. That kept me up with nightmares.”
Less is more
During a visit to Phoenix a few months back, TheCarConnection got an opportunity to take the eagerly-awaited ’03 for a spin around DaimlerChrysler’s Arizona Proving Grounds. The prototype we drove was still undergoing final tuning and tweaking, so there may be some subtle changes before the bodacious two-seater hits showrooms later this year. But the 2003 Dodge Viper remains at heart true to its original mission. It’s aimed, says Helbig, at “the guy who likes to rip large chunks of pavement out as he goes around a corner.”
2003 Dodge Viper SRT
2003 Dodge ViperEnlarge Photo
First some basic specs: the Viper’s wheelbase has been lengthened three inches, most of that behind the driver. That gives a better balance between ride comfort and handling. So does the new frame, which is 35 percent stiffer. Though longer, the ‘03 now weighs in at 3350 pounds, a full 100 pounds less than the last-generation roadster. That translates into an even more audacious power-to-weight ratio.
The heart of the Viper, its big V-10 has grown from 488 cubic inches to 505. (For the metric-minded, that’s a hefty 8.3 liters.) It now puts out 500 horsepower and 500 foot-pounds of torque, power that comes on strong from the moment your foot first makes contact with the accelerator pedal. The engine is mated to a carryover six-speed Tremec manual gearbox.
Some of the refinements of the ’03 will be welcomed by even the most die-hard snake fans, like the repositioned pedals that make it easier to do heel-and-toe shifts. There’s even a dead pedal for that wandering left foot. As noted, there’s a real ragtop now, and a far more sophisticated interior, but here the emphasis is on performance. The tachometer is the dominant instrument in the cluster. Secondary gauges have been arranged in a column along the center stack angled in cockpit fashion to make them quick and easy to read. A new radio with a six-CD in-dash changer adds another “500” to the Viper’s statistics—500 watts of sound.
2003 Dodge ViperEnlarge Photo
Mounted just below the audio faceplate, there’s an all-new climate control system providing far more control over heating and air conditioning. You can aim them at will, allowing you to extend your driving season—at least until the snow gets too deep for the Viper’s massive tires. We’re talking 18-inch, low-profile Michelin Run-Flats up front and 19-inchers in the rear. (Those 345-30ZR19s measure a full 13.5 inches across, making them the biggest tires on any North American production vehicle.)
2003 Dodge Viper SRT
Clambering into a Viper has never been a job for the arthritic. You have to slide your way across the big sills that conceal the side pipes. That’s right: the 2003 revives the side-mounted exhaust pipes found on early versions of the roadster. They’re a bit better insulated now and less likely to scald someone wearing shorts or a skirt. Or worse, a short skirt.
The ‘03’s new seats fit like cocoons. They’re much more comfortable and supportive than those in the old car. They have real attitude. And they’re ready to accept six-point seatbelts which, at the time of our test, Dodge was likely to offer as an option.
To fire up the V-10, press the “Start” button mounted just in front of the gear shifter. Apparently, even Team Viper couldn’t ignore a good fad. Like a snake coiled and ready to strike, the roadster roars to life, seeming anxious to get into gear. And it doesn’t take much more than a touch of your right foot to realize that this is still a true Viper. The sheer power is eye-bulging. Combined with the grip of those big tires, the sensation is a blend of confidence and exhilaration. Each lap around the Proving Grounds’ short oval goes by a bit faster than before, the roadster firmly planted near the crest of the steeply banked loop. But the course is a little too short and tight to test the 190-mph top speed claimed for the ’03.
As we settle into the run, other details start to stand out, like the engine’s distinctive new exhaust note. A V-10 may produce plenty of power, but unlike a V-8 or V-12, it’s not the type of engine layout that naturally produces a pleasing sound. The old car could sound, at times, more like a UPS truck than a sports car. So Team Viper put in countless hours in the acoustic labs, an effort that paid off with a much more pleasant sound that underscores, rather than belies the car’s raw torque.
2003 Dodge Viper SRT
One thing missing, by the way, is the unpleasant sensation of wind buffeting that could be overwhelmingly cruel to anyone taking a high-speed run in the old RT/10 roadster. The focus on aerodynamics, which yields significantly greater downforce for the new car, also helps minimize air turbulence in the passenger compartment.
Handling the snake
Where the new Viper’s torque truly became apparent was on the handling track, a tight, weaving course of red cones laid out on a sea of smooth asphalt. A course like this offers a good opportunity to see if all the pieces come together because you’re using the accelerator, brakes, steering wheel and chassis dynamics to make it through as fast as possible.
One of the first things we discovered about the new 2003 Viper is how much more predictable it is than the car it replaces. Steering is precise and once you get the basic feel of the car, you can easily use the throttle and brakes to point your way through a hard corner.
That’s not to say it’s an easy car to drive, at least not when you’re pushing the limits. Some of the newest sports cars have gotten so refined you feel like you could run a race with one arm fiddling with the radio. “You’re not going to have one arm wrapped around your girlfriend,” laughed Helbig, demonstrating his own technique on the handling course. It takes concentration to practice to push this car to the limits. It may be more manageable, but the Viper hasn’t been tamed.
Just how fast off the line is the new car? They’re still finalizing those specs, but 0-60 times well under four seconds are a certainty. After all, the new car has to at least maintain, if not widen, its lead over the Corvette Z06, which posts a time of 3.9-seconds.
2003 Dodge Viper SRT
Straight-line acceleration is only part of the new Viper equation. The roadster’s big Brembo brakes scrub off speed in a heartbeat, and the ABS system ensures you stop in a straight line. Helbig confidently expects to beat the USAC record of 0-100 and back to zero, currently standing at 14.7 seconds. The goal is 14.2 seconds.
Performance may be the soul of this snake charmer, but style was a big part of the original Viper appeal. Few cars could match its macho excess. Here’s where the new Viper has come in for its sharpest tongue-lashing since the covers were first lifted at the Detroit auto show. There’s no question the new car is a striking exercise in design, but it simply doesn’t have the same curvaceous, over-the-top panache. While those at the Chrysler design studios in Auburn Hills, Mich., insist they had complete control of the project, the 2003 Viper nonetheless has a more European flair to it; it is less of the extreme American machine of the original.
To some, that might actually be a welcome change. Attractive? Absolutely. And the design is far more functional. The horse collar grille is a third larger than before to improve engine breathing. The higher deck lid delivers significantly more downforce, especially at high speeds. And it conceals a trunk that’s actually able to store some luggage. But the second-generation roadster isn’t quite as likely to catch the eye and imagination of road warrior wannabes. If Helbig has any reason to worry, it’s that the new car almost looks too refined.
The styling debate is likely to continue long after the new car hits showrooms in October. But once a few of the 2003 Vipers get on the street, there’ll be little debate over its performance. The new car may wear a more refined look, but under the skin, it’s still got that brute force that made the Viper a legend in its own time.
Base price: $75,000 (est.)
Engine: 8.3-liter V-10, 500 hp
Transmission: six speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 175.5 X 84.8 x 47.6 in
Wheelbase: 98.8 in
Curb weight : 3357 lb
EPA City/Hwy: N/A
Safety equipment: dual front airbags, security alarm, pretensioning seatbelts
Major standard equipment: keyless entry, tilt steering wheel, six-disc in-dash CD changer