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Viper requires skilled handlers

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joe Wiesenfelder
Cars.Com / May 4, 2008

Mention the Dodge Viper in mixed company and you are sure to get a few words back, some of which I can't repeat here. The word that comes to my mind is "respect," ranging from respect for Dodge's audacity in producing this model to the respect required when driving one of the most powerful, fastest cars we have tested.

The Viper SRT10 is the least driver-friendly car we've evaluated in the sense that a race car set loose on a city street can be very unfriendly if you don't leave the Big Gulp and cellphone behind, know what you're doing, and pay close attention at all times. That said, the 2008 Viper is more livable than ever in spite of engine changes that boost output to 600 horsepower from the 510 horsepower in 2006. (The 2007 model year was skipped.)

If you think the word to describe a 600-horsepower car with a 0-to-60 miles per hour time of less than four seconds and a top speed of 200 miles per hour is "overkill," you're starting to understand the Viper. Though its size is similar to our old big blocks, the Viper's power plant breathes more fire thanks to many advancements, including variable valve timing, scientifically designed combustion chambers, and a higher compression ratio. The updated V-10 also gulps more air through a more efficient hood scoop and a large air box.

There's now a separate throttle body for each cylinder bank, for the first time employing electronic "by-wire" throttles that do a lot for efficiency and, presumably, emissions (ratings aren't available yet). Unfortunately, they also introduce the all-too-common, under-reported throttle lag. Leave the gearbox in neutral and stomp on the accelerator and you'll notice the delay. It's not outrageously long, but it's more than just annoying.

The Viper has more lift-throttle oversteer than any production car I've driven. The rear end represents 52 percent of the car's weight, and despite impossibly large tires, the tail has an agenda all its own - to go sideways at every opportunity, in almost any gear, sometimes even when going straight. Feel the rear step out abruptly, and your natural instinct is to let up on the throttle. Do it too much and the power-on oversteer turns into lift-throttle oversteer. The result is the same: The tail keeps coming around, and you're soon fighting to stave off a spinout. The Viper doesn't offer an electronic stability system, which I also respect. It keeps the car out of the hands of posers with more money than driving skill.

One change for 2008 is the updated Tremec six-speed transmission, which replaces a large clutch disc with two smaller ones inline. It decreases the rotating inertia of the larger-diameter disc and gives the pedal a more gradual take up though it's surprisingly high in the pedal travel.

I lived with the Viper for a week, using it for everything I would use any car for, including commuting to work. This is no luxury cruiser, but I was surprised by how livable the ride quality was. I'm a little disappointed by the lack of cruise control. It makes all kinds of sense, because it would be easy to go into a turn and lose control before there was time to shut it off. Still, I find cruise helps me keep from creeping above the speed limit.

In almost every respect, the word for the Viper is "loud." Some observers dismiss the styling as the stuff of grade-school boys' daydreams. If so, color me juvenile. The exhaust rumble is similarly obtrusive, even at idle. A few times I startled the heck out of nearby people when I started the engine.

The EPA-estimated gas mileage is 12/21 miles per gallon (city/highway). Not great, but an improvement. That's impressive stuff when it accompanies a 90-horsepower power bump. The penalty is a $1,700 gas-guzzler tax. The Viper inspires disgust among the environmentally conscious, but Dodge sells roughly 1,500 of them a year. The greater environmental problem comes from the millions of Ford Explorers and the like that Americans drove for 10 years.

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