Brutishly fast, the opposite of humble.

by Dan Carney

Base Price (MSRP) $69,225
As Tested (MSRP) $89,410

If this isn't the ultimate sports car, then surely it's the ultimate muscle car. With outrageous styling and brutal power, the Viper is a behemoth among sports cars.

The Porsche 911 and Chevrolet Corvette may be more refined and easier to drive. They may possess nearly unmatched pedigree in the sports car world. But they each convey a different image than the Viper. If the Porsche is Wagner and the Vette is Bob Seeger, then the Viper is Mettalica.

The Viper could care less about pedigree. It's about big torque and not much else. Yet, despite its sledgehammer approach to life, a dedicated enthusiast could still manage the commute to work.

Model Lineup

The Viper line has two models, the original Viper RT/10 Roadster ($69,225) and the newer Viper GTS Coupe. The RT/10's inspiration was the Shelby 427 Cobra, while the Coupe is clearly modeled after the Shelby Daytona Coupe.

Base price for the GTS Coupe is $72,225. The test car included the racetrack ready American Club Racing competition package, a $10,000 option that adds 10 horsepower, stiffens the suspension and deletes features such as air conditioning, stereo and fog lights. The $910 comfort group re-adds the A/C and the stereo.

Walkaround

The Viper is a steely eyed squint, a duster pulled back to reveal a Colt .45 holstered in a gunfighter rig. It isn't a challenge. It is a preemptive strike to would-be challengers.

Viper's styling is perfect for a road-going racecar. It is like driving Speed Racer's Mach Five. Left-lane hogs actually retreat to the right when it appears in their mirrors. The Viper is so wide and squat that it could look a little squished, if not for the slimming racing stripes.

Two new colors are available for 2001: Race Yellow and Bridgewater Blue. On yellow versions of the Viper GTS, you can get the racing stripes in black instead of white.

Those stripes, of course, are homage to the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe; the Viper GTS is the spiritual successor to that car. If you grew up thinking the Shelby coupe was the coolest-looking machine on the planet, then the Viper GTS should light your fire.

Stoke that fire further by looking under the hood. Tubular headers and cast-aluminum intake runners appear race-worthy. The bare engine block is a work of art. Its massively deep-skirted design, with six-bolt main bearings, seems clearly intended for racing despite its prosaic origins. The Viper's aluminum 8.0-liter V-10 is based on the cast-iron Dodge Ram truck engine. The six-lug wheel hubs may create the impression that the Viper has a one-ton payload capacity, but massive amounts of torque and Indy car-sized contact patches call for serious reinforcement.

Interior Features

Getting in and out of this thing is difficult. Perhaps that's why we never see TV private eyes driving Vipers.

The competition-style seats are very comfortable and supportive. They are much better than the seats in any new Porsche. The five-point harness is cool to have; I had to resist the urge to don a racing suit and helmet. But the full harness proves to be a nuisance to use around town because it is so restrictive of movement. Fortunately, the Viper also has a conventional three-point harness for daily use.

There is a mile of headroom, thanks to the Dan Gurney-style roof bubbles. They leave plenty of room for a helmet. The foot well is quite deep, as you might expect from a car with a hood as long as the Viper's, so the car can probably contain NBA-grade altitude comfortably.

The exhaust no longer exits through side pipes, as on the earlier models, but the Viper is still loud and hot inside. The good news is that the heater works very effectively in cold weather. The question is whether the air conditioner can keep up with the heat welling up through the doorsills and the sun baking in through the large rear hatch.

The hatch area is not as roomy as the Corvette's, but it is roomy enough to almost consider the Viper a practical sports car. There is plenty of space aft to haul several five-gallon jugs of racing fuel to the track. In an emergency, you could also carry half a dozen grocery bags in the back.

The Alpine stereo rocks! Who would have expected it? It seems a wonder the Viper has even a rudimentary radio, much less this killer, amped, subwoofered boom box of a stereo. Radio reception is decent, which is surprising considering its single strand of antenna embedded in the windshield. The dashboard features traditional round analog gauges, with orange-on-white graphics. They are clear, legible and nice-looking.

The pedals are positioned perfectly for heel-and-toe downshifting. But there is no dead pedal and no space for the left foot. It is awkward for long drives, or for racing. Nevertheless, the Viper proved more livable day-in and day-out than expected.

Driving Impressions

The initial impression of the Viper is that it is just too much, too massive, too rough riding, too loud, too powerful. In spite of how fast it feels, the speed is deceptive. Wind it up in second and you're doing 70 mph; 100 comes quickly after shifting into third. In other words, this thing feels fast because it is fast. Corners come up quickly.

If American muscle cars are renowned for having bags of torque, the Viper supplies its torque in Hefty Cinch Saks. Try to contain the Viper's power in an ordinary trash bag and you'll be left with messy foot-pounds all over the driveway.

First gear seems too low for anything but straight-line launches. Press too anxiously on the gas pedal when the Viper is in first gear and not pointed straight and the car will soon be facing the other way; it could be easier than using reverse to turn the car around. Just crank in some steering lock, punch it, and instant 180.

Second is a much more useful and flexible gear. The V10 has enough low-rpm grunt to pull second gear exiting nearly any corner, and using the taller gear gives the driver a little margin for error. Because acceleration performance is less sudden in second gear, there is time for weight to transfer to the back. Once the car crouches a little in response to the application of power, the driver can safely pour on more and the car will rocket to 80 mph. At that point, it's time to shift into third.

Third is, of course, an all-important supplier of speed in the rapid transition between second and fourth. But it's also a great gear for driving around town. The Viper will happily chug along in slow traffic in third, yet the engine turns slowly enough in third at faster speeds that it doesn't drone as it would in second gear. It's a fun gear in the Viper.

Fourth is pretty much a highway gear. It also the highest useful gear for most racetracks. It would take a long straight on a racetrack to hit the redline in fourth gear. Fifth is for interstate highway travel. Sixth gear is for the EPA, and it contributed to the unrealistic 21-mpg highway fuel-economy rating. We saw 11 mpg in mixed driving. In sixth gear, the engine spins 1700 rpm at 80 mph. If the Viper could pull to its redline in this gear, it would have a top speed of 280 mph.

While a Porsche's flat-6 shrieks to the redline and a Corvette's V8 rumbles its encouragement to rev it up, the exhaust note of the Viper V10 enjoys all the melody of the Empire State Building's back-up generator.

The Viper's engine doesn't seem to will the driver to delay the shift, but it does have a certain sound of remorseless efficiency to it. You can tell the difference in purpose between the dopey woof of your neighbor's Golden Retriever and the threatening bark of the vaguely Rottweiler-looking mongrel at the junkyard. When the Viper barks, as with the junkyard mutt, it pays to be on your guard. The hefty, long-throw shifter conveys that the driver is performing a significant contribution to the car's progress. This is no push-button auto shifter. Unlike a Porsche, the Viper doesn't seem smarter than the driver.

The Viper's extremely powerful brakes have no ABS assist, which seems anachronistic these days. But again, it forces the driver to earn his living, which gives the often-forgotten soft mushy thing behind the wheel a bit of self-worth. The Viper's brakes provide huge stopping power and are easily modulated at the limit. They have the fine controllability racing drivers require.

The ride is rock hard. The car bobs on bumps. It's a handful on bumpy corners when the hammer is down. Like most high-performance sports cars, the Viper demands attentiveness. The Viper driver's seat is not a good place for making telephone calls. Even rubber-necking at all those young hard bodies looking your way can get you into trouble. The steering is quick. If the car hits a bump when the driver has only one hand on the steering wheel and the other on, say, the shifter, the impact is sharp enough to cause the single arm to pull the steering wheel to the left. Note: Keep both hands on the Viper's steering wheel. At low speeds, the steering is very light, making it easier to maneuver in tight parking lots.

Final Word

To be sure, Porsche's 911 and Chevy's Corvette are more comfortable and livable as commuter cars. But the Viper works surprisingly well from a comfort standpoint. It suffers from a rough ride and climbing in and out is difficult. But it steers easily; the engine will chug happily around town at legal speeds; the seats are very comfortable; the heater, wipers, and other foul weather gear all work well. And the stereo cranks out tunes loudly enough to drown out the omnipresent exhaust note.

For those only mildly interested in maximum performance, the Corvette is a bargain and is more comfortable to drive than the Viper. The 911 is about the same price, and is great fun to drive, but it is an entirely different breed of animal.

This car demands constant driver involvement, which can be viewed favorably or not. For maximum performance and maximum impact on bystanders, the Viper has no domestic equal. Where else can you get a V10?

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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