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2016 Dodge Viper ACR vs. 1997 Dodge Viper GTS: Comparison Test

Ever since I bought my Dodge Viper back in August, I’ve wanted to compare it with a newer Viper — just to see exactly how much the Viper has progressed over the years. Although I’ve had people offer me "third-generation" models, which were sold from 2003 to 2010, and even a few fourth-gen versions, I held out for the best of the best: a brand-new Viper ACR. This was probably a mistake, because now my Viper feels old and boring.

The new ACR came to me courtesy of a viewer in New Jersey, who bought the ACR new and customized it to his liking. He also has the New Jersey license plate "Because Race Car," which is difficult to fit into seven characters, and yet it worked. It also proved rather prophetic. More on that in a moment.

First, let’s start with a comparison of the two cars standing still. Many people have told me over the years that a Viper is a Viper is a Viper — they all look relatively similar, and they drive relatively similarly, and it’s hard to tell them apart. Well, that’s clearly not true if you compare my "old" 1997 Viper GTS with the new ACR. The newer car shares some similarities, like the overall profile, but it’s so dramatically different from every angle: newer, more modern, more aggressive. A good comparison is the hood: My car uses little tiny hood vents that don’t really bother anyone, while the new ACR looks like it’s been styled with a massive machete. And if you reallllly still can’t figure out which one is which, just check the back of the new ACR for its wing: The thing is six feet wide, and it sticks up above any other point in the car. Forget using a wing as a picnic table: You could use this one to host dinner parties.

And then there’s the interior, which is almost radically different. I’m used to thinking that "Viper" means stripped-down, and basic, and bare-bones — after all, mine doesn’t even have power mirrors. Well, that’s not true of the ACR. It has an infotainment system. A push-button starter. Power adjustable pedals. A backup camera. A backup camera! On a Viper!

It also has a crazy feature called "SRT Performance Pages," which tracks all of your high-performance driving. You want to lay down a 0-to-60 time? You can use SRT Performance Pages to see your all-time best numbers. Same with the quarter mile and the eighth mile. There’s even a little screen inside the gauge cluster that simulates a drag strip where you can measure your times.

When I got into the ACR and discovered all this, I really couldn’t believe it. Oh, yes, sure, I knew the newer one would have more features, but I’m stunned that a Viper — especially an ACR model, which is intended to be the most hardcore, high-performance, weight-reduced, track-focused Viper of the lot — could possibly include all this in the cabin. Meanwhile, I’m driving around in a car whose rear hatch doesn’t even open without the key — so if you want to get in back while the car is running, you have to shut it off and walk around back. And the new Viper has freakin’ cruise control!

So I figured the biggest difference between the two cars would be the amenities, but it absolutely isn’t. It’s the performance.

The new Viper rides a lot like my old Viper, which is to say "rough" — and its clutch is a little more difficult to master. In fact, I stalled it right in the middle of the tremendously busy and pedestrian-packed Nassau Street in Princeton, New Jersey, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, to my great embarrassment. I don’t even remember the last time I stalled a car before that.

But once you get past those things, and once you really open up the ACR … wow. Just, truly, wow. The acceleration is unbelievably brutal and quick, and the sound you hear as you’re accelerating reminds you that you’re sitting in a vehicle with supercar performance, except this one isn’t as refined, and it probably won’t catch you if you do something stupid. This sound isn’t muffled or controlled or piped into the cabin: It’s just massive engine noise and exhaust noise, coming at you constantly as you push the pedal. This also has to be one of the quickest cars in the world with a manual transmission: I’m used to cars accelerating like this, and then firing off tremendously quick upshifts, automatically, through a dual-clutch. Not this one. In this car, you have to be ready.

But the most notable difference isn’t acceleration — it’s handling. In my Viper, you feel an enormous amount of weight up front, every time you turn the car. You’re also constantly worried you’re going to spin out and crash, because its limits are accessible, and they come quickly. Not in the ACR. Even though the ACR still has the same long hood as my old Viper, the newer model has somehow eliminated that frontal weight. Instead, it just feels planted, glued to the ground, monstrously precise and — most importantly — absolutely nowhere near its limits in virtually any corner. Sure, you could push it beyond what it can do, but it doesn’t feel like you can. Instead, it feels like you’re driving a race car, and you’re barely scratching the surface of what this thing can do.

Unfortunately, at the end of all this, I had to give back the ACR — and then I climbed back into my Viper for the hour-long drive home, missing the features, the cruise control, the backup camera, the performance and the roadholding. In the end, the ACR was even more different from my car than I thought it would be — and while both of these cars have similar styling, and V10 power, and affordable price tags compared to exotic-car rivals, I came away thinking that’s about where the similarities end. These two cars are "Vipers" together in name alone. Find a Dodge Viper for sale

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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