As many of you know, I’ve owned my Dodge Viper for about a month now. Yesterday, I finally took it for its first real drive, on curvy roads, with little traffic. Fact: a Viper is very different from an Aston Martin.
Here’s what happened. When I bought my Viper at the end of August, I drove it all the way home from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Philadelphia, which is a distance of 450 miles, during which time I received approximately 87 thumbs-ups from people in Super Duty pickups. So, you might think this was my first real drive in the Viper. See the 1997 Dodge Viper models for sale near you
Not so. Not only was this drive a purely straight, simple, no-fun highway affair, but it also took place on the old, worn tires the Viper possessed when I bought it. Between that and the number of people who warned me to be careful with the Viper as if I was going into combat, I kept it slow and steady, and I didn’t really get the chance to see what the Viper could do.
Then, I went away for a couple of weeks on my road trip, and the Viper went into the shop for new tires and brakes. Now, finally, we were reunited yesterday and ready to have fun. So, we did.
Here’s what I discovered. Even with the new tires and the new brakes on a totally clear day, with only a few wispy clouds in the sky, I’m still intimidated by this thing.
It’s hard not to be. In an Aston Martin or a Porsche, you just feel so much confidence, because those cars have so much poise. You think you can do anything in a car like that, because those cars never make it seem like they’re working all that hard to carry out your driving instructions.
This is not the case with the Viper. The Viper seems like it’s working hard just to sit there at idle.
The Viper is always rumbling, always making loud noises, always letting you know when you’ve hit a patch of rough road, a pothole, a speed bump or a discarded toothpick. It’s loud the moment you step on the accelerator. It’s loud when you start to slow down. It’s loud when you turn it on. It’s loud when you’re cruising at highway speeds. When you drive the Viper, you aren’t lulled into a false sense of security. You’re always sitting there, feeling the rumbling, hearing the noises and thinking, “This car doesn’t have traction control. This car doesn’t have anti-lock brakes.”
There’s another aspect of the Viper’s driving experience reminding you that you’re not in some highly refined European sports car: the handling. Although I didn’t notice this on my 500-mile road trip home from Raleigh, it became obvious the second I drove the Viper on some curvy roads. There’s an enormous amount of weight in the front of this car.
I believe Dodge claims my Viper has 50/50 weight distribution, but that’d only be helpful if you’re sitting in the middle of the car. You’re not. Take a look at a photo of a Viper, and you’ll realize something unusual. The driver’s seat is basically mounted above the rear wheel. When you turn the wheel, there’s an enormous amount of car that needs to turn in front of you. If you’re used to driving midengine or rear-engine cars, your first drive in the Viper should be in a parking lot without any obstructions, because it’ll take some serious adjusting.
Neither of these things are bad. Once you get the hang of the unusual steering and handling, you can do a better job predicting when and how you should turn. Personally, I like the raw character of the car. I like the rumbling. I like the noises. This isn’t some ultra-refined European sports car, and it doesn’t pretend to be.
Here are a few other things I took away from my first drive in the Viper:
One, the novelty of the styling absolutely hasn’t worn off for me. When I see the Viper in my parking garage, even when I’m walking to another one of my cars, I get so excited just to see the blue hood and white racing stripes. It’s Just. So. Cool.
Then again, this is also a bit of a drawback. Where the Aston blends in, the Viper gets noticed. A lot. You have to be prepared to be a Viper spokesperson at every traffic light, explaining how much power it has, what year it is and generally smiling when people say “SWEET RIDE!”
Interestingly, the Viper appeals to a whole other demographic than the Aston Martin. In my Aston Martin, I get approached at gas stations by doctors filling up their Mercedes, asking what I think of the ownership experience. In the Viper, plumbers roll down their window at stop lights and ask me to rev it. Everyone idolized the Viper when they were kids, everyone smiles at it and everyone thinks it’s cool. You’ll never have a problem getting let in for a lane change when you’re driving a Viper.
Another thing I noticed is the Viper’s brakes aren’t really up to the task of slowing down, like the Aston’s brakes or, really, like any modern car’s brakes. It hit me when I was driving the Viper that its design is the same distance from the 1970s as it is from today, and when it comes to stopping power, the Viper feels more 1970s than 2010s.
Finally, the noise. In today’s world of automakers going to great lengths to pipe in the perfect amount of exhaust note and tuning their engines to offer just the right hum at certain engine speeds, the Viper’s noise is nothing like that. In fact, there’s really not all that much of a noise. The Viper came from an era when automakers couldn’t really get away with loud exhausts or didn’t want to bother, so they sent people to the aftermarket. In stock form, the Viper’s relatively docile engine and exhaust sounds don’t quite fit with its brutish image.
When I put away the Viper after spending two hours driving it yesterday, I was exhausted. It’s not easy to drive that car. You get kicked around and beaten up, and you have to be careful on every ramp and go slowly over every driveway entrance. You have to put up with more drivetrain noise, engine noise and road noise than in a normal car, and you have to plan your braking and use caution around sharp turns.
Even with all this stuff in mind, as I backed my Viper into my parking spot, I had a huge smile across my face. Find a 1997 Dodge Viper for sale