Think of Chrysler’s new Dodge Viper Coupe as the automotive equivalent of a rottweiler; you know damn well that if you stroke it, there’s a more than likely chance it’s going to bite you in the arse.
This feature was first published in MOTOR's February 2006 issue.
Drive it hard, using all 380kW from the V10 nuclear powerplant lurking up front, and the car will give you a nice little parting gesture as you step out – a third-degree leg burn from a door sill that’s been super-heated by the side-exiting exhaust.
Then there’s the six-speed shifter. Burn rubber off the line and it slips from first to second with the ease of flicking a light switch. But ease gently away from that stop light, and some inner-transmission demon takes control and directs you from first into fourth in a futile attempt to improve fuel economy.
It has the car chugging like an oiled-up two-stroke, and you looking a complete prat to the passenger in the seat beside you. Driver-friendly it’s not.
Then there’s the simple act of gazing at this new Viper hardtop which is guaranteed to strike fear into small children and give you an instant knee-trembler. From the never-ending bonnet with its reptilian gills, to the snake eyes head-lights and the 345mm-wide rear rubber, the car just oozes testosterone. This is a car that thinks and acts just like a dominatrix with a wardrobe full of whips, chains and leather G-strings.
It’s taken Chrysler two years to transform the third-generation SRT10 roadster into the real snake, The Coupe, which is a massive 30 percent stiffer than the drop-top. Aerodynamically more efficient, too. And a shed load more visually appealing.
Surprisingly little surgery was involved in coupifying the soft-top Viper. The chassis, the powertrain and bodywork forward of the windscreen all remain essentially untouched.
For the roof, Chrysler grafted on a Zagato-style double-bubble panel to add a touch of retro cool and, perhaps more important, to offer extra headroom and indeed space for a race helmet. The top itself flows seamlessly into a glass rear hatch and ends with a neat but effective rear spoiler that adds an extra 68 or so kegs of downforce on the tail at 240km/h-plus.
All the bodily changes add just 18 kilos to the all-up weight of the roadster (now 1568kg) and keep performance levels pretty much identical. While the new roofline lowers the Cd from 0.40 to 0.39 (still terrible by supercar standards), top speed remains unchanged at 319km/h.
For around town driving you can’t help but be blown away by the Viper’s Rambo-esque muscle. Leave the stubby shifter in fourth and let 714Nm do all the work.
From walking pace, the monster 8.3-litre V10 pulls like a Nullabor road train, delivering up to 90 percent of its torque from just 1500rpm. If anyone asks you why Dodge doesn’t offer an automatic on the Viper, tell them they do; it’s called fourth gear.
Slam open the throttle and the big Dodge feels like a Chuck Norris round-house kick to the stomach. The engine doesn’t build revs, it simply explodes in a cacophony of hissing, rasping, and serious heavy-breathing through side-exiting exhausts the size of storm water drains. And jeez does it feel quick.
Light the wick and stand well back, you’re squeezed hard into the seatback and the scenery begins to blur like you’ve just hit Ludicrous Speed. Against the clock, the car is good for 0-100km/h drags in 4.0secs, and 0-160 in around 8.5 (that’s as quick as a Lamborghini Murciélago). Cruising at 240 kays in the long-legged sixth gear is like driving anything else at about 100km/h.
The one problem with the Viper is that it still feels about the size of a small cruise ship (unlike the light and lithe 373kW, 7.0-litre Corvette Z06). From behind the wheel you look out over a bonnet the length of Queensland, while the view back through the wing mirrors is dominated by the kind of hips a Japanese Sumo could only dream about.
Mirror to mirror it measures over 1830mm, and on roads narrower than airport runways, it feels every inch of it. Find yourself a twisty piece of blacktop and the Viper delivers its biggest surprise. Scream up to a bend, brush the stoppers, notch down a gear – nah, actually, don’t bother with the gearchange – balance the power through the apex, and pour it on as you exit. Awesome.
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Back in the Viper days of old, summoning-up 380kW without full and focused attention would be rewarded with snap-oversteer and armfuls of opposite lock as the short wheelbase struggled to deal with the cornering forces and power delivery. But after three generations, the reptile is able to thumb its nose at the laws of physics.
Constant suspension development by Chrysler’s SRT (Street and Racing Technology) gearheads, plus a set of super-sticky, super-wide Michelin Pilot (345/30 ZR19) rear tyres, means that at road speeds the car sticks to the road like the proverbial on a blanket. But you still need to concentrate. Get it all wrong and there’s no life-saving traction control to keep your arse out of the grass.
The car steers like a dream though. Yes, that salami-thick wheel needs plenty of muscle to turn it at parking speed, but on fast twisties it feels nicely-weighted, surgically-precise and a fine communicator of what’s going on with those huge 275/35 ZR18 Michelins up front.
But run-flat rubber the width of oil drums don’t make for a silky-smooth ride. Over anything but glass-smooth asphalt, the Viper shivers like a wet spaniel.
If you do need to brush off speed though, the massive four-piston Brembo calipers clamping 355mm vented rotors, bite hard and fast. These are the kind of brakes that are able to stop time let alone a 1568kg supercar.
But be thankful that the V10’s mountainous torque keeps gear shifting to a minimum. Moving the stubby lever for the Tremec six-speed around its gate still has all the lightness of using a stick to stir concrete.
Inside, the coupe’s interior gets a healthy increase in space courtesy of its new roof. And raise the tailgate and there’s now three times the luggage space compared to the roadster. Enough for a couple of decent-sized squashy bags. And the new double-bubble lid also improves headroom considerably.
Driving seats don’t come much better than this. They’re leather-clad with a central suede insert for trouser-gripping, and the pronounced side bolstering at shoulder level keeps you firmly anchored during enthusiastic cornering. Viper interiors have come a long way quality-wise since the original 1990 snake.
PCOTY 2003: Dodge Viper
That said, this latest cabin won’t cause any sleepless nights over at Porsche or Audi. There are more shades of grey here than a Russian winter and the dash plastics feel very cheap. But that doesn’t quell demand for Dodge’s fiery supercar. Of the 2500 to 3000 units they’ll build this year most have already been sold, with 700 coupe orders already in the bag.
Don’t expect to see officially-imported Viper Coupes prowling the Bondi beachfront any time soon. But you can bet a few will be converted to Aussie spec before too long. Start raiding the kids’ piggy-banks now.
Dodge Viper SRT10 Coupe
BODY: two-door coupe
ENGINE: front-mounted 8.3-litre 20-valve pushrod V10
POWER: 380kW @ 5600rpm
TORQUE: 714Nm @ 4200rpm
COMPRESSION RATIO: 9.6:1
BORE X STROKE: 102.4mm x 100.6mm
SPECIFIC POWER: 45.8kW/litre
TRANSMISSION: six-speed manual
SUSPENSION: double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar (f & r)
TRACK: 1565mm (f); 1547mm (r)
BRAKES: 355mm ventilated discs, four-piston calipers (f & r), ABS
WHEELS: 18 x 10-inch (f); 19 x 13-inch (r), alloy
TYRES: Michelin Pilot Sport ZP; 275/35 ZR18 (f); 345/30ZR19 (r)