By Steven Cole Smith, Tribune newspapers
4:57 PM EST, January 21, 2011
Yes, it's a bit odd to be reviewing a 2010 vehicle in the midst of the 2011 model year, but there are two extenuating circumstances: One, the manufacturer didn't cease production of the Dodge Viper until last summer, and since there is no 2011 model, they built some extras to give dealers a few to sell for a little longer.
And two, ever since the Viper appeared as a 1992 model, very little about the car has made sense.
That original Viper was brutally simple — an enormous, 8-liter V-10 engine, and not much else. No air conditioner, no cruise control, not even any real side windows — just little plastic curtains. There was so little insulation from the engine and from exhaust pipes than ran just underneath the doors that the Viper was an absolute oven in the summer. The soft top took about 30 seconds to remove, 30 minutes to wrestle back in place, and even once it was on, the Viper leaked like a colander in a heavy rain. Still, it was so hot inside the car that the leaking rain was sort of refreshing.
Fast forward to this 2010 model, and it's commendable, and a little alarming, just how true to the original the Viper remains. The V-10 engine has grown to 8.4 liters, and a staggering 600 horsepower, with a top speed of 202 mph. It has air conditioning, but no side airbags, no cruise control, no electronic stability control. If you want to drop the 6-speed manual transmission into first gear and dump the throttle, there are no electronic safety nannies to prevent the rear tires from spinning and smoking and squealing until you get tired of listening to them. (Or paying for them: The steamroller-sized Michelin P345/30ZR-19 rear tires sell for $484 each.)
There is no denying that the Dodge Viper Coupe tested here is an absurd, impractical car — a two-passenger vehicle that sells for $97,730, including a $1,700 federal "gas guzzler" tax, and is impossible to enter and exit gracefully unless you are a ballerina. But there are few cars — really, none at all come to mind — that I genuinely love as much as the Viper. It has always been such an honest, flaws-and-all ruffian, a no-excuses vehicle built solely to entertain. The Viper is John Wayne in "True Grit," not Jeff Bridges.
Not that the Viper has always made it easy on our relationship. I will never forget the 1992 Viper that, on a sweltering August day, conked out in the parking lot of a McDonald's in a tiny town in Texas, 70 miles from the nearest Viper-trained Dodge mechanic. Or the 1998 model I was driving as part of a seven-supercar comparison test for a magazine. At a (fortunately) very low speed, I hit some gravel on a turn and the Viper drifted towards the guardrail. I kept my foot pressed hard on the brake and I turned away from the guardrail, which was exactly the right thing to do when you have antilock brakes. Which the other six supercars did. The Viper did not, a fact I recalled about a half-second before the Viper's nose kissed the rail. It would take both hands, and probably at least one foot, to count the number of times I have spun Vipers on a racetrack, including twice just last year.
Certainly the challenge of driving a Viper well has been part of the appeal; it does not suffer fools gladly. Even so, the newer Vipers are very comfortable transportation — rough-riding, sure, but not to an extreme. And this 2010 test car had leather upholstery (a $2,995 option), a good air conditioner, a decent stereo and, being a coupe instead of the convertible, adequate trunk space. As always, you do have to deal with the attention — it's like driving a float in a one-car parade. Stop for gas (which you do often, with a smallish 16-gallon tank and an EPA-rated 13 mpg in the city), and you need to factor in extra time to answer questions. Which, fortunately, is not always, "Why in the world does anyone need a car like that?" Viper owners do get their share of guilt-trippers, but they are far offset by people who are interested in, and often awed, by the car. No vehicle draws as many "thumbs up" from other drivers.
Dodge has said the Viper will return, likely in 2012 as a 2013 model, and a prototype was shown late last year to dealers, but not to the media or the public. The expectation is it will be offered with a V-10, but the new car is likely to be far more sophisticated than this last Viper, since Dodge is now run by Italians, and Italians like their Ferraris and Lamborghinis.
So this 2010 Viper is likely to be the last of the genuinely unschooled, uncompromising brutes. If I could afford one, I'd be a Viper owner, instead of just a slightly apologetic admirer. Some of us big boys still like to play with toys.
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