October 29, 2002 was Viper Day at the Chicago Motor Speedway for journalists who are members of the Midwest Automotive Media Assn. On hand was a red 2003 Dodge Viper SRT-10 fresh from the factory with its new, larger 505 cubic inch V-10 engine that pumps out 500 horsepower and 525 lb.-ft.of torque.
I was one of about 30 journalists who were allowed to sit behind the wheel and given the opportunity to put the Viper's power to the pavement. It was only a brief joy ride, just long enough to remove any doubt that this car is the king of the road, but not long enough to risk damaging their precious car. Automotive journalists can be rather hard on the cars they test drive. So with 30 of us lined up for a petal to the metal gang bang behind the wheel, the folks from Dodge weren't taking any chances. They had a professional race car driver (I think he was really a Dodge engineer) riding shotgun with every run to make sure we didn't get too crazy.
When my turn came, I punched it and headed into the salom course, only to be told to "slow down." Then I was told to "take it easy" as we drove from the infield onto the race track. Then I was told to "go easy" as we rounded turn three and headed for the straightaway. My passenger was getting to be a real nag.
The best part came on the straightaway. They had a short drag strip set up to demonstrate the Viper's ability to blow the doors off the competition. We were the only car on the track so we were making a timed run to see how quickly we could accelerate off the line and reach a point about 1/8 mile down the straightaway. With this car's tremendous torque (and no traction control), it doesn't take much throttle to spin the big P345/30ZR19 tires. I didn't care about my elapsed time. I just wanted to wring this baby out and see what it would do off the line. After all, it's not everyday I get to take a joy ride behind 500 anxious horses.
When they gave me the green flag, I dumped the clutch and floored the gas pedal. Unlike earlier Vipers which have a very buzzy and unpleasant exhaust tone, this car's retuned exhaust purrs like a Ferrari. As the rpms came up, the purr became a roar that was almost as loud as the screaming tires. The car fishtailed violently off the line as the wheels grabbed for traction. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my nervous passenger's hand grab for the emergency brake handle (like that would have made any difference!). He could have thrown out a boat anchor and it wouldn't have stopped this car. I banged the 6-speed hard into second and we shot down the 1/8th mile in a tick over seven seconds. I never had the change to hit third because it was on the brakes and back to the pits -- just when things were starting to get fun. Oh well...
As we rumbled back into the pit area for the next driver to take his turn, I couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to have a car like this for a daily driver. So much horsepower. So much traffic. So what's the use? I also wondered if some poor sap who shelled out $85,000 would be taking delivery of this car after we were finished "testing" it. Dodge is only building 1500 Vipers and every one has already been presold -- probably at full list price plus what ever the dealers can get on top of that.
The 2003 Viper looks pretty much the same as the previous model, except for the new hood scoop and Vette-like side treatment. But underneath it's a whole new car from the ground up. Gone is the clamshell hood and "toupee" convertible top. A real convertible top with a hard plastic insert is now standard and is extremely easy to fold down and put up. The car is 100 lbs. lighter than the earlier model, has bigger brakes, a new instrument panel, better lights, better aerodynamics, side exhausts are back, and the engine has been reworked for more cubes and power (as if the former engine wasn't powerful enough!). Oh yes, and there are no cup holders, no cruise control, no traction control and no kiddie seats.
For those who want something that's even more exciting, Dodge makes a special Competition Coupe version of the Viper that sells for about $100,000.
Too bad a car guy like me can't afford a real car like this.