If you read the hype about the Dodge Viper, it’s easy to believe that it’s a widow maker, destined to kill all but the most cautious behind the wheel. Consider the numbers: its 8.4 liter V10 engine makes 600 horsepower and 560 ft lb of torque. Since the Viper Coupe only weighs about 3,600 pounds, that’s enough thrust to get the car from zero to sixty in 3.7 seconds, on its way to a top speed of 200 miles per hour. When they told me I’d be driving a Viper for Rides ‘n Smiles, I really didn’t know what to expect. Even Tanner Foust, a professional drifter and host of the U.S. Top Gear, call the Viper “dangerous… all power and no finesse”.
It was with some caution that I fired up the V10 in the parking lot, slid the shifter into first and released the clutch. My initial impression was that clutch take up was a lot smoother and more progressive than I expected; in fact, it’s easier to master the clutch in a 600 horsepower Viper than it is to master the clutch in a 425 horsepower Camaro SS. Power was instantaneous: mash the go pedal and be prepared to experience biblical thrust in first and second gear. Still, it’s easy enough to get the power to the ground, with tire smoking burnouts requiring more effort than you’d expect.
Steering feel is heavy, but that’s a good thing. The Viper goes where you point it, when you point it, and communicates its intentions very well along the way. Brakes are absolutely superb and very easy to modulate, even at speeds that have you questioning whether or not you’re braking too late. Shift throws are long but relatively precise; with the exception of one balky 4 – 3 shift, I had no problem with the Viper’s shifter all day long. In fact, the Viper encourages rev matching on downshifts, and is the easiest car to heel – toe that I’ve ever driven. Somehow, it feels a lot smaller on the track than it really is, which encourages you to drive it even harder. Bill Adam summed it up best, “The Viper feels like a big Miata.” A big Miata, with virtually unlimited power.
The Viper is a remarkably tolerant car, but its limits are best probed only by those with some track experience on their resume. Make a mistake, and the Viper doesn’t have any electronic stability control to save the day. It’s easy to point the nose with the throttle, but the Viper likes gentle correction and rewards smooth drivers. It doesn’t play well with those who haven’t mastered the concept of “slow in, fast out” cornering.
I expected a big, rusty, dull meat cleaver, but the Viper is much more refined than that. It’s still crude, especially by modern standards, but I’d equate it to a polished and razor sharp meat cleaver, with a carbon fiber handle. The price of admission (about $91,000) is steep, but the Viper brings you back to a time when cars were about displacement and driver skill, not about high pressure turbos and electronic driver aids. I hope they don’t change too much when the new Viper is finally released, because Neanderthal like me are running out of options for cars that truly speak our language.