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Expert Reviews 1 of 2
By Richard Truett
January 16, 1992
After being hyped to death by the world's automotive writers since its 1989 debut as a concept car, will the production version of the Dodge Viper live up to its billing? After a 20-minute, high-speed test drive at Chrysler's proving grounds here,
I'm convinced that the Viper not only will meet but will exceed the expectations of those lucky few who have enough money and clout to bag one. The two-seat convertible's styling, brutal power, superlative handling and no-nonsense interior make it
perhaps the world's best performance value. But Dodge pulled a fast one by making the Viper a sports car that almost anyone can drive. You don't have be a Schwarzenegger to work the clutch, move the shifter or turn the steering wheel. Dara
Tomczak, a 27-year-old ''Team Viper'' engineer, is partly responsible for making the $50,000 Viper a little more civilized than what you would expect from such a fast car. Tomczak helped engineer Viper's transmission, axle, wheels, tires and steering
system. She has been working on the Viper for more than two years and test-driving during every stage of development. ''We've designed a lot of features into the suspension that make this car very forgiving for the average driver who wants to push it
and may get into a little bit of trouble. We make it very convenient to get back under control and get on your way,'' she said. Tomczak said she believes the Viper will appeal to both men and women. ''Some of the things . . . whether it's pedal
placement or clutch pedal effort - high vs. low - how it shifts, or how it feels, are things that a woman would see. And there will be women who buy this car. I guarantee it.'' But not many people will be able to buy a Viper - at least not this year.
Chrysler is planning to build only 300 of the bright red 10-cylinder supercars for model year 1992. Two Vipers a day will be hand-built by the 15 ''Viper Craftsmen'' who work at Chrysler's New Mack Avenue assembly plant in Detroit. ''We want to keep
the vehicle extremely scarce. The worst thing that could happen is for five Vipers to be parked at the Dodge dealer with numbers on the windshield,'' said Chrysler President Bob Lutz. OK, enough of the formalities. What's it like to drive, you wonder?
Take the word exhilarating and multiply it by 100. A twist of the key sparks to life the 8.0-liter aluminum engine. Dual staccato rumbles erupt from the exhaust pipes beneath the doors. At 130 mph in sixth gear, the Viper's fuel-injected
400-horsepower engine spins at an incredibly low 2,300 rpm. The Viper is blessed with loads of torque - the force created by the engine that actually moves a car. Let's say you are tooling along in second gear at 25 mph and you decide to floor it.
A few heartbeats later - after a quick shift to third - you're doing more than 100 mph and the speedometer needle still is sweeping over the numbers. Of course, you can't build a car w
ith an unofficial top speed of 180 or so mph if it can't stay firmly planted on the pavement. Handling and braking are the areas where Team Viper - the cadre of engineers who volunteered to transform the car from concept to reality - did some of its best
work. There's no doubt that the Viper was built to excel in straight-line acceleration, but it's capable of much more. If you have the urge to surge through a tight corner at 100 mph - as I did several times - the Viper will see you through with no
surprises. I also tried a quick stop from 117 mph. I was surprised that the car doesn't have anti-lock brakes. However, when pressed, the power-assisted four-wheel discs have the strength to knock you forward in the seat as they quickly arrest speed.
The suspension system has virtually no travel. The rear does not squat when thundering up to 100 mph at full throttle, nor does the nose dip under hard braking. The Viper doesn't bounce over bumps; it just sort of shudders
over them. Sitting in the Viper is a very personal experience. It's tight, but the driving position offers ample room between driver and steering wheel. You have excellent visibility over the curved hood, but only a fair view through the small rear
window. Your right hand naturally falls about where the leather-wrapped shifter protrudes from the center of the large transmission tunnel. Actually, there's no other place to put your hand except on the steering wheel. For a car of its type, the
Viper is easy to drive. The clutch pedal does not take an exceptional amount of pressure to operate, though it is a bit heavier than you would find in an average car. There is not much foot room, however. After attaining cruising speed, the only place
to put your left foot is behind the clutch pedal. The shifter clicks smoothly through the gears. And the power-assisted steering is no harder to maneuver than in a normal car. The Viper is capable of making sharp turns, despite the fact that it has
fat (17-inch) tires. Viper's interior is a spartan affair, but it is simple and logically arranged. The dash is dominated by controls for the car's heating and ventilation system, radio and a few other minor controls. The leather-covered seats
were firm and could be adjusted in numerous ways. The car's weakest point is the top, which is a snap-on vinyl affair that is crude at best but does offer protection from the elements. There are no windows. The Viper is equipped with removable plastic
side curtains similar to the type used on Triumph and MG sports cars in the 1950s. The Viper has a small glovebox, but when two people are in the car, all parcels must be relegated to the trunk. Chrysler is scheduled to announce next week which
Dodge dealers will be shipped Vipers over the next few months. Chances are you're not in the market for one, but if you get the chance to see one up close, don't pass it up. It has been a long time since an American carmaker had the brashness to make
anything as audacious, bodacious and outrageous. ''Chrysler intended to build a legend,'' Team Viper leader Roy Sjoberg told Road & Track magazine. Mission accomplished.