When we got the bright red 1997 Dodge Viper GTS coupe with the screaming yellow wheels for a test drive, Anita immediately dubbed it the "Ronald McDonald mobile." Paul, however, who is more of a performance purist, saw beyond the wild color scheme into the GTS' heart-and-soul namely, its 450-horsepower V-10 engine. His chief worry: That "comfort" features like air conditioning and power windows may detract from the Viper's heritage as a true race car. Chrysler makes no bones about this being a "man's car." The real issue then becomes how you talk your wife or significant other into seeing the $69,700 GTS as a real asset and not a vehicle for your latest midlife crisis. He: I'm going to cut you off at the pass because I know you're going to gripe about those new yellow wheels. All I'm going to say is that they're there to honor the heritage of other fine race cars like the Ferrari Daytona. They put the Viper GTS in the same league, but at a very minimal cost. In fact, the Viper coupe's base price of $66,000 makes this a true bargain. By the way, I'll bet it could kick the Italian silk pants off any Ferrari. She: I'm not saying a word about those tacky yellow wheels. I'm still laughing about the Viper's buyer profile. Are they selling this to young studs? No. They can't afford it. Ninety-four percent of Viper buyers are males between the ages of 51 to 57 who make $225,000 a year. He: Shucks. I strike out on both counts. But these fortunate men surely have earned the privilege of owning a vehicle of such mythic proportions. She: I'd like to meet some of these guys. They must really be something to drive around in a car that has disclaimers all over it like "Warning: Exhaust Pipe Below Door Opening. Avoid Contacting This Area." Or "Pull For Emergency Exit." When I went to adjust the seat, I felt this bulb-shaped thing that I thought was a built-in blood-pressure cuff for those poor misguided geezers. Turns out it's a manual lumbar pump for the driver's seat. I think you need a disclaimer on the trunk that says "Heart patients should avoid Viper" or "Warning: May dislocate hip getting in." He: That is ageism at its worst. As if your usual sexist rants aren't enough to cheese off our male readers. Guys, listen to me. If you can afford the Viper, you're going to love it. This is a raw-boned race car in many respects. You can tell from the defining characteristics, like the air duct on the hood, the louvers in the fenders and the quick-release chrome gas cap on the right rear-window pillar. Hop inside, fire it up and you'll hear the distinctive rumble and heavy breathing of that all-aluminum V-10. She: I heard plenty of your heavy breathing, all right. He: I had some slight problems with the six-speed transmission. The shift gate is spaced so tightly, it's easy to miss a downshift and throw it into, say, second gear instead of fourth. Just make sure you don't do this in front of the othe r guys, and it'll be OK. Also, the clutch and brake pedals are so close together, that if you wear size EEE clodhoppers like mine, you occasionally may mash both pedals together. Those lurches can be very embarrassing especially in front of chicks. One other thing. Real men don't usually order muscle cars with stuff like air conditioning and power windows. She: Now, dear. It's not like they added a cup holder or power mirrors or anything rash. He: A cup holder? Ye gods!!! How sacrilegious. Chrysler calls the Viper the "ultimate America sports car," and I'm inclined to agree. The GTS has no peers. It beats the Corvette in terms of brute force and outrageous styling. The GTS even beats the Ferrari F355, which makes only 375 horsepower and costs $127,000! Plus the GTS has a better warranty and three-year roadside assistance. That ought to make even you happy. She: I still think the GTS is totally impractical. Despite the independent suspension, it rides really rough can barely see over the hood, which makes it difficult to park. Buy it and you get penalized with a $3,000 gas-guzzler tax because it only gets 11 miles a gallon in city driving and 21 on the highway. He: A small price to pay for so much car. She: Wrong. For the same amount you'd spend on a GTS, you can get three-quarters of an Ivy League undergraduate degree, five GM compact pickup trucks or a decent-sized bungalow in most U.S. markets. Besides, when will you ever get the chance to use a vehicle with a speedometer that goes up to 200 miles an hour? You can't get antilock brakes or traction control on it either. He: Nobody would WANT either of those features on a race car. If you're man enough to buy a Viper GTS, you're going to instinctively know how to handle it on every kind of road surface and condition. The GTS coupe is a pioneer race car in many respects. Think of its adjustable pedals, which are fairly simple to operate by turning a knob underneath the steering wheel. But you're distracting me. I'm forgetting to say that Phil and I took the Viper to our big automotive parade - the Woodward Dream Cruise - and I felt like the star. So many people smiling and waving at me and my GTS. Dodge hand-builds about a thousand of these a year and they are immediately spoken for. My worry would be how much you have to pay over the sticker price. She: So people were smiling and waving at you. I'll bet they thought you were Ronald McDonald, minus the red wig. He: You can insult me all you like, but you're not going to get the last word. Guys, go for it. It's a small price to pay to take 20 years off your life. Besides, most of the people who were waving at me during the parade were good-looking 20-year-olds, and they weren't other guys. She: Just imagine if you were driving the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile. 1997 Dodge Viper GTS coupe Type: Rear-wheel drive, two-passenger sports coupe Price: Base, $66,000; as tested, $69,700 (including $700 destination charge and $3,000 gas-guzzler tax) What's new for '97: Color package with yellow wheels or polished aluminum Standard equipment: Stainless steel dual rear exhaust, four-wheel independent suspension with unequal length; double-acting gas shocks with rebound adjustment; rear-wheel-drive with limited slip differential; power-assisted rack and pinion steering; tilt steering column; power-assisted four-wheel vented disc brakes; five-spoke aluminum wheels with six bolt mounting flange; halogen headlamps; fog lamps with removable lens covers; white-faced analog gauges; tachometer; AM/FM stereo with CD player; two-way manual seat adjusters; keyless entry with security alarm; air conditioning; compact spare tire; adjustable foot pedals; power windows; Michelin Pilot SX MXX3 17-inch tires Safety features: Dual air bags Options on test vehicle: None EPA fuel economy: 11 mpg city/21 mpg highway Engine: 8.0-liter V-10, 4 50-hp at 5200 rpm, 490 lb-ft torque at 3700 rpm Transmission: Six-speed manual Competitors: Acura NSX, Chevrolet Corvette, Ferrari F355, Lotus Esprit, Porsche 911 Turbo Specifications: Wheelbase, 96.2 inches; overall length, 176.7 inches; curb weight, 3,383 pounds; legroom, 42.6 inches front; headroom, 36.8 inches front; shoulder room, 53.8 inches front 12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $2,877 Where built: Detroit
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