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Expert Reviews 1 of 3
By Joe Wiesenfelder
November 18, 2008
Editor's note: This review was written in September 2007 about the 2008 Dodge Viper. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2009, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Say the words "Dodge Viper" in mixed company and you're sure to get a few words back, some of which I can't repeat here. The word that comes to my mind is "respect," ranging from respect for Dodge's audacity in producing this model in the first place to the respect required when driving one of the most powerful, fastest cars we have tested.
The Viper SRT10 is the least driver-friendly car we've evaluated in the sense that a racecar set loose on a city street can be very unfriendly if you don't leave the Big Gulp and cell phone behind, know what you're doing, and pay close attention at all times — the word "coddle" isn't in the Viper's vocabulary. That said, the 2008 Viper is more livable than ever in spite of engine changes that boost output to 600 horsepower in the 2008 model from the 510 hp in the 2006. (The 2007 model year was skipped.)
If you think the word to describe a car with 600 hp, a 0-60 time less than 4 seconds and a top speed of 200 mph is "overkill," you're starting to understand what the Viper is about. If you can't accept that overkill is sometimes worthy of respect, well, perhaps we can show you something more in the four-door, four-cylinder variety. This two-door's 10-cylinder was bored out for 2008, increasing its displacement from 8.3 to 8.4 liters — which translates to almost 513 cubic inches for those of you who remember how we used to quantify our V-8s. (Why the country rejected the metric system wholesale yet allowed its engines to be reduced to the level of a large soda bottle is one of life's great mysteries.)
Though its size is similar to our old big blocks, the Viper's power plant breathes more fire thanks to countless advancements, including variable valve timing, scientifically designed combustion chambers and a higher compression ratio: 10.7 to 1, up from 9.6 to 1 in the 2006. The updated V-10 also gulps more air through a more efficient hood scoop and a large air box, which is little more than a forward-facing mouth with a filter that's in plain sight if you open the hood and crouch at the front bumper. The Specter of Throttle Lag There's now a separate throttle body for each cylinder bank, for the first time employing electronic "by-wire" throttles that do a lot for efficiency and, presumably, emissions (ratings aren't available yet). Unfortunately, they also introduce the all-too-common, underreported throttle lag. Leave the gearbox in neutral and stomp on the accelerator and you'll notice the delay. It's not outrageously long, but it's more than just annoying. This is a car whose mechanical throttle used to leap if you so much as thought about tapping the accelerator, and it's also a car in which the slightest input is critical to controlling trajectory. When you blip the throttle to downshift, you want it to respond now. Re-engage the clutch when the revs aren't quite matched and you risk loosening up the rear end.
The Viper has more lift-throttle oversteer than any production car I've driven, which creates a trap into which countless drivers have fallen. The rear end represents 52 percent of the car's weight, and despite impossibly large tires the tail has an agenda all its own — basically to go sideways at every opportunity, in almost any gear, sometimes even when going straight. Feel the rear step out abruptly, and your natural instinct is to let up on the throttle. Do it too much and the power-on oversteer turns into lift-throttle oversteer. The result is the same: The tail keeps coming around, and you're soon fighting to stave off a spinout. The Viper doesn't offer an electronic stability system, which I also respect. It keeps the car out of the hands of posers with more money than driving skill. The secret to taming this snake is to do everything gradually. Sixteen Years Later: Clutch Refinement One change for 2008 that helps in this regard is the updated Tremec six-speed transmission, which replaces a large clutch disc with two smaller ones inline. What it does is decrease the rotating inertia of the larger-diameter disc and give the pedal a much more gradual takeup — though it's surprisingly high in the pedal travel. The shifter also has much shorter throws and clearly defined gates, which makes it a pleasure to operate. I'd accepted that a beefy gearbox needed a meaty and somewhat clumsy gearshift. Apparently not.
Speaking of clumsy, when you accelerate at a modest rate, the shifter still employs a skip-shift feature that throws a diverter into the H-pattern, forcing the lever into 4th gear on its way from 1st. The objective is to save fuel. All I can tell you is that when I accelerate conservatively, 4th gear is too high, and the engine — this torque factory of an engine — still lugs. I end up staying in 1st to higher rpm to avoid skip-shift (which certainly doesn't save fuel) or get caught by it and go back up to 3rd before releasing the clutch. Skip-shift, which also sullies the Chevy Corvette, is probably the most maddening feature I've tolerated over the years. I hear that owners find a way of defeating it, and though it arguably voids the warranty, I'd do it in a microsecond.
The added engine power puts the Viper further into motorcycle territory, knocking off 0-60 mph sprints in 3.9 seconds, according to our partners at MotorWeek. The thing pushes you into your seat like the washing-machine circus ride that spins around and then drops the floor out, leaving you plastered to the wall. If the car's seat cushions vanished, you'd probably be suspended all the way to the 200 mph top speed. The antilock brakes are equally jaw-dropping, potent enough to make a believer of any seat belt denier. Viper as Daily Driver I lived with the Viper for a week, using it for everything I would use any car for, including the commute from Chicago's suburbs to Cars.com's downtown offices. I parked it in lots, on the street (briefly) and took some extended drives on the region's inconsistent pavement. This is no luxury cruiser, but I was surprised by how livable the Viper's ride quality was, and by how far automakers have come at diminishing the long-standing tradeoff between ride quality and handling — in both vehicle types. Even as a springy, resilient teen, driving the 1984 Corvette nearly put me in traction.
The trunklid, head restraints and roll bars are pretty high, so it's tough to see behind you by turning your head, but my convertible test car was workable through prodigious use of the rearview mirrors. Once the V-10 cooks up, louvers in the hood let the heat escape straight up, sometimes rippling your forward view when sitting still. I'm not saying this hampers visibility; it's just totally cool.
I'll admit that after a week I longed for a cupholder, but I respect Dodge's exclusion of one. I'm a little disappointed by the lack of cruise control. It makes all kinds of sense, really, because it would be easy to go into a turn and lose control before there was time to shut it off and take over. Still, I find cruise helps me keep from inadvertently creeping above the speed limit. With the electronic throttles, cruise would add little cost and practically no weight.
I can't overstate the importance of keeping one's speed in check — both for safety reasons and because ... look at this thing. It's not exactly unobtrusive. Police see it miles away, and can probably hear it, too. In almost every respect, the word for the Viper is "loud." Some observers dismiss the Viper's styling as the stuff of grade-school boys' daydreams. If so, color me juvenile. The exhaust rumble is similarly obtrusive, even at idle. A few times I startled the hell out of nearby people when I started the engine in parking lots. Owners should display coffee cup stickers on their rear bumpers to tally the number of tragic mocachino incidents they've caused. To that end, when vaulting the monstrous side sill and dropping into the driver's seat of an idling Viper, it's probably best not to land on the accelerator pedal or you'll just reinforce everything people hate about sports-car owners. (Or so I assume; I would never do such a thing...) Take It or Leave It Another of the Viper's charms is side sills that get hot enough to burn you, due to the exhaust pipes that run through them. I went unscathed, but I'd be careful if wearing shorts. I even respect this aspect. It reminds me of the Nissan 350Z; when it came out, I looked at the large brace that obstructs the cargo hatch and thought, you have to respect that. It's there for a reason, and that reason is performance. It seems to say, "If you disapprove, buy something else." The whole Viper is kind of like that. Still, the trunk isn't bad at all; it's large enough for golf clubs, I'm told, which seems to be all anyone cares about when it comes to trunk size. Speaking of the trunk, several people were annoyed that there was no trunk release inside the cabin. You need to push the button on the remote (which thankfully you can do when the engine's running — not true of all cars) or use the key. I thought this was a minor inconvenience myself ... until later, when it became a major one.
I made a couple of trips to the gas station during my Viper loan. The car's EPA-estimated gas mileage is 12/21 mpg (city/highway). Not great, but an improvement over the previous generation's 11/19 mpg (using the same stringent 2008 calculation standards). That's impressive stuff when it accompanies a 90-hp power bump. The penalty is a $1,700 gas-guzzler tax — down from $3,000 in the previous version, thank you very much. The Viper inspires disgust among the environmentally conscious, but Dodge sells roughly 1,500 of them a year, and they aren't even usable in winter. (When the temps dipped into the 40s in Chicago one day, the summer tires hardened up and gave me less grip, and the Viper was noticeably more squirrelly.) The greater environmental problem comes from the millions of Ford Explorers and the like that Americans — including some greeny-come-latelys — drove for 10 years. Perspective, people. Perspective. The 'Minor' Inconvenience At the end of our week with the Viper, videographer Sarah Gersh and I headed to an isolated industrial area to shoot a quick video, and I got some perspective of my own. While moving random items from the cabin to the trunk, I was distracted by a gravel truck that whizzed around the corner and bore down on Sarah. Concerned for her safety, and maybe a little bit for our fantastic new video camera, I absently tossed the handful of items into the trunk and closed it. The truck had shuddered to a halt, and the driver asked if we could move the car about 5 feet so he could unload his dumpster. The immediate answer was no, as I had just locked the key and the remote in the trunk.
The minor inconvenience had become a larger one. I know you're thinking there had to be some way to fix this problem, but there really and truly wasn't. Even with the top down and doors unlocked, the trunk was completely secure. The two ways of getting in were connected to each other and inside. Actually, there's a third way: the emergency release inside the trunk. Unfortunately I wasn't locked in there — if I had been, I'd have had my choice of the remote or the ripcord, and I wouldn't be telling this tale ... though I suspect there would be another tale to explain why I was locked in a Viper's trunk.
After dropping the parking brake and pushing the car forward, I called the Dodge fleet and asked if they had another key, hoping they could drive it out to me late in the afternoon, resulting in me catching no end of grief. I would have taken the grief gladly rather than hear the response, "No. That car just arrived from Detroit and we don't have another key in the state."
The conclusion to this story involves many calls to roadside assistance, a flatbed truck driving off into the setting sun hours later, a credit-card charge of an as-yet-unknown-and-dreaded quantity and a truncated video with a morose-looking host. Now, I must acknowledge that many factors turned this minor inconvenience into an epic one. Foremost, the average Viper owner would have readier access to a spare key, plus our car was in a remote, insecure area where it couldn't be left unattended. Were it in our parking structure, we would have just waited until we got another key ... but then there's the factor of the top being down, which can't be raised without (say it with me) opening the trunk. For this reason, the Viper had to be towed not simply to a dealership but to one that could accommodate it under cover overnight. There was another critical factor, and that was me. The word that comes to mind is "dumbass."