The 2003 Dodge Viper is the best rendition of the sports car that bowed in the 1992 model year.

The 8.3-liter, 20-valve V-10 now delivers an awesome 500 horsepower, a considerable upgrade from the mere 400 h.p. in the original.

And the V-10 develops 525 foot-pounds of slap-you-back-in-the-seat torque, a much more than modest upgrade from the 450 foot-pounds of torque in the original.

The '03 Viper SRT-10 is the first product of Chrysler Group's new Performance Vehicle Operations. It will be followed by a turbocharged, 215-h.p. SRT-4 version of the Dodge Neon early next year and an SRT-10 version of the Dodge Ram pickup that comes out sometime next year and shares the 500-h.p. V-10 with Viper.

Dodge will start delivering the Viper SRT-10 in January after the Environmental Protection Agency gives the car its official mileage rating.

Hop in, turn the key, press the starter button and enjoy the rumble coming from under the hood.

Powerful and certainly visually appealing thanks to tweaks that refine the traditional design cues, such as the swept-back fenders and deep-cut side scallops, without diminishing any of the Viperness that had folks sending the automaker blank checks from Day One.

Ride is a tad stiff and handling requires some steering effort, but that's how Dodge and its Viper following want it. This isn't an everyday commuter. Isn't supposed to be.

Viper is still a high-performance image car, a niche it hasn't strayed from since it bowed in '92. Some loyal fanatics still grouse that it could use more power, because, they contend, you can never have too much.

The Viper V-10 is teamed with a 6-speed manual. No automatic. Never had one, never will if Dodge wants to keep its loyalists from storming the doors in protest. An automatic is for the Corvette crowd.

It comes with four-wheel anti-lock brakes, but no traction control nor 'Vette-like stability control.

Only concessions to civility in a machine that originally came without top or side windows, are standard air conditioning, power windows/door locks, power mirrors, power adjustable brake/gas pedals and AM/FM radio with CD player. The air bags have a cutoff switch for the passenger side.

There's a power outlet for your cellphone, but if you travel with a beverage, bring along a passenger to hold the cup, can or bottle.

For '03, rather than coupe and roadster there's but one model, a convertible that, in meeting the Viper philosophy of keeping it simple, is manually operated.

The top can be lowered/raised fairly easily by one person and, unlike the foldable softtop in prior years, doesn't require that all hands first read, then reread, the directions.

The Viper SRT-10 has a base price of $79,995. Add $800 for freight and a gas-guzzler tax. The amount of the tax will depend on the final EPA rating, but it's not likely Viper will top the 11 m.p.g. city/21 m.p.g. highway figure that earned the '02 a $3,000 guzzler penalty.

There basically is only one drawback to the '03 Viper. Most of the unwashed masses can't buy one. Even most of the washed masses with $80,000 in hand plus change to cover the guzzler tax won't be able to buy one, either.

Sorry, all 1,800 to be built have been gobbled up by 1,800 chaps and chapettes among the roughly 14,000 who already own a Viper.

Dodge gave current owners first crack at the new vehicle, and 1,800 took it up on an offer they simply couldn't refuse.

Dodge says it has no plans to repeat the offer for '04.

First chance non Viper Owners Club members will have to get a copy of the 500-h.p. machine will be in the 2004 model year.

Though the sales numbers are low, Dodge says Viper will play an even more important role over the next few years as the division offers a wider array of performance cars.

Viper is the halo machine for the SRT lineup to attract folks into showrooms where they'll pay homage to Viper, but drive away in a more affordable Dodge Neon SRT-4 or Dodge Ram SRT-10 or a high-performance Dodge Charger as most expect soon.

Keep in mind, notes Jim Schroer, executive vice president of global sales and marketing, that between the SRT-4 and SRT-10 there are other numbers capable of SRT status--such as 6 and 8, with 8 also carrying a Hemi designation.

The '03 Viper SRT-10 isn't a car for everybody, which certainly should cheer those 1,800 who will get one.

Anniversary 'Vette

OK, Viper loyalists, it's time to turn the page because we focus now on what you consider the "disgustingly civilized" Corvette.

But this is the 50th Anniversary coupe, and that means that like it or not, people have been able to like the Corvette or not for about 38 more years than they have the Viper.

After testing Viper and 'Vette, can't help but feel there's a message to be learned from these two: Different strokes for different folks.

'Vette is as civil as Viper is crude.

The choice is yours.

'Vette has active handling suspension, traction control and magnetic selective ride control, a sophisticated term for a system that reduces bounce, vibration and noise by isolating and smoothing the action of each tire on all road surfaces. As a result it delivers quieter, flatter ride and more precise handling with less effort on the wheel.

Selective ride is offered in '03 to check the system out before being added to the next-generation 'Vette as well as the Cadillac XLR roadster, which will share the same platform. That's the reason the system comes with a switch to change ride character to behave like a luxury sedan or performance coupe.

The system is included when you add the 50th anniversary package at $5,000 to the coupe or convertible (not offered on the Z06).

We tested the coupe, which starts at $43,225 before the anniversary frills are added, such as the "anniversary red" finish that appears red to maroon depending on the light and the badges and embroidery designed to set the car apart from a regular 'Vette.

You'd think that since Chevy had 49 years to prepare for this model, there would have been a knock-your-socks-off limited-edition version in which badges and embroidery were secondary to let-it-all-hang-out performance.

Oh, well, Chevy has 49 more years to prepare for the 100th anniversary model.

Smooth ride, sure-footed handling, ample power from the V-8 teamed with optional ($915) 6-speed manual (automatic standard) but nothing that stands out.

New standard features for '03 include fog lights, power passenger seat, dual-zone climate control, parcel net and luggage shade.

About 10,000 anniversary models will be built.

TEST DRIVE

2003 Dodge Viper SRT-10

Wheelbase: 98.8 inches

Length: 175.6 inches

Engine: 8.3-liter, 500-h.p. V-10

Transmission: 6-spe ed manual

Fuel economy: Not available

Base price: $79,995

Price as tested: $79,995. Add an undetermined gas-guzzler tax and $800 for freight.

Pluses: The V-10 with its 500 h.p. and 525 foot-pounds of torque. Exceptional styling. With such low volume, a very image conscious niche vehicle. As crude as Corvette is civil.

Minuses: As crude as 'Vette is civil. Have to wait to get one. The not available noted above.

TEST DRIVE

2003 Chevrolet Corvette Anniversary coupe

Wheelbase: 104.5 inches

Length: 179.7 inches

Engine: 5.7-liter, 350-h.p. V-8

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Fuel economy: 19 m.p.g. city/28 m.p.g. highway

Base price: $43,225

Price as tested: $49,140. Includes $915 for 6-speed; and $5,000 for anniversary package with magnetic selective ride control, power tilt/telescoping steering column, electrochromic mirrors, twilight sentinel, head-up display and memory seats. Add 670 for freight.

Pluses: Total ride, handling, performance package. As civil as Viper is crude. 50 years and going strong.

Minuses: Chevy didn't go out of its way to recognize 50 years of achievement--or buyers supporting the nameplate for 50 years.