It was a last-minute addition to plug a hole in Dodge's Detroit Auto Show display in 1989.
But when consumers started sending blank checks to reserve one, the Viper got the production go-ahead for the 1992 model year.
Viper's role was simple, though vital: Attract folks into Dodge showrooms who hadn't been there in years -- if ever. They might only walk in the door for a peek at the exotic $50,000 two-seater packing the 425-horsepower V-10, but they would then drive out with one of Dodge's more practical -- and lower-priced -- models.
Only 1,000 or so Vipers would be sold each year for only five to seven years, just enough to create a buzz and a spike in sales before being replaced with the next buzz/sales spiker.
Didn't go quite as planned.
The 2008 model year will be Viper's 16th. Rumor was that when Chrysler pink slipped a few cars this month, Viper would be one of them to reduce production complexity and cost. But the Dodge Magnum and Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible, Pacifica and Crossfire were terminated -- for now.
So Viper remains the head-turning two-seater it has been since Day 1. And that's despite a few drawbacks: Being so crude it didn't have air conditioning though it did have a massive engine pouring so much heat into the cabin that legs sizzled.
Couldn't roll down the windows, either, which were zip-open plastic sheets, making trips to a toll booth or Mickey D's an adventure in futility.
And exposed exhaust pipes that ran along both sides of the car along the rocker panels got hot enough to melt skin if you touched one with hand, arm or leg when getting in or out.
Roll-down glass windows and air conditioning were eventually added, but Viper's formula then as now is sensational design and tremendous power, not amenities.
No pain. No gain. And no cupholders.
Having just test driven the 2008 Dodge Viper SRT-10 and the 2008 Chevrolet Corvette coupe, Viper is showing its age, though it does have a new larger hood with a more efficient scoop with functional louvers.
The big change is that an 8.4-liter, 600-horsepower V-10 replaces the 8.3-liter, 510-h.p. V-10. Despite the 90 additional h.p., the V-10 is rated at 13 m.p.g. city/22 m.p.g., versus 11/19 last year, an improvement that cut the gas-guzzler tax to a mere $1,700 from $3,000. You can use the $1,300 to buy a few gallons -- the way gas prices are going again.
'Vette looks much the same as it did though it, too, boasts a power boost: A new 6.2-liter V-8 achieves 436 h.p. in coupe and convertible, replacing the 6-liter, 400-h.p. V-8. The 6.2 is rated at 16 m.p.g. city/26 highway to escape the guzzler tax.
The V-8 slaps you into your seat just like the V-10 in a hard launch -- just not as deeply. But the launch is smoother since the 'Vette 6-speed manual isn't notchy like Viper's.
Viper boasts zero-to-60 m.p.h. time of less than 4 seconds, 'Vette just a hair more than 4 -- unless you are piloting the Z06 with a 7-liter, 505 h.p. V-8 rocket that matches Viper's time.
V-8 and V-10 spring to life with the push of a button. While Viper boasts raw power, 'Vette is more refined: smooth takeoffs, civil ride without jarring the bones or melon like you sometimes suffer in Viper. 'Vette also gets the nod in tight corners and turns and for better side and rear visibility.
Viper doesn't come with traction or stability control like 'Vette, so the rear end at times has a mind of its own. 'Vette delivers pinpoint handling along with smooth ride. Far more comfortable seats in the Chevy than the Dodge, which is tight and feels as if each monthly payment should include a rib. In Viper you lean back and look up rather than sit back and look out as in a 'Vette.
Corvette has become so congenial that even Britney Spears could get into and out it with some semblance of decorum. With Viper you fall in and are pried out. High Viper door sills make entry and exit more suited to the folks jumping the hurdles in the Olympics. Hidden under those sills are the formerly exposed exhaust pipes, which gives the sills a nice warm feeling. .
Worse, brake and clutch pedals are out of plumb and a shade off to the left in Viper, rather than straight ahead as in 'Vette.
Neither is a family or cargo hauler. It's best to make your golf clubs your co-pilot.
Viper gets the nod for the snake badging and the more descriptive name -- as well as louder exhaust rumble. Though we suspect the neighbors preferred the 'Vette on that count.
The 'Vette coupe starts at $45,170 and includes, AM/FM stereo with CD player, MP3 format, XM satellite radio, dual zone air conditioning, leather seats, anti-lock brakes, power driver's seat/locks/windows/mirrors, the latter also heated.
Best options are a head-up display that shows the speedometer reading on the lower windshield in front of the driver as part of a $4,505 package, a Z51 performance package with sports-tuned suspension at $1,695 and a removable transparent roof for $750.
The Viper convertible with manual soft top starts at $83,145 and includes ABS, AM/FM stereo with CD player, air conditioning, power windows/locks/pedals/mirror and rear-window defroster. The mandatory add-on is the $1,700 guzzler tax.
Both 'Vette and Viper are potent weekend warriors, but 'Vette also is civil enough to be a weekday commuter.
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2008 Chevrolet Corvette
*$4,505 Preferred-equipment package with AM/FM stereo with MP3 capability and Bose speakers, head-up display, heated seats and power passenger seat
*$1,695 Z51 Performance package with sports-tuned suspension, larger shocks and springs and performance radials
*$1,295 Polished aluminum wheels
*$1,195 Dual exhausts
*$750 Removable transparent roof
Add $825 for freight.
2008 Dodge Viper
*$700 Polished forged wheels
*$600 Venom red paint
Add $1,700 for the gas-guzzler tax and $850 for freight.- - -
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2008 DODGE VIPER ROADSTER
Price as tested: $84,445
Add $1,700 for the gas-guzzler tax and $850 for freight.
Wheelbase: 98.8 inches
Length: 175.6 inches
Engine: 8.4-liter, 600-h.p. V-10
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Mileage: 13 m.p.g. city/22 m.p.g. highway
90-h.p. boost to 600.
Better mileage and $1,300 reduction in guzzler tax.
Fall in/climb out.
A little crude. - - -
2008 CHEVROLET CORVETTE COUPE
Price as tested: $54,610
Add $825 for freight.
Wheelbase: 105.7 inches
Length: 174.6 inches
Engine: 6.2-liter, 436-h.p. V-8.
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Mileage: 16 m.p.g. city/26 m.p.g. highway
A more powerful V-8.
Exceptional ride and handling without being beat up or bounced around.