The Dodge Viper is a roughneck sports car of regressive technology with no apparent purpose beyond restoring passion to pale lives.

It's rather like getting a tattoo. Or quitting IBM in mid-career to buy a winery.

"This really isn't a perfect car," admits Tom Gale, vice president of product design for Chrysler. He acknowledges that the interior is near-primal, the styling a cartoonist's orgy and the mechanicals red meat. "But that's what gives it a lot of personality. It's a no-frills car, a no-holds-barred performance car. It is brute power and a return to grass roots."

Gale arrived in Los Angeles with four production prototypes, adding to the finely orchestrated infancy of the scarlet, voluptuous Viper before it goes on sale this month. They were handed to incoming shifts of salivating automotive journalists who left no habitat unturned.

The writers bounced its thunder against mountains leading to Tehachapi and spun the hand-built brutes at Willow Springs Raceway. They found the plastic-bodied car's faults, remained mesmerized by its marketing audacity and came to a common conclusion: This bad-asp Viper oozes appeal by being delightfully at odds with all of today's cars and cares.

* Buyers accustomed to smoothness of carriage and the conveniences of power seats and tilt steering wheels will find Viper rough around the edges to the point of vulgarity. It doesn't have outside door handles, the vinyl top is more of a toupee and it will quickly bite the foot that feeds too much power to the rear wheels. Ask if it will be sold with automatic transmission and you will be advised to wash out your mouth.

* In an urban environment obsessed with alternative fuels and displaying zero tolerance for sooty particulates, Viper converts one gallon of premium unleaded into hydrocarbons every 14 miles. Under the spurs, that thirst descends to a single-digit slurp.

* These are minimalist times of family sedans, van pools to Sizzler and conservative speed limits. Viper is a motoring antichrist with only two seats, a top speed of 165 m.p.h and side pipes that belch brimstone and threaten any ankle within range.

Despite its sledgehammer performance, Viper will not be sold with air bags, anti-lock brakes or even a roll bar, should the car ever come to rest shiny side down.

Japan is dedicated to making slick, turbocharged little automobiles that squeeze more power from smaller engines. Dodge has built a free-breathing locomotive that sucks 400 horsepower from an 8-liter, 488-cubic-inch, V-10 truck engine.

The earthy, outspoken, dogmatic crafters of Viper, of course, make no apologies for the venom of their beast.

* Carroll Shelby, race driver, builder of the legendary Cobra (whose mood this Viper openly emulates)and a project consultant: "You want air-conditioning, automatic transmission, cruise control and all that bull-bleep? Go buy a Corvette."

* Ray Sjoberg, executive engineer of Team Viper: "I was told to build an American love affair. See Viper as a four-wheel Harley-Davidson. In fact, we even thought about asking Harley-Davidson to build us an engine."

* Designer Gale: "Maybe it's not the car that changed the world. But it . . . can change Chrysler's image."

Therein the play.

Cursed by an insipid product line of K cars and face-down in red ink, Chrysler has gone for broke, boldly betting what's left of the farm and Lee Iacocca's retirement fund on Viper.

It formed a team and an engineering operation around a much-admired Chrysler concept car, and drew up a rigid, impossibly brief design-production cycle. Team dreamers knew they were staring into a recession, where sales of vaunted performers--such as Acura's mid-engined NSX and Chevrolet's 180-m.p.h. ZR1 Corvette--were threatening to go limp. Team Viper also knew it could presume no profit from a limited-interest, low-volume, pol tically incorrect, two-place domestic sports car.

But, went their reasoning, building a car fast, pure and lusty might reverse Chrysler's image as just another stumbling, stolid member of the Big Trio.

So far, Chrysler's bet has worked better than "Monday Night Football." Just how much action it generates will be measured starting Saturday, when the car goes on display at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show at the Convention Center.

Team Viper was 85 members who dismantled bureaucracy, remained autonomous, kept the technology basic, developed faster production processes and turned out a new car in less than 36 months. The Detroit norm is a work force of hundreds within a dozen job descriptions working with a lead time of six years.

The Viper has been brought to market for only $70 million. Ford, by comparison, expects to spend $1 billion on building its new Mustang for 1994.

In this age of weed-whacking Italian super cars costing $200,000 or more, Chrysler has built a bug-smashing American roadster and an instant classic that will sell for only $50,000.

And as the Mazda Miata tapped buyer nostalgia for mischievous European sports cars of the '60s, so was Dodge Viper built to satisfy pent-up yearnings for broad-shouldered American muscle cars of the same era.

Don't doubt the public desire.

To cultivate collectors while contriving a certain rarity to the marque, only 200 Vipers, all red, will be sold during the 1992 model year. The buyer waiting list at Chrysler already is 5,000 letters long.

No one should take the lines of the Viper seriously.

They remain those of the concept car it was in an earlier life, when the necessary devotion was to how it looked, not what it could do.

So huge exhaust pipes yawn ahead of rear wheels. They are not ideal for producing sporty engine sounds--and are illegal in Canada--but are great for the hairy-chested look.

The 17-inch wheels are cast, spun and forged. But only three spokes surrounded by much daylight look more lunar lander than Le Mans screamer.

The behemoth V-10 is front-mounted, but has been moved back until position and balance are actually that of a mid-engined car. That gives a bobtail look to the Viper's rear and an enormous reach to the hood. Its blunt, vertical front, fat lips and great slotted mouth seem to be sniffing for plankton and surfers' feet.

Yet Viper does show a flat, flowing, attractive profile with a personality for every angle. From one view, it is a lanky, swayback gunslinger. From another, the car is the most powerful shape to bless American motoring since . . . well, since Carroll Shelby's AC-Ford-Cobra.

One look at the low stance and enormous rear tires by Michelin--with a combined 26 inches of grabby tread--leaves no question about the car's brute strength. A glance at the hood badge shows the mien behind all that muscle: a Viper bust, head cocked, fangs bared--and grinning.

Chrysler has spared every expense to keep the interior free from a front parlor feel. The dash is matte-painted metal, and stark gauges show red needles and black numbers on large, white dials.

The steering wheel is fat, leather-covered and a perfect handful for two-fisted motoring. Large bucket seats, beautifully tailored for grip and comfort, offer ample room for the widest of shoulders and broadest of beams.

There is a heater. There is a radio. There are turn signals that even cancel every once in a while, an ashtray and side screens instead of windows. There endeth the short list of luxuries.

Again, that's how it was in the '60s and the years of the Cobra. When engines were huge and noisy, and even rookie street racers could leave smoking rubber in any gear. When the Dodge Charger, Oldsmobile 442 and Chevrolet 409 were built for enthusiasts who asked for nothing but a great-driving car that could kick butt.

Fr m its six-speed manual mated to a big-block, gas-sucking engine (developed from an experimental truck engine), Viper recaptures the visceral appeal of a generation of American muscle cars.

Yet despite intimidating performance figures--zero to 100 m.p.h. and back to zero in 14.5 seconds--the Viper is not difficult to drive. The lightly powered steering is positive, yet easy even for those who must ask others to open ketchup bottles. The clutch is firm but far from concrete. The shifter--although several pounds of pressure removed from a Honda Accord--works as easily as a Corvette's.

On the other hand, car and driver will get irritable in midafternoon, crosstown traffic. After braking for the 19th red light on Wilshire, treading clutch and brake become a labor. Suddenly, a definite envy develops for the driver of the automated and air-conditioned Lexus alongside.

But Viper was not designed as a daily driver. It is a second (maybe even third) car for wide open roads and crisp weekends. There, it is an easy, powerful performer and far from an unbridled beast, unless booted too hard at performance extremes.

In its touring element, the Viper will gambol all day in fourth, because that gear is still good for more than 100 m.p.h. In sixth gear at that speed, a glance at the tachometer indicates the engine is turning about 2,000 rpm and apparently taking a nap. With a track of 60 inches, a wheelbase of 96 inches and ground clearance of only 4.5 inches, the Viper cruises easily at 130 m.p.h. without a hint of shudder, sway or body rattle.

Under racing conditions, however, the car is not a happy reptile. It transmits a huge dollop of 490 pounds of torque to the asphalt--the hot-rod Corvette ZR-1 delivers only 370--which makes handling twitchy, the Viper always threatening to sling its rear end out when departing straight lines for fast, sweeping turns. When the car does let go, it happens right now with only a whisper of warning from those fat tires and barely one nanosecond of recovery time.

The upside is a set of race-bred, 13-inch disc brakes. From 100 m.p.h., they will stop the car dead in its treads in five seconds.

Still, as the man said, Viper isn't perfect.

It weighs in at 3,272 pounds--about the same as a Dodge Caravan--and that excess shows up as a lack of nimbleness. The car is powerful, pulling mightily through its performance range, but it doesn't offer the lumbar punch of anything turbocharged.

It also has none of the sound expected of a high-performance sports car. Its note is more swoosh and an inoffensive growl somewhere below the alto, rolling throat of a truck engine.

And there is no way to lock the car.

Viper, however, is more than a vehicle. It represents a philosophy and a pilot program. Chrysler says it has achieved new quality by returning to hands-on craftsmanship and by proving the efficiency of a lean team free to make i ts own decisions.

Dodge Viper clearly is the most dramatic car ever built by Chrysler.

If it doesn't slow the company's billion-dollar losses, it could be the last car built by Chrysler.

Yet win, draw or hasta la vista, baby, Chrysler deserves medals for building a domestic car aimed not at quick financial gain but at the long-ignored subtleties of image and buyer emotion.

1992 Dodge Viper RT/10

The Good Brave, distinctive, retrospective muscle car. Wild performer with wide, tame streak. A commitment to the adventures of enthusiast driving. Basic, vulgar and proud of it.

The Bad Gas conservationist's nightmare. Dicey handling at performance limits. Anemic sound.

The Ugly To the timid, the entire car.

Cost Base and as tested: $50,000.

Engine 8-liter, 488-cubic inch, 20-valve V-10 developing 400 horsepower.

Type Front engine, rear-dr ve, two-seat, low-production sports car.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., 4.5 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 165 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, estimated, city-highway ave rage, 14 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 3,272 pounds.