I MUFFED it. On my first trip around the track in the new Dodge Viper GTS coupe at the Chrysler Arizona Proving Grounds, I played it nice -- easy on the throttle, gentle movement through the curves. I wanted to look smooth, thinking that smooth looked competent and confident. But a Chrysler official waved me off the track.

"You can drive this one," the Chrysler official said. "You wanna find out what this car can do? You gotta punch it!"

So, I "punched it" on my next lap around the track. Pedal to metal, second gear. Curves coming so fast, they made me gulp. But the GTS somehow negotiated the twists and turns without losing control.

Whoa, boy! I was just getting into it when I ran out of my allotted laps. Too many journalists waiting for test drives. I resented every one of them -- wanted them all to go back to wherever they came from and leave me, the Viper GTS and the track alone.

But one of the Chrysler officials offered a compromise. "How about taking a few turns riding with one of our professional test drivers?" he asked. I said "amen" to that and jumped into the passenger's seat. Even from that vantage point, the Viper GTS was one hell of a ride.

Still, I walked away from the track a bit saddened -- partly because the fun was over, but mostly because of the reality that there are precious few places in the United States where the Viper GTS could be driven the way it was driven here.

Background: The first Dodge Viper, introduced in 1992 as a roadster, was an unmitigated beast. It was noisy. Its canvas canopy and zip-up windows leaked in the rain. It came without exterior door handles, a stereo or air conditioning. But it came with side-mounted exhaust pipes that burned unprotected legs when stepping out of the car after a drive.

It was loads of fun, though, and the recalcitrant gearheads among us were willing to put up with its inconveniences just to hear the growl and feel the thrust of its big V-10 engine.

The new Viper roadster, the RT/10, and its companion hardtop GTS coupe are kinder, gentler animals. But they're animals, nonetheless.

Side-mounted exhaust pipes have been replaced by more conventional back-end pipes on the new models. The doors are electronically controlled: Press a button on a battery-operated key fob to unlatch or lock. Recessed handles on the exterior center pillars -- also called the "B-pillars" or "stanchions" -- allow the doors to be pulled open from the outside.

There's also a new suspension system and new tires that make the Vipers more livable on rough roads. Dual front air bags are standard, as are power steering and a tilt steering wheel. Air conditioner and stereo systems are standard.

Vented, four-wheel disc brakes are standard. There are no anti-lock brakes.

Unlike some other major sports cars, the new Vipers haven't been softened to the point of equipping them with automatic transmissions. If you want to drive these snakes, you have to deal with a six -speed, manual stick.

Power? Have mercy! We're talking about an 8-liter, V-10 engine rated 450 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, with torque set at 490 pound feet at 3,700 rpm. Varroomm!

Complaints: The tested Viper GTS and available Viper RT/10 roadster are totally impractical. They're expensive, both in terms of initial and operational costs. These cars are to environmentalists what mink coats are to animal lovers.

Praise: The Viper GTS is a very fast, growly, totally impractical, in-your-face, don't-give-a-damn-what-you-think-or-say, fun-to-drive car. It is a motorized definition of freedom. Such things are needed in a democracy to keep political correctness at bay.

Head-turning quotient: On the tested GTS coupe -- ain't no doubt about it, it's a Viper. Very aggressive color scheme: blue body with two white racing stripes.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Hip, hip, hooray! Whoa, baby! This car can run -- and stop. Braking was excellent.

Mileage: Miserable. But whatyae pect? About 16 miles per gallon (19-gallon tank, estimated 284-mile range on recommended premium unleaded). Test-track mileage based on Chrysler engineering estimates. EPA estimates about 13 miles per gallon in the city and 21 on the highway.

Sound system: Six-speaker Alpine AM/FM stereo radio and cassette with CD changer. I didn't listen to the sound system.

Price: Base price on the tested Viper GTS coupe is $66,000. Estimated dealer invoice is $60,000. Price as tested is $73,030, including a $2,600 gas-guzzler tax; a stupid, patently unfair $3,730 federal "luxury" tax (the government's class warfare tax); and a $700 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: This is a "want" car. If you want it and are willing to pay the price, it's yours. I'd be happy to help you drive it. Compare to the Ferrari 456 GT, the Porsche 911 Coupe and the Calloway Corvette.