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By Bill McGuire, originally published in Autoweek 10/21/2002.
It’s a touchy business, this fooling around with icons. Symbols may evolve, but they must remain true to the original vision.
No one knew this better than DaimlerChrysler when it set out to update the Viper for 2003. When the two-seat, too-fabulous sports car first shown in 1989 actually made it to production in 1992, Viper became the symbol of Chrysler’s rebirth as a real enthusiast’s car company. Chrysler guru Bob Lutz cleverly used what he called “yestertech” to leapfrog the usual obstacles in building high-performance, low-volume cars, and leap over the competition as well.
Lutz knew that while enthusiasts tend to draw a linear connection between performance and technology, the fact is an open sports car is a fairly simple device. It’s not rocket science. How hard can it be? The British could do it very well, and toward the end they could barely make cars at all. So the Viper, Chrysler’s halo car, would be an old-fashioned, raw-boned sports car, in the Shelby Cobra mold. And while by contemporary manufacturing standards the Viper was primitive, even atavistic, buyers didn’t care. That it was a throwback was essential to its appeal. No design compromises or sound deadener to lessen the driver’s experience; just a stiff chassis, a great big hairy engine and very little else, like NVH development or a real ventilation system. In its crudeness, there was purity. With the Viper, Chrysler was back as a major player on the Detroit performance scene, and for the purity of his vision, Lutz was a motorhead folk hero.
But even for an icon, change must come. In Detroit, mission creep is the natural order. Viper got a mechanical update in 1996, and for ’03 it’s been treated to a total makeover. Sixties retro has been updated, to some point closer to the end of the previous century. When it came time to replace the elementary roof hoop and lift-out panel with a real folding convertible top, designers saw that a two-inch-longer wheelbase would be required to provide room for the mechanism. May just as well start over from scratch, they figured, so they drew up what is an all-new car, using the latest materials and production techniques, but trying to stay true to the original vision. In evolving the icon, the Viper has been sharpened in some places, in others smoothed over. But this is not to say the new Viper is polished or well rounded. Let’s say some corners have been knocked off-with a die grinder.
First, the sharpening. While the new Viper’s V10 engine is essentially the same, some hot rod tricks have boosted output from the original’s ample 400 hp. First, a 0.030-inch overbore and a 0.080-inch stroker crank increased the displacement to 505 cid. Again, it’s not rocket science, more like blacksmithing. While the Viper is a V10, and the latest high-tech F1 engines are V10s, any similarity ends there. Based on a cast-iron V10 Dodge truck engine, itself rooted in the venerable Chrysler LA pushrod V8 family, the Viper unit (cast in aluminum to reduce weight) has its banks deployed at 90 degrees, while its crank throws are phased at 72 degrees. So no, it can never be “smooth,” not by passenger car standards. Sure, like we care.
For us the bottom line is the 500 horsepower at 5600 rpm and the 525 lb-ft of torque at 4200 rpm. According to DaimlerChrysler engineer Charlie Brown, by 1700 rpm there’s already 450 lb-ft of torque on tap. Yikes. That’s one flat power curve; flat as the plate of an anvil.
The intake manifold and porting have been cleaned up; valve diameters are increased slightly; the rollerized rocker arms are investment castings, and they are so pretty it’s a shame they’re hidden under covers. You can hear the valvetrain, the result of another old-time hot rodder’s trick. The hydraulic valve lifter leakdown rate has been fiddled with, says Brown, partly to ease through emissions regulations. So there’s a little tappet noise at times-sounds for all the world like the solid lifters on an old fuelie Corvette. By no means is the noise objectionable; we found it cool. And when you poke the throttle, the 10-cylinder syncopation dissolves, and the music playing on the Viper’s side pipes is pure late ’60s big-block V8. Woobaa. Woo-woo-woobaa.
While the Tremec T56 transmission and its six closely spaced gears (the top two are overdriven) remain, with all this torque most of them seem redundant in normal driving. A 1-4 skip shift feature is included if your clutch leg tires. Or you could just stick the ax-handle shift lever in second and leave it there for the day, whether you’re heading out on the turnpike or to the corner store.
This thing is a torque monster. A torque-asuarus. At nearly any legal speed in any of the direct gears, you can stand on the gas, light up the enormous rear tires and smoke ’em (Michelin run-flat Pilot Sport, P345/30ZR-19; the fronts are P275/35ZR-18). There you have it, the essence of Viper: the ability to leave long, wide black marks all over everything. Of course, that sort of behavior is terribly juvenile, antisocial if not performed with extreme discretion, not to mention illegal in many jurisdictions. There is our official position. But seriously, it does raise a question: Within the bounds of civil behavior, what do you do with a car like this? What’s it for?
In the wine country north of San Francisco, we had a chance to drive this Viper to figure it out. DaimlerChrysler also supplied several 2002 models so we could form our comparisons of the new vs. the old. Also available were examples of the Viper’s closest “competitors,” such as they are (for better or worse, the Viper pretty much stands alone): Porsche 911, Mustang Cobra, Corvette Z06.
First, let us say the latest Viper’s interior accommodations are considerably more civilized and more conventional. The wide, flat vinyl trim covering the central backbone space frame and driveline tunnel, which virtually screamed kit car or perhaps marginal Etceterini, is now molded and shapely, lending a more finished look. The driver’s manual pedal adjuster is now power-operated, and the strange (but strangely bond-forming) inside-out shoulder belts have been replaced by conventional three-point harnesses. There’s a true integrated HVAC system in place of the hang-on unit used in previous Vipers, though the a/c in our car was frequently overcome by engine heat soaking into the footwells when the top was down. DC officials say that’s a pre-production glitch that will be corrected.
Though the previous four-wheel independent suspension with forged aluminum wishbones has been retained, the geometry has been revised and there are other changes as well. All are designed, says the Viper chassis team, to deal with “stiction.” Interesting word and a handy melding of “sticking” and “friction.” The term won’t be found in Webster’s, but it’s been around the industry for years, used to describe what happens to presumably low-friction bearings and pivots when subjected to dynamic loads. They often bind, wreaking havoc on spring rates and damper tuning. With stiction properly managed, suspension calibrations can be more accurate and responsive.
The rutted, narrow roads that connect the villages and vineyards of wine country and endlessly fold back on themselves in tight hairpins and switchbacks are classic sports car country. The Viper’s suspension changes could immediately be felt, and it’s a dramatic improvement. Where the old Viper skitters across ruts and patches, the new chassis is far more agile, tracks where it’s pointed without stepping out. But on asphalt goat paths as tight and slow as these, trying to hustle the Viper soon grows tedious, even with the more supple suspension-like stalking gnats with a hammer. We found ourselves leaving the shifter in second and squirting from corner to corner. The Viper is 78.5 inches wide, weighs 3380 pounds and feels every bit of both. Here, a Boxster or S2000 would be a more suitable tool. Not until we got out on the highway could the big V10 be given its wind, and the big bruiser allowed its stride. Viper carves up long sweepers; eats up big spaces.
As for refinement, while the SRT-10 is more civilized, by most standards it’s still a rude beast. Those thinking the Viper has become sissified have nothing to fear. If on an imaginary scale of sports car gentrification from one to 10, we were to say that the original Viper is a one and the Corvette Z06 is a 10 (not that the Z06 is perfect; just, you know, saying), then the new Viper might be a five. Styling is a personal thing between enthusiast and icon, but to most eyes the predatory Viper look has been toned down, converging on the Jaguar/Aston/Maserati themes ubiquitous to upper-crust sports cars these days. (The once-distinctive flank vents now look an awful lot like the C5 Corvette’s fender coves.) But from the driver’s seat, the Viper is still unlike anything else on the road. Underneath the new cardigan, the hair shirt remains.
So, back to the question: What do you do with a car like this? Whatever it is, it certainly hasn’t changed. Even with the improvements the Viper stays true, which must be more important than the pursuit of ultimate perfection. Maybe in the cramped back roads of the wine country, it’s a little out of its element. It’s a runner, not a dancer. The Viper, new or old, is not a sports car exactly; it’s a sports car in the American idiom. You have to look to Detroit, where the Viper came from, and the wide, flat prairie that stretches out all around it. There, the roads are laid out straight as string, through the cornrows and all the way out to the horizon. What do you do with a road like that? You lay two long, wide, black patches on it, if you must, and you go see what’s at the other end.
That’s what a Viper is for.