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Long after sundown, on a quiet stretch of I-65 an hour or so north of Nashville, an RX-8 materializes in the rearview mirror. The guy wants to race. No real surprise there. It’s the kind of thing you come to expect when you’re driving a Viper. More so when that Viper is the street-legal race version, the ACR, what with its towering rear wing, ground-scraping front aero, semi-slick tires and particular brand of large-displacement attitude.

By design, any Viper makes a very unsubtle statement—one which must from time to time be backed up with action, if only to uphold the reputation of the good people back in Detroit who hand-built the thing.

The Mazda is decidedly nonstock; its rotary wails and its tailpipes spit flames. But even before I drop to third gear, wind up the V10 and punch a Viper-size hole in the darkness, its driver has to know there is no way in hell he has the faster car. No, he just wants to see what the Dodge can do.

There are two kinds of people out there: those who appreciate the Dodge Viper and those who don’t understand it. That was as true in late 1991, when the first generation of the unlikely production hot rod emerged, as it is of the fifth-generation (or third “phase,” depending on how you break it down) car today.

The RX-8 driver gets it. So does the guy in the Challenger 392 and whoever is driving that new Stingray and all of the other people on my 1,200-mile drive from Detroit to Nashville and back who either want to race or nearly drive off the road with astonishment and excitement when they see me slicing through interstate traffic like a predator.

The Viper has always been a special, difficult car. Did its front-midmounted V10, rear-wheel drive and manual-only setup make sense when the model was first conceived, nearly three decades ago, as a sort of Shelby Cobra successor? Tough to say. The configuration was certainly archaic by the time this, the present (and for the foreseeable future, final) version debuted in 2012. But that’s the way it had to be. To have done it any differently would have been to lose what made the car extraordinary. It wouldn’t have been a Viper.

Disclaimer: I have never driven one of these of any vintage on a track. I do know that in the right set of hands, the Viper ACR is faster than just about anything else on four wheels. Look to a privateer team’s 7-minute, 1.3-second Nürburgring run earlier this year, plus a baker’s dozen records at domestic tracks, for proof.

I will never set any lap-time records in a go-kart, let alone a monster like this, but I’ve always appreciated the idea of the Viper. What started as a halo car became a sort of middle finger to the rest of the world. It’s a manifesto: This is the way it’s done in Detroit. Deal with it.

The Viper Experience is not for everyone. It’s best described as “visceral,” if you’re in charitable mood, “crude” if you’re not. When you hit the starter button and all 8.4 liters of that V10 sputter and boom to life, the car rocks slightly, side to side. That engine may drone a bit while loping along in sixth gear on the highway, but that’s its way of reminding you that it doesn’t peak (at 645 hp) until 6,200 rpm. The chassis is rigid and the suspension wonderfully direct, which is another way to say that the setup reveals every bump and groove beneath it. 

You have to reconfigure yourself mentally, and to an extent physically, to accept the car as it is, or you’re simply not going to have a good time with it. If the seats get uncomfortable after long stints—even with, as on this car, a GTS package that adds a more luxurious interior than your standard-issue ACR—be thankful that it doesn’t get better fuel economy and stretch it out when you stop for gas.

In its fifth generation, the Viper finally got traction and stability control, which is less of a surrender to the nannyism than you might think. Despite its surprisingly mild manner when driven even semi-sensibly, the Viper can snap—quickly—if you get too comfortable and push it beyond the threshold of balance. At times, it can get downright scary, but this sense of lurking danger adds a certain savor to the experience. Maybe I’m wrong to enjoy that. You’ll miss it, though, when cars are sold without steering wheels.

In any case, those Kumho ACR tires are useless in the rain; think of their grooves as more of a suggestion of treads than an actuality, and you’ve got the idea. There are a few white-knuckle moments, and, driving back to Detroit, I have to pull over to let a thunderstorm pass. When was the last time you felt compelled to do that in a new car?

But the Viper isn’t a new car, at least not spiritually. It’s all of the best parts about a classic grand tourer zapped into the present. Or maybe it’s a vintage muscle car that’s been taught to handle. Maybe, in true hot-rod fashion, it’s some combo of the hottest, most essential bits of everything. And while the Viper badge speaks for itself in and around Detroit, I am floored to meet Nashvillians who don’t even know what the thing is. It doesn’t help that this generation of Viper suffered an identity crisis (recall that, for a time, it dropped the Dodge badge in favor of a standalone SRT nameplate). 

We made vipers

The Viper’s ostensible competitors—depending on how you look at it: the Mercedes-AMG GT, the Nissan GT-R, even the Chevrolet Corvette Z06—may do certain things better, or for a lower price. Even Dodge’s own Hellcats have it beat in the horsepower wars.

But the Viper isn’t about power above all, nor was it ever supposed to be a slick, tidy toy designed for the clinical delivery of speed. It is a demanding, rewarding, multisensory experience, built to order by hand by skilled workers in an old factory at the northern edge of Detroit. There is effectively nothing else to compare it to.

Now that the Viper is dead, the elegies flow: opinion pieces praising its analog brutality and its Motor City bona fides, market analyses trumpeting its prospects as a future collectible. They are belated—and correct. Read it here first: The Viper was and is good. Cars like it are too few and far between to go unsung.

A neighbor recently took delivery of his Viper; it must have been one of the last cars off the line, which has since gone quiet. Sometimes, when I hear him rumbling down the street, I stop what I’m doing and run to catch a glimpse. Like a kid running for the ice cream truck. His Viper, with its TA 2.0 package, is subtler than the ACR but still impossible to miss—painted the bright yellow of lane markers.

It’s a car I’d love to own, but I’ve never felt even a tinge of envy. It’s his car, and I am content that he has it and appreciates it. That there are at least two of us on the block that really get it.

This article originally appeared in the November 27 issue of Autoweek magazine. Subscribe today.

Graham Kozak

Graham Kozak – Graham Kozak drove a 1951 Packard 200 sedan in high school because he wanted something that would be easy to find in a parking lot. He thinks all the things they’re doing with fuel injection and seatbelts these days are pretty nifty too.
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