Nov 09,2007 00:00
I folded back the top of a Venom Red 2008 Dodge Viper SRT10 convertible, settled behind the wheel and headed for the highway. Six hundred horsepower is a terrible thing to waste.
No stability control, no traction control, no cruise control - no problem, apparently. It's all about driver control.
The Dodge Viper isn't a sports car on everyone's list, but that's how the loyalists want it, said Erich Heuschle, Viper supervisor of vehicle dynamics.
Among the two-seat-sports-car competition, Viper is the cannonball splash into the pool. It may not have all the creature comforts of other $86,000 sports cars, but it does have 10 cylinders and a top speed of 202 mph. And there's much new for 2008.
This generation of the car is so smoothed out from the early years that "Viper" and "refined" can be used in the same sentence. But it's still a snake lying in wait.
Sold in coupe and convertible, the Viper is old-school, rear-wheel-drive muscle, crude but effective. It's fun in an invigorating, "I just cheated death" kind of way.
The new model introduces a new engine and six-speed manual transmission, a beefed-up differential, hood louvers, new springs and dampers, a retuned rear sway bar and a return to conventional tires - no more run-flats.
It's still a no-frills car, even if it does cost $86,190 and $86,940 for the coupe. There are the basic standard-equipment items - remote locking, air conditioning, front air bags, a seven-speaker audio system and power windows, but don't expect cup holders. There's not even an interior release for the hood - just reach through a slot in the grille for the tab.
There's also a now-dated red start button that requires putting the key into the ignition, then a push of the button. Technology has advanced to allow an "intelligent key" that allows one-step, push-button starting.
But firing the engine is still a thrill. The engine pops and crackles like a race car's, then warms into a lumpy mumble. It's obnoxious fun to run the engine to redline in first gear and lift off the throttle just to hear the angry, UPS-truck exhaust tone.
Enlarging the bore of the 10-hole V-block by one silly millimeter pushed displacement from 8.3 liters to 8.4. And with that, horsepower went up by 90. Some of the power boost comes from new cylinder heads with Computer Numerically Controlled combustion chambers, larger valves and variable valve timing, which combine to move air faster through the engine and out the downspout-size side pipes.
Moving power from engine to transmission is a new twin-disc clutch, replacing the larger-diameter, single-disc setup that was renowned for its left-leg exercise. The new clutch is about 18 percent lighter to actuate.
The Tremec T56 six-speed manual gearbox has flick-of-the-wrist shifter travel. And taller gears make better use of the torque - 560 foot-pounds at 5,000 rpm.
With this much power, the car will launch from zero to 60 mph in less than five seconds - all in first gear, if you can keep the tires from spinning. Then it's on to 90 mph in second, 120 in third and 202 in fifth gear, Heuschle said.
The gear ratios allow plenty of range in first, second and third for driving in traffic. At 70 mph in fifth, the engine is turning 2,000 rpm, which drops to 1,500 rpm in sixth at 80 mph. That should help fuel economy - 12 mpg city, 21 highway - if a Viper owner cares.
Working on the track at the Transportation Research Center near Columbus, Ohio, Heuschle elected himself for the testing.
"One day we did more than 150 miles at 200 mph," he said. "We did 197 with the top down and 202 with the top up. The coupe and convertible have very similar drag, and both are within 1 mph of each other."
He credits improved aerodynamics as key in breaking 200 mph. Also, the Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires - with a unique pattern, construction and compounding - are about two seconds faster per lap than the run-flats, Heuschle said.
Early Viper "roadsters" had a top that fit like a canvas pup tent and was prone to blowing off at high speed. Not so with this one. The trunk must first be opened, then the top can be manually folded back with little fuss, snapping into place to form a tight tonneau.
With the top down, it's the wind dump over the windshield that keeps drivers at sane-enough speeds. Not only hats, but sunglasses, too, are subject to wind loss.
With the top up, anti-Viper passengers will complain about the engine drone at high speeds, but it's more tolerable now than before. The speedometer is crammed with digits to 220 mph, and the lines between numbers jump in 5-mph increments. A digital speed readout would help those who worry about 10 or 20 mph over the limit.
Like rye whiskey, the Viper is an acquired taste. It isn't sanitized or boring.
"A few flaws help it stand out," Heuschle said. "Kind of like people."