It’s fascinating how automobiles can embody human emotions and ideas. For example, if you wanted to define “finesse” in the automotive realm, cars like the Lotus Elise or Mazda Miata would fit the bill perfectly. Both are lightweight, nimble, and give a sense of connection and fluidity like few others can. When describing the essence of those cars, Lotus founder Colin Chapman’s famous philosophy, “Simplify, then add lightness” couldn’t ring more true. The car featured in this edition of Cars in the Wild, the Dodge Viper R/T 10, is exactly none of those things.
If the Elise is a scapel, the Viper is a rusty sledgehammer; if the Miata is a happy Terrier who’s eager to frolic and play, the Viper is an irritated pit viper who’s thinking about making a lunge at your face. The early Dodge Vipers contributed greatly to the stereotype that America’s supercars are really only good for going in straight line. Refined? An exquisite handler? A predictable gentleman’s racer? These things the Viper is not. But, what it may lack in traditional measurements of performance, it more than makes up for in character and excitement. I mean, just look at it – that hood! Those steamroller tires! The center exit exhaust! You get the impression that Dodge just kind of slid some money across the table to a group of wild eyed engineers and said, “Well, it needs to say Dodge on the car somewhere, and having it actually work would be great, but other than that, have fun.”
This particular car is a second generation model, produced between 1996 and 2002. Under that endless hood lies a colossal 8.0-liter V10, which can trace its roots back to the first-generation Viper’s Lamborghini-designed engine. Despite its monstrous size, the engine actually only develops 415 horsepower. Still, these second-gen Vipers were a marked improvement in every way over the original car. It’s faster and lighter, and while it looks similar, there were enough changes to warrant calling it a new generation model. The Viper mauls its way to 60 mph in about four seconds (which is properly quick, even by today’s standards), and runs onto a 185 mph top speed. And, while crisp handling dynamics are not this car’s forte, cornering and performance limits are high enough to make it worthy of the supercar mantle.
As the Viper has evolved, not only has it finally become more refined, but the performance threshold has continued to climb. Much of this is due to the car’s success in a variety of racing series. The current-generation Viper comes packing an even larger engine (8.4-liters!) and makes 640 horsepower and 600 lb-ft of torque. With the help of carbon fiber and aluminum, it is lighter and sharper than any versions before it, and with dollops of leather and plenty of Fiat money, it’s now more comfortable and upscale than any other Viper as well. While time and development have improved it’s maturity, it’s core DNA still reflects the original car’s recipe of intensity and brute force over delicacy and finesse.
There is no shortage of supercars that are superior to the Viper – some accelerate faster, others are better on a racetrack or have a more prestigious pedigree – with nearly all costing many times more. But, few can pull off the level of panache and intensity of this legendary all-American bruiser. The Dodge Viper, like the Chevrolet Corvette, brings a unique brand of performance to the table at a price that people other than oil tycoons and Crown Princes can afford. Flaws and all, the world would be a far duller place without the Viper, and that’s why we love it. *cue billowing American flags and fireworks*