Copyright © 2006 Curtis Redgap, special to Allpar.
See the 2008 Viper!
Around the country, November 18 and 19, DCX hosted a Ride, Drive and Win event entitled "Full Throttle" in Orlando, complete with a Crossfire SRT-6 giveaway. The underwhelming response was a surprise and a revelation; for ten days prior to the weekend, full page ads were run in the Orlando Sentinel, which reaches over a million people. The weather was stunningly perfect. A cool snap had come in the day before which lead to low humidity, crisp, clear air, and delightful bright blue sky, the sort of weather that makes you glad to be in Florida. By 9 am, the temperature was already up to 67°. There was a breeze blowing, Nature's air conditioning system working well.
The Orange County Convention Center parking area, where the driving road courses were set up, is a huge facility. The paved parking area is immense, but I was absolutely alone. There was no traffic whatsoever. As I followed the signs to the parking area, I was stunned by the lack of other vehicles there. There were maybe about 75 cars in this huge parking lot set aside for the Full Throttle event. At the registration area, I was the only person in line.
The main component of the registration is to allow the local authorities and DCX security to check your license, to make sure that your driving record doesn't scare the DCX folks. You also get a couple chances to win the Crossfire, and you are given cards with SRT on them so you can get a shot at driving one of the hot SRT models on the road courses.
Turning around, I was faced with the most beautiful blue Dodge Viper Convertible that you can imagine. It was gorgeous. I wanted a shot of getting to drive one of those! I was still marveling at the total lack of participation by the general public. It was all totally free, with plenty of food, coffee, soft drinks, bagels, doughnuts, pastries, and more, all spread out for anyone to help themselves, prepared by Panera Bread, and fully paid for by DCX.
I made a quick tour of the layout. Three different driving courses that had about the same distances, curves, cutbacks, and acceleration lanes. There was a hard braking area as well, if you chose to get full throttle. A course was set out by itself for the SRT-10 Dodge pickup and the Viper.
Duly noted were models that were NOT there. Missing in action completely were the PT Cruiser, Dodge Dakota, and Dodge Caliber. Not a single one on site, not even in the customer parking area! Off the duty roster included the Dodge Caravan, though several were used by the staff; and the Chrysler Town and Country. One model on display which was a 2006 from a local dealer, and it was the LX model which had a few options, but not impressive, and not available for testing.
I also want to make a note to Dodge. I expected to see a couple of police packages there. Maybe not for testing by the general public, but hey, what more attention getting devices could you have than a full blown police pack with lights flashing, siren screaming and that Hemi V-8 roaring around the test driving courses? Nowhere. Not even mentioned. But take a look at what was there:
HEY DODGE, REMEMBER THESE GUYS? They have radios to call their buddies to check it out! To sell a few pursuits…… bring the Cavalry!!
As can be expected, the security was provided by the Orange County Sheriff, which has about 1,100 patrol units. They were all over the place. They frequently watched the proceedings going on at the test tracks. As an aside, as Orange County goes, so does the rest of Central Florida. The Impala is going in on all the surrounding Sheriff departments and local police departments at a good price — $20,000 or so including setup, decal installation, radio, and lights. Drive them away. Hard to beat that, so there are no Dodge pursuits around here.
Now on to getting to drive the Viper! It wasn't easy. Apparently, at an earlier event, someone got in a Viper and drove it away! Yes, the person was caught a few blocks away. However, you can imagine the consternation of the program directors. The cars at the events for the most part were not even registered or licensed. Due to this dope stealing a Viper, the show directors decided that since the Orlando event was the last one of the year, the Viper would not be available for test drives.
But all was not lost, at least not yet. The lack of people at the event meant that the guys in charge were readily accessible. I made my approach. An explanation of what I was doing there, and that I wrote for a enthusiast site called allpar.com with about 40,000 or so participants [editor’s note: that's the forum registration; and Curtis was already registered with Chrysler as a staff writer] got some attention. My request to drive a Viper, even in a out of the way part of the parking lot, had not been refused. As I said to them, just for tactile input, and a general feel of the car. I was partially rewarded in not receiving a lot of laughs. Some consultations were held. Finally, the person in charge told me that he would have to check with his supervisor, and I should check back with him later. In the meantime, he gave me extra SRT cards for extra drives in the SRT models.
Around 2 pm, as I was testing the ordinary models, a roar and a commotion went out in the Viper paddock. The SRT-10 Dodge pickup and the Viper were on the loose, putting on, and I still don't get this……. a drifting demo.
This doesn't represent all the maneuvers that the drivers put the vehicles through, but it does sort of give you an idea what was going on. Those are 345/30Z R19 98Y tires.
A full garage was brought along by tractor-trailer. Tire changes were constant. With the Michelins costing about $420 apiece, retail. They had a few sets out back. Yes, that black Viper is what I had my eyes set on to drive.
My cell phone rang. It was the production director. He could not reach his supervisor, but would speak with him in the evening.
Sunday morning dawned clear and somewhat cool. The sun shone brightly. The production manager gave me a start when he told me to come on over and talk to him. He had some good news. I was thrown into a rush. I actually was going to get to test drive a Viper!
Imagine my surprise when the event manager said that he had checked out allpar.com and was impressed. I was too, not by allpar, because I already knew, but by the fact that he had taken the time to check it out. Based upon the large number of people that are registered in the forums, he agreed to let me “ride” in the Viper.
I met my driver for the occasion, who just happened to be a cousin of a highly respected family that is well involved with racing. I didn't press him as to why he wasn't out there raging around on a track somewhere. The family resemblance however was clearly unmistakable.
Before I even got near the car itself, my driver commanded my full attention. He was firm in admonishing me to be extremely careful in entering and exiting the Viper. The reason is shown below:
Take note of the large "hole" in the side rails, just ahead of the rear wheel openings. Those are the tips of the engine exhaust outlets. Since its inception, Viper has been equipped this way in that the engine exhaust pipes run inside the doorsills. Imagine, they used to be exposed. I was told in no uncertain terms that it would "fry your skin quicker than a chicken leg at KFC!" With his voice garnering my attention, he added that, "you may forget once, but it is a sure thing you would never forget again!" I asked him if he spoke from experience and he acknowledged that just about everyone that drives or owns a Viper gets a mark of distinction. Lead to a few disagreements with friends, and a break up or two with the significant other.
As I came closer to the driver side door, I could actually still see the heat waves slowly rolling off the tip. It was also then that I had a sort of revelation. This looks like a big car at first. It is not. The wheelbase is 98.8 inches. That is 8.2 feet between the center of the wheels. As I stood with the ignition key in my hand, I noted that my host (escort-bodyguard-driver police) was looking at me quizzically. And it is low, built on the ground kinda lookin' too. You see, I was wondering if I could even get in it at all!
Taking a deep breath, and being extremely conscious of the hot door sill, I swung my leg in. Tell you one thing, you better be pretty supple. The ol' spine ain't what it used to be, and in the process of trying to avoid making a recipe out of my other leg, I banged my head pretty good on the convertible top frame rail. It sorta woke we up all right. By using my hand on the side of the steering wheel, I slowly pulled the rest of me inside. I sort of fell inside, and had to pull my leg with my hand to get the rest of me in. Once that was accomplished, another tough realization hit me. This cockpit is tight! Further, when I tried to move around a little to kind of orient myself, the seat bolster held me firmly in place. That may not be a bad thing, but it didn't lend itself to maximizing what I thought might be an ideal driving position for myself. And you got to be careful moving around because the top is like almost touching your head. I was stunned at the closeness feeling confined once I was inside. I am not a real fan of enclosed spaces, and a momentary pang of loss of freedom came over me as I checked around in the Viper Command Seat. The view outside is constricted as well. The big convertible roof panels shut off looks to the right, so the mirror on the right side becomes very critical. Forget trying to see out the rear. You might be able to see someone who has taken up a "tail gator" position. The top doesn't give you much view through the inside rear view mirror. Too narrow.
But, well all right, I am in a Viper! Sitting in the seat like I knew what I was going to do. While I was scoping out the instruments, pedal location, and the six speed gear shift, I noted that the Viper was very warm inside. The temperature was a nice 72° outside, almost too cool for Florida.
This is the view of what I was looking at. These shots are from the Viper that was inside with the top down. My little camera would not focus inside the Viper I was getting ready to drive. Not enough light and too close to refocus.
This is when you realize you are but a couple steps from unleashing one of the most powerful cars built in America. A 510 horsepower aluminum engine with 8.3 litres of displacement, (505.6 cubic inches) laid out in a V-10 with a 90° block. With that rush, forget about feeling closed in, or what the temperature is as long as you aren't melting. What makes this go so well is the 535 foot pounds of twist that is hooked to a 6 speed Tremec transmission. You have gotten a look at the rear tires. The 19 inchers look like treaded beer kegs under there. They are in turn mounted to a rear axle with a 3.07 ratio in a differential that transmits power equally to both rear wheels when it detects one side attempting to outrun the other. Taking all that power into consideration, the brakes were far from forgotten. In fact, they are massive 14 inch vented discs all around that operate through an upgraded ABS system. The suspension system on the front , which mounts 18 inch tires, consists of control arms, with coil springs, and anti roll bars. The rear is kept in under the car with control arms, coil springs and anti roll bar. Fully decked out, like this one, the Viper checks in with about 3500 pounds of gravity holding it on the ground. Listed price on this one? Only $86,995.
So, now I look up at my "host". He nods his head. I slip the key into the ignition lock and twist it. OK, nothing is going to happen, because this jobbie has a big red "start" button. That is located directly under the 4 gauge dash panel to my right. Like time has slowed down, I reach over and press the big red button. It immediately blasts the big V-10 into an idle. My second seat buddy reaches over and cranks up the air conditioning. I glance at him, and he informs me that the V-10 is a massive heat producer. He assured me that I would begin to notice pretty quickly. I am surprised that it is quiet while it sits in an idle. I am also surprised at the clutch pedal. Granted, I haven't driven a stick shift in quite awhile. The Viper clutch pedal is much lighter than I expected, almost oily feeling. I snick the gear shift a few times, gauging out the gates. The travel is short, the feeling is positive, lending confidence to competent gear changes.
I slip the stick into "first" and glance at my "guide." I am limited to a max run up of 3,000 rpm, carefully watched by my guard friend, who has promised he'd yank out the key if I went too far.
Just live with it and let's do this.
I began the clutch take up slowly, trying to get a feel for the car. The tachometer came up to about 1,200 rpm from idle at 700, when all of a sudden, we were launched. Easy. In fact, a lot easier than I anticipated. I had thought that I would either stall it or send the rear tires up in clouds of rubber smoke when I broke traction. But, I didn't, surprising myself. I blipped the throttle, and the engine went a little past 3,000 rpm; my "watch" person seemed or pretended not to notice. A slick move of the shifter into second, along with another quick throttle blip and we were moving out. I had been confined to the property of the Orange County Convention Center Parking Lots. There are many, for the place is huge. But, with the Viper, I felt like I was on a kiddy car track. Slipping into third gear brought the end of one side of the lot, all too quickly. The big brakes snubbed off the speed like it was nothing. Well, I suppose, it was, considering.
The instrument panel is laid out very well. Within a few minutes, you seem to be able to orient yourself to the vital reports that the fully functioning engine gauges are telling you. All the switchgear felt positive, and not like they were made somewhere else and imported to the Viper. The radio controls were familiar to me because I have the same system in my Chrysler. However, you have to take your eyes off the road when you are locating stations, or changing CDs. The switch gear not only looks all the same, it feels the same, and for me, is a tad too small for my fumbly big finders.
My "partner" was right. The heat generated by the V-10 is massive. You can feel it coming through the door sills from the exhaust. The firewall also tosses out a lot of heat, that you feel that in your legs. As well, the center console becomes a heat conduit, making your arm uncomfortable instead of being a nice spot to rest it. You definitely need and will absolutely appreciate the air conditioning.
I pulled up to a stop, and turned the Viper to go into another direction, when I noticed something else that felt a touch odd. The steering wheel is offset to my right! It doesn't line up straight. Once I noticed it, it did tend to bother me. I began to try to compensate through the use of the right hand more than the left. Silly, I know, but you have to wonder why this would be so in a high zoot car like this. The only other car I ever knew that was set up that way was the throwaway Chevrolet Chevette, GM's answer to Ford's Falcon in competing for throw away cars of the century.
This side of the parking area was much longer. Perhaps as much as a mile or better. I slipped up to my 3,000 (well, maybe a little….. bit higher) through 4 gears. By then, it was time to haul the Viper back to stop. I did note that the ride was hard. Small tar strips across the drive transmitted quite definitely into the suspension, which I could feel. I had no way to really tell, but I couldn't help wondering if I would be willing to use the Viper on a daily commute to anywhere. Given some of the concrete roads, even around here that 18 wheeled traffic has beaten down, the ride can be plenty rough.
Since this was an unplanned outing, I had no way to tell what sort of acceleration this sling shot might be capable of, however, through the seat of your pants, you know, that it is straining to go. Just a jab of the pedal away. Even my short pokes on the go pedal resulted in instantaneous response, shooting forward like a shot. The torque delivery is smooth, and linear, with no sudden surprises. Just sheer pure power all totally under the control of your right foot. Much easier to keep in check than I had figured it would be.
My guardian declared that it was time for the show. Yes, I do get to ride in the drifting exhibition, with my partner at the helm. That was part of the agreement I signed, when I waived my right to go on living for a shot at the Viper. Now, there is the situation on extracting yourself from this box. I had to step out to prevent leg fricassee, then pull my head forward, and twist so that I could get my arm onto the top of the car, to enable myself to get free. I wouldn't enjoy that very much every time I drove the car. And it was far from graceful, believe me. On the way around for the switch, I opened the trunk. Wow. Not much room there. I can't imagine some of the guys that I know choosing the Viper to go out on the town with. The boot end wouldn't hold their golf clubs and cases of beer going away. You might be able to haul enough to make it for two for a couple days over a weekend if you make certain that the luggage is small.
Being a young guy, my driver slips in and out of the Viper with ease. Why not? It is in my opinion a younger person's car. It is good that Dodge builds such a monster, however, I would like to see something a little more refined. I mean, hey, an anvil is an anvil! Given the development that has been had for the Viper, the original intent is very much still in the genes. The price of admission no doubt keeps a lot of kids from ever being able to afford a Viper.
Now, he slips in behind the wheel, and I struggle to insert myself into the passenger seat. I click the seat belt into place, and before I can look to straighten myself up, I am slammed back into the seat! The engine screams with a loud belly roar, and the Viper is blasting across the parking lot. I can't get a sense of how fast, because I can't get my head up! No kidding! The punch from that V-10 at full blast generates so much force, that you are just pinned!
I am gonna tell ya, I have ridden or driven a whole lot of very powerful cars. A couple of early model 300s. A 1962 Super Stock Plymouth 413 that my brother ended up racing. A 1964 426 Hemi that my brother had for racing. Some pretty darn hot police packages with the 440 V-8s. And a couple of street ready 426 Hemi V-8s that were docile enough for the wives to operate getting groceries from the store but would rip off stupendous acceleration. Yes, these cars were fast.
One of the greatest automotive writers was a gentleman named Tom McCahill. He began his car testing for Mechanix Illustrated by sneaking off with a 1948 Ford Tudor and wringing it out. He coined the phrase "beautiful brute" when he went all eloquent over some of the original Chrysler 300s that he tested. He went on to say of the later models that they were like "steel fists inside velvet gloves, looking all fine, but with a knock out punch when called on." With all due respect to him, and not to re-coin a phrase lightly, let me say that the Viper is just a brute. A steel fist that is not in any sort of glove, and doesn't apologize for it either!
In my entire experience, I have never, ever, felt a car accelerate so hard! It was just like being in an airplane that had suddenly gone to full take off thrust by a half. I never saw it coming, and it is just an experience that cannot be appreciated unless you go and get in one of these torque delivery monsters for yourself. Let me say this. At no time did I feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Not even a single little bit. The Viper was tough, competent, and straight. My driver tossed it around, spun it out, slammed through the gears, flipped it back and forth across the track, slammed on the brakes, downshifted like crazy, accelerated with his foot stuck right on the floor, and never at any time did he make me feel like he should do anything less. In fact, the sensation was better than riding on the Hulk roller coaster at Universal Orlando Resort! And I rode that thing many a time.
I laughed so hard during the demonstration that it brought tears to my eyes. I about choked on the tire smoke, but that wasn't the reason that I had tears. It was just a fantastic, ribald, extreme experience that I probably will never be able to duplicate, and certainly can never convey in writing just how great it really was!
The Viper has its place among vehicles. Really, it is not something that I would choose to be a daily commuter. Although, for weekend outings, and just blasting around, I would not fail to have one, and hey, maybe two or three of them! Just be cautioned that these are tough brutish types of cars. They aren't meant to be Sunday go to Church meeting rides. Blast by the Church, yes!
No doubt there are more sophisticated, perhaps less expensive, more comfortable, cars in this class. But a Viper is a Viper, and there isn't anything else that can come close. A vehicle built in a class by itself.
Dodge… ya done good.
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