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FIRST DRIVE

More muscle in newest Viper

The SRT-10, rolling out this month, offers cranked-up horsepower and torque for its 1,800 lucky buyers.

January 08, 2003|Jim Mateja | Chicago Tribune

The 2003 Dodge Viper is the best rendition of the sports car that debuted in the 1992 model year.

The 8.3-liter, 20-valve V-10 engine now delivers an awesome 500 horsepower, a considerable upgrade from the mere 400 in the original.

And the V-10 develops 525 pound-feet of slap-you-back-in-the-seat torque, a much-more- than-modest upgrade from the 450 pound-feet of torque in the original.

The '03 Viper SRT-10 is the first product of Chrysler Group's new Performance Vehicle Operations. It will be followed by a turbocharged, 215-horsepower SRT-4 version of the Dodge Neon early this year and an SRT-10 version of the Dodge Ram pickup that comes out sometime this year and shares the 500-horsepower V-10 with the Viper.

Dodge will start delivering the Viper SRT-10 this month after the Environmental Protection Agency gives the car its official mileage rating.

Hop in, turn the key, press the starter button and enjoy the rumble coming from under the hood.

The SRT-10 is powerful and visually appealing, thanks to tweaks that refine the traditional design cues -- such as the swept-back fenders and deep-cut side scallops -- without diminishing any of the Viperness that had folks sending the automaker blank checks from Day 1.

Ride is a tad stiff and handling requires some steering effort, but that's how Dodge and its Viper following want it. This isn't an everyday commuter. Isn't supposed to be.

Viper still is a high-performance image car, a niche it hasn't strayed from since '92. Some fanatics still grouse that it could use more power, because, they contend, you never can have too much.

The Viper V-10 engine is teamed with a six-speed manual transmission. No automatic. Never had one, never will if Dodge wants to keep its loyalists from storming the doors in protest. An automatic is for the Corvette crowd.

It comes with four-wheel anti-lock brakes but no traction control nor 'Vette-like stability control.

The only concessions to civility in a machine that originally came without top or side windows are standard air conditioning, power windows and door locks, power mirrors, power adjustable brake and gas pedals and AM-FM radio with CD player. The air bags have a cutoff switch for the passenger side.

There's a power outlet for your cell phone, but if you travel with a beverage, bring along a passenger to hold the cup, can or bottle.

For '03, there's but one model, a convertible that, in meeting the Viper philosophy of keeping it simple, is manually operated.

The top can be lowered or raised fairly easily by one person and, unlike the foldable soft top of previous years, doesn't require that all hands first read, then reread, the directions.

The Viper SRT-10 has a base price of $79,995. Add $800 for freight and a gas-guzzler tax. The amount of the tax will depend on the final EPA rating, but it's not probable that the Viper will top the 11-miles-per-gallon city/21 mpg highway figure that earned the '02 a $3,000 guzzler penalty.

There basically is only one drawback to the '03 Viper. Most of the unwashed masses can't buy one. Even most of the washed masses with $80,000 in hand plus change to cover the guzzler tax won't be able to buy one either.

Sorry, all 1,800 to be built have been gobbled up by 1,800 chaps and chapettes among the about 14,000 who already own a Viper.

Dodge gave current owners first crack at the new vehicle, and 1,800 took up the offer they simply couldn't refuse.

Dodge says it has no plans to repeat the offer for '04.

First chance non-Viper Owners Club members will have to get the 500-horsepower machine will be in the 2004 model year.

Though the sales numbers are low, Dodge says the Viper will play an even more important role over the next few years as the division offers a wider array of performance cars.

Viper is the halo machine for the SRT lineup to attract folks into showrooms, where they'll admire the Viper but drive away in a more affordable Dodge Neon SRT-4 or a Dodge Ram SRT-10.

Keep in mind, said Jim Schroer, Chrysler executive vice president of global sales and marketing, that between the SRT-4 and SRT-10 there are other numbers capable of SRT status -- such as 6 and 8, with 8 also carrying a Hemi designation.

The '03 Viper SRT-10 isn't a car for everybody, which certainly should cheer those 1,800 who will get one.

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