2008 Dodge Viper

Once bitten, never shy

There's a very slight right-hand kink in the front straight at Virginia International Raceway (VIR). It's barely noticeable even in something as fast as a 2000 Porsche 911. Experienced performance drivers negotiate it while scanning gauges, tightening shoulder harnesses, or sticking their left hands out the window to grab a bit of cooling 130-plus-mph breeze.

But in the 600-horsepower 2008 Dodge Viper SRT10 Coupe, this gentle bend becomes a serious turn. A veteran racer can get through with his right foot flat to the floor, but don't ask what the gauges say. The reason: You're going a lot faster. The new Viper has 600 horsepower, double that of the '00 911.

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To put 600 horsepower in perspective: At Daytona and Talladega, restrictor plates limit NASCAR Cup cars to about 470 horsepower; an '07 Indy car engine made roughly 670 horses.

Neither of these meets California's Low Emission Vehicle 2 requirements, as does the Viper's 8.4-liter V-10. Even when running behind the pace car, both Cup and Indy cars get single-digit fuel mileage: The Viper's EPA rating is 13/22, city/highway mpg. A win-capable Cup engine-without car-costs more than the Viper's $84,000 starting price. No one could buy a '07 Honda Indy car engine, but for about $1.5-million you could lease enough to supply one-and only one-car for the racing season.

On the twisty VIR road-racing track with an experienced race driver operating the Viper Coupe's controls, it's shockingly easy to produce extremely quick lap times. (We drove the Coupe on the track and the Roadster on public roads.) One reason: Its Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tires, which feature extra-sticky tread rubber special for the Viper. They give the Viper raw grip far beyond the experience of all but those who own fire-resistant suits.

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The '06 Viper (there was no '07) suffered from too little front grip to allow it to produce optimum lap times. When a NASCAR driver complains that his car is pushing, he means the front tires are losing grip a lot earlier than the rears: The '06 pushed significantly. However, if you lack a racer's skill and experience, push is far safer than the alternative of having the rear tires lose grip before the fronts: When that happens the car may spin out. On the racetrack, the '08 Viper's front tires slide just slightly before the rears: It's a near-perfect condition for car-club-style track-day events.

There is one "however": Slow corners. A deft touch is required to avoid spinning the rear tires and causing the rear to step out. But developing a measured touch on the throttle is something '08 Viper owners will have to learn.

The '08's 90 ponies over the '06 come from a host of modifications. These include variable exhaust-valve timing, larger intake and exhaust valves, reshaped combustion chambers, a better flowing intake manifold, and separate ignition coils for each sparkplug. A race-style twin-disc small-diameter clutch allows the engine to rev quicker and better handle the extra horsepower. The '08 Viper features a new Tremec manual six-speed transmission with beefier gears and a shorter-throw shifter that helps cut drag strip times. Dodge says the Viper will run sub-four-second 0-60 mph times.

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Power and Performance

Many termed the first Viper a "four-wheeled Harley." This slur referred to its lack of technological sophistication and creature comforts. The 2008 version is a far different animal. It offers advanced features and comfort comparable to its rivals from Ford and Chevrolet (though it still doesn't have stability control). Early Vipers were infamous for poor braking performance, partially because they lacked an anti-lock braking system (ABS). The '08 model changes that with huge rotors, giant Brembo calipers and superbly calibrated ABS. (Dodge claims a sub-100-foot 60-0 mph braking distance.) Even on poorly maintained Deep South rural roads, the Roadster offered ride comfort challenging its rival from Bowling Green. Steering feel was superb.

One of the few complaints is the instrument panel. It has a giant, centrally located tachometer and a tiny speedometer placed to the side. Because the speedometer is so small and hard to read, I could not safely check my speed at the end of VIR's front straight, and still have time to correctly determine where to step on the brakes: You have to get rid of about 100 mph to negotiate VIR's Turn One, so driving past the correct braking marker is a bad thing. The speedo goes to 220 mph, about 20 mph beyond what Dodges claims as the Viper's top speed. On public roads, the small speedo makes it a challenge to ensure a non-prosecutable speed. My friends in law enforcement say most allow at least eight mph over the limit and many give 14. Viper drivers shouldn't expect the same tolerances. (www.dodge.com)

About the Author

Mac Demere is an auto journalist, vehicle tester and race driver who competed in the NASCAR Southwest Tour and Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona.

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