Review and road test of the Chrysler Viper (1996 - 2001)
EIGHT LITRES OF SNAKEBITE
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The Chrysler Viper is the most aggressively brutal slice of Americana ever to hit these shores. Huge in width, prodigious of thirst and with the attitude and menace to make Ferraris and Porsches seem a trifle limp-wristed, the Viper is massively desirable. Desirable, yes, but something prevented them selling in decent numbers. When was the last time you saw a Viper drive past? At almost £70,000 new, they're certainly not inexpensive, and driving impressions lead you to the inevitable conclusion that the car would make a whole lot more sense on the wide-open roads of the US. With used Vipers now becoming a great deal more affordable, can a case be made for one?
(2 dr roadster, 3 dr coupe 8.0 petrol [RT/10, GTS])
Closely based on the 1989 North America International Auto Show prototype, the Chrysler Viper used an 8.0-litre ten-cylinder engine, sourced from a truck and fettled by Lamborghini. The story of the Viper's birth is interesting. So many enthusiasts contacted Chrysler requesting to buy the show car that plans for production were made soon after. The Viper RT/10 roadster was launched in the US in 1992, and became a favourite of high profile celebrities such as chat show host Jay Leno and Kelsey Grammer of Frasier fame (who rolled his one!).
The RT/10 wasn't launched in the UK until 1996, and take-up was slow. With 400bhp available, the car made an instant impression, but sold only in modest numbers. April 1997 saw the launch of the more desirable GTS Coupe, which was first seen in prototype form in 1993. Whilst many initially thought the GTS to be a Viper RT/10 with a roof, the changes ran deeper. Aside from the body, the interior was revised to give a better perception of quality. The V10 engine was lightened and modified. Overall weight was cut by 60lb through the engine work, the adoption of aluminium suspension parts and also lighter seats.
Official imports of the RT/10 model ceased in 1997, but the GTS model underwent some minor modifications, including a new exhaust system that liberated another 90bhp in 1999. Design studies of an all-new Viper model continue to surface, but the GTS was officially phased out in early 2001. A limited amount of GTS-R Le Mans replicas were made available in 1998, but these have largely either been destroyed on racetracks or gone straight into private collections.
What You Get
What you get with a Viper is a heaving slug of plastic draped over an engine that's not so much a piece of machinery as a force of nature. It seems all other parts of the car are subsidiary to that huge V10 motor. This situation improved with the launch of the GTS, but after a drive in the early RT/10 model, you'll recall the wry accusation levelled at early Ferraris. "You pay for the engine and they'll give you the rest of the car for free." Interior quality and ambience was something of a joke, due in no small part to the rush to 'productionise' the show car before somebody realised what a ridiculous idea it was.
The GTS is a much more manageable piece of equipment. The RT/10's side mounted exhausts were ditched, so getting out of the car in sportswear didn't signal an appointment at the Odstock Burns Unit. There was now standard air conditioning and a significantly classier, if still rather plasticky, interior. Certainly the cabin has none of the design flair of a Ferrari or Porsche. A half-price Audi TT feels twice as special. The long bonnet curves away out of sight, with at least two feet of car dipping beyond view. It feels hugely wide, but due to the low seating position and intrusive transmission tunnel, strangely claustrophobic.
The handbrake juts up at a rakish angle next to the six-speed gearbox which you'll be changing with your right hand - all UK Vipers are left hand drive. The engine note is disappointingly tame at idle although it has a certain charm when worked hard. Luggage space is better than might be reasonably expected. Certainly the Viper is a realistic proposition for a couple of overnight bags. One party trick that's well worth repeating is to open the bonnet. The whole front section of the car hinges forward, revealing the monster engine and front tyres. If you're the sort of person who wants a Viper in the first place, you'll find this pretty impressive.
Standard equipment of the early RT/10 included, radio/cassette stereo, aluminium/alloy wheels, twin airbags, sporty leather seats and leather-trimmed steering wheel, power steering and a tilt adjustable steering column. The GTS added a CD player, air conditioning and a keyless entry system to its more modern specification list. Only one colour was initially available - blue with white Shelby racing stripes, and even now this is the most popular option.
What to Look For
Despite generating over 400bhp, the V10 engine in the Viper has a low specific output and is not a highly stressed unit. It's therefore reasonably reliable. With maximum torque generated at just 3700rpm, there's little benefit in thrashing the engine. You'll need to look for parking scrapes to the splitter mounted on the underside of the Viper's front spoiler. This will come into contact with things like speed humps and multi-storey car park ramps, so it may well be damaged. Look out for crash damage. Vipers have no traction control or anti-lock brakes and one of the first cars in the country was parked in a ditch during a test drive. On its roof.
The GTS has a booming exhaust drone between 1800 and 2600rpm which equates quite well to UK motorway cruising speeds - this is nothing unusual, just slightly annoying. Finally check to see if the car is a proper UK car. Both the RT/10 and GTS models were on sale in the US before they were made available in the UK, and some have been imported. The early US cars are more powerful than UK models, and your insurance company will not entertain a plea of ignorance on your case should you not disclose this fact. Since the car was launched around 30 official UK cars have been sold, so tracking its history should be relatively straightforward.
(approx based on a 1999 GTS) The Viper's a heavyweight performer with correspondingly heavyweight spare prices. Too many traffic light drag starts will require a new clutch at around £375. A new exhaust is a sobering £1100, whilst a pair of front brake pads are £165, with rears more expensive at £190. A new radiator is around £460 and an alternator £300. A starter motor won't leave much change from £300, whilst a headlamp is the thick end of £700. It's a good job that America's the land of the free with spares prices like these.
On the Road
With 2000rpm on the tachometer and 100mph on the speedometer, it's easy to think of the Viper as another overweight, overblown Yank tank, but nothing could be further from the truth. The only thing fat about the V10 engine are the great slugs of torque it summons from subsonic reaches of the rev band. The eight-litre powerplant doesn't so much wail as throb like a potent geyser about to blow. With sixty mph attainable in less than 4.5 seconds, the GTS model is the one to choose for high-speed fun. Its drag coefficient of 0.39 is only shedlike compared to the barn-door RT/10's figure of 0.50, and allows the coupe to hit a top speed of 177mph, leaving in its wake a trail of Porsches, police cars and small children asking 'Mister' what it will do.
Handling feels benign and planted, as if there is an inordinate amount of gravity working upon the Viper's massive body. Get a bit more confident with the right hand pedal and that impression rapidly vanishes as the back end becomes extremely lively. On a wet and twisty road, a hard-driven Viper will only do vague approximations of straight ahead, its driver having to constantly correct and counter steer the car like a recalcitrant hovercraft. In traffic, piloting the Viper is a nerve-wracking experience. Unlike many mid-engined supercars, visibility to the rear is quite good, but there are still vast sections of the car that swoop out of sight. Get a tape measure out and the Viper proves narrower than the deceptively porky Ferrari F355, but the left-hand drive layout, claustrophobic cabin and truck-like engine and gearbox make it feel a much less wieldy proposition.
Blasting out of Las Vegas on wide, smooth roads where you won't pass another car for an hour, petrol costs less than water and the sun is always shining is where the Viper belongs. The UK does a good line in muscle cars and the big Chrysler never really makes as much sense as a TVR or even a Marcos. There is something impossibly charismatic about the big-hearted snake though, and if you feel unable to resist, an early Viper GT is probably the pick of the bunch. It will be monstrously expensive to run and UK roads will suddenly seem half their previous width, but you'll be rewarded with one of the world's premier sports cars. If you consider the Viper an irrelevance, why not rent one for a day next time you're in the States. Then you'll know why it's inherited the Corvette's title of America's Sports Car.
Chrysler Viper (1996 - 2001) review by ANDY ENRIGHT