The Brute of the Road Refines Its Manners


The original Dodge Viper roadster was long on shortcomings from the moment it slithered into our gaze to create awe among adults and terror in small children.

But it did catch on, if only for chutzpah and its defiant uglies. Possibly because of its primal urges. Or maybe for its radical mission and unmistakable mien as a four-wheeled Harley-Davidson.

Stuffed with more muscles than brains, 6,000 Vipers have sold since this two-seater was introduced in 1992. Despite its well-publicized crudities, potential buyers have called for more; more horsepower, more amenities, even more eminence with their raw and raucous motoring.


So place your hands together, please, for the 1997 Viper GTS.

This handsome hardtop is still in prototype mode. It will go on sale in late spring, after roaming the auto show circuit and pacing the Indianapolis 500. But early drives have already earned the GTS huge praise as America’s most purposeful fastback since the Cobra Daytona Coupes of the ‘60s.

It’s definitely much smoother, clearly more civilized and certainly a distant plod from the early and impractical Vipers. At $73,000 (which includes gas guzzler and luxury taxes), it better be. That’s about $13,000 more than the roadster.

These were street racers with the aerodynamics of a barracks. At 3,500 pounds, they weren’t much lighter than a short-bed Dodge Ram. Which was appropriate as both used a V-10 truck motor, which, at 8.0 liters, is considered heavy enough for snow plows, armored fighting vehicles and underworld burials at sea.

Before a series of gradual improvements, the Viper roadster was a two-place thunder maker hand-formed by a team that lined things up by squinting over their thumbs. Seams wriggled, panels gapped and a tiny convertible top, more of a toupee really, blew off at speeds above 130 mph.

Exhaust pipes were bigger than stovepipes and exited both flanks of the car ahead of the rear wheels. That produced instant tinnitus in driver and passenger, with smoldering ankles the penalty of careless exits.

There were side curtains instead of side windows. Also no air conditioning, automatic transmission, antilock brakes, cruise control nor door handles. Because lead engineer Roy Sjoburg believes in bedrock America and says his mandate was to create “a roadster that was back to basics, absolutely wind-in-your-hair and characteristic of Carroll Shelby’s Cobras.”


Although much smoother, the continuing roadster and the developing GTS still come up a little short of most technologies developed since the Korean War. Anti-lock brakes are for the faint of foot, insist its builders, and if you want automatic transmission, go buy a Corvette.

But now there’s real glass rising from the doors of the GTS, and the windows are electrically driven. Two air bags are standard. There’s a heater, cigarette lighter, even an outside button-latch for opening the doors.

Computers have been added to the design process--the first Vipers were developed from clay models and guesswork--which produces a finer fit and finish. Which means less buzzing, squeaking and rattling in the GTS. The exhaust system has been redesigned and rerouted into twin tunnels spitting heat and gases from the rear of the car.

And it’s no longer king of the sexists.

“[Most] women couldn’t drive the Viper because women couldn’t reach the pedals,” Sjoburg explains. “So we’ve added four inches of adjustment to the pedals, with more than an inch of forward movement to the seat.”

The GTS represents more than 1,000 engineering changes since Vipers first hissed. Thanks to those computers, the chassis is 25% stiffer and the shape aerodynamically cleaner. Aluminum instead of steel suspension components, tubular anti-roll bars, and a lighter frame and body have the GTS weighing in 100 pounds lighter than the current roadster.

And tweaking the V-10, plus redirecting the exhaust system, has built a more powerful engine developing 450 horsepower and 492 pound-foot of torque--or more than squeezings from Ferrari’s $475,000 F50 supercar.



From any view, from voluptuous front fenders and mako grille, to a long, graceful rear slanting into a ducktail, the GTS is a looker. Royal blue paint slashed by broad, white competition stripes adds drama to the view; even a reminder of heritage as the reverse of American racing colors once worn by cars of Briggs Cunningham.

The interior of the GTS is roomy, but seating is low. Leg room reaches forever, but foot space is tight for even average feet in medium sneakers. Backsides actually fall below the level of the rocker panels, making entrance and exit a leaning roll. Rather like getting out of a chair without legs.

Instruments are round and elementary--early Timex. Controls are a handbrake rising to somewhere around the right ear and a six-speed shifter above waist level. They suggest the coincidental positioning of borrowed parts.

The center console is a barn-door covering the huge width of the transmission tunnel. A leather-covered steering wheel, however, is smaller than most; medium pizza-size and perfect for a car with these performance numbers.

A too-brief, 48-hour pass from Chrysler’s Arizona proving grounds wasn’t enough time to lather up the GTS. It was enough to peg the vehicle as a noisy, blood-stirring, rear-driving power forward.

The surprise was the car’s poise and aplomb, a world removed from early Vipers that when driven con brio, shuddered and rocked and actually produced a lost lunch in one experienced co-pilot. Credit improved handling to the stiffer chassis and new Michelin Pilot MXX3 tires.


So hard acceleration, a slingshot implying stationery to 100 mph in less than double digits, never threatens rear-wheel adhesion on dry, stable surfaces. Hard exits from slow corners, or sideways shoving in fast sweepers, produced groans from overworking tires as a gentle warning of the transition into oversteer. Understeer was equally benign, with easy control of either through throttle on, throttle off with just a twitch of wheel to fine tune the big beastie.


This artful Dodge prowls gently in the city and, unlike other muscle cars, isn’t hot, hard work at slow speeds. Second and third are the only gears needed in town. Sixth is a rare choice even on highways because at a road speed of 70 mph, you’ll be looking at an engine speed of 1,500 rpm.

The GTS is a large toy for big kids. It rubs its chin on standard driveways and gets dry heaves on speed bumps. It will not carry skis, large dogs or a week’s dry cleaning for two.

But as an investment in prestige, as a demonstration of capability, the Viper has pulled Chrysler-Dodge far from its image as a boring builder of dull cars.

Or as Sjoburg says: “We’re not the K-Car company anymore.”


1997 Dodge Viper GTS


* Base: $66,700. (Includes driver and passenger air bags, six-speed manual transmission, power windows, heater, keyless entry and radio.)

* As tested, $73,030. (Includes destination charges, gas guzzler and luxury taxes.)


* 8.0-liter V-10 developing 450 horsepower.


* Front-engine, rear-drive, two-seat, GT coupe.


* 0-60 mph, as tested, five seconds.

* Top speed, estimated, 170 mph.

* Fuel consumption, observed city-highway average, 10 mpg.

Curb Weight

* 3,400 pounds.


1997 Dodge Viper GTS

The Good: Elevates Viper looks from the surprising to stunning. Lighter, better constructed and equipped than early Vipers. Also louder, faster and more exhilarating.


The Bad: Impractical muscle car, except as an image-changer for Chrysler. Interior crammed with afterthoughts.

The Ugly: Any price that includes gas guzzler and luxury taxes.