Have you ever seen a Dodge Viper on the road and wondered if driving one is as insanely, wonderfully terrible as you imagine? According to this guy, it absolutely is.
Have you ever played darts with a sledgehammer?
People ask me all the time what this car is like, and it’s hard to explain, but I will try to answer this question here with the help of some reasonable and not-at-all hyperbolic analogies.
A Viper is basically a cartoon on PCP. Remember how in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? there were cartoons mixed in the real world, so there would be a row of normal cars and then a crazy cartoon car at the end? That’s what it feels like every time I walk out to the parking lot.
Someone once said to me that the Viper was a great car for an Engineer, which is kind of like saying a bazooka is a great toothbrush for a Dentist. A well engineered car is a balance of many different variables which are often at odds with each other. If you have too much power, you might lose out on fuel mileage. Great ride comfort will affect handling.
Dodge did not balance these variables with the Viper, they just cranked displacement and tires up to 11 and to hell with everything else. The suspension looks like it might have some thought put into it, but the springs are so stiff that the suspension doesn’t actually do anything.
Several of the parts are carryover from other Chrysler products, like the roller lifters which are the same part number as the ones in my minivan. This is awesome because most of the parts cost relatively little to fix or replace and they are perfectly suitable for use on the Viper, except for the brakes which are only perfectly suitable as long as you always get lost on the way to the racetrack.
The Viper-only parts are a little more pricey, like the airbags which go for $2500 used and the clamshell hood which costs about as much as a new Civic. Given the cost of these parts and the Viper’s propensity to spin out for like, no reason, it is no surprise that there are so many with salvage titles. Minor front end damage = total loss.
The fluids are all supposed to be full synthetic, which you should use anyway, but the service interval is a lot lower than most cars, and it gets pricey when you realize that the engine holds 8 trillion quarts of oil.
Chrysler does not make a lot of great vehicles, and I know this because I’ve owned six of them. I also know this because I spend some time with my head jammed in the fender wells of fancy German cars thinking, “Wow, that’s really clever,” and also some time crawling underneath Chrysler products thinking “Wow, that is literally the laziest possible way to do that.” Maybe it is because my first three cars were Chrysler products, but I always find some charm in them. When I see something haphazardly bolted to the firewall in a seeming random location with total disregard for serviceability or NVH, I always imagine some Chrysler engineer, we’ll call him Roy, saying “It’s just an ABS pump, what do you want from me?”
And I shrug my shoulders.
That guy engineered the Viper. He took the biggest small block Chrysler made, added two cylinders, and put it into a body designed by a 12 year old whose only two dreams in life were to design an awesome car, and to hunt bears with a rocket launcher from space.
That’s how the Viper came to be.
After the second generation, the Viper classed itself up a little. It’s like that friend of yours that got a nice haircut, started showering every day, and traded his oil-stained jeans and Metallica concert tee for a nice button up shirt and khakis. Sure, he looks like a classy professional, but you still remember that time he got kicked out of the Waffle House for throwing up on the jukebox.
Okay, so I lied about not using hyperbole, but that’s really what the Viper is. It is an exaggeration of a normal car. If you take yourself seriously while driving it, you will look ridiculous. Driving it is kind of like wearing a clown wig. A clown wig that is on fire.
It’s not a good car, but it is, in a few ways, a great car. It is what it is, unapologetically. You know what you’re getting into. It is all laid out on the window sticker: It gets 11 miles per gallon, it has 460 horsepower, and at some point you will slide full oppo into a tree.
I get asked all the time what it is like to own one. You want to know what it is like? Go buy one. Work hard for a few years, save your pennies and get a used one; they cost about the same as a V6 Accord. Buy one and drive it every day for 6 months, then sell it and use the money to buy a Lotus Elise and drive that for 6 months. Then, after you’ve realized that what you thought was a great idea in college is not actually a great idea, sell it and use the money to buy a V6 Accord. Then casually waft to work every day in the quiet comfort of cushy suspension and cupholders, knowing what that guy in the Viper next to you on the 405 is slowly figuring out: That driving a Viper is like driving a cartoon bazooka that shoots sledgehammers while wearing a flaming clown wig and throwing up on the jukebox at the Waffle House.
Matt Brown is the author of Racecar: Searching for the Limit in Formula SAE, which is not a book about quilting.