Dodge Viper Central
Dodge VIPER Roadster Reborn

More is better. It's the simple credo of the sports car aficionado. So any time you can add 8 percent more power, it's cause for celebration. But when you're talking about the Dodge Viper roadster, that adds up to some even more impressive numbers. In this case: 450. As in horsepower. As in neck-snapping acceleration.

The Viper has never been short of power. Even when it first rolled out of the factory in 1992, there was enough torque to smoke rubber in three gears. But the difference in performance with the '97 roadster (above, in front of the '97 GTS coupe) is nonetheless obvious, as we learned on a tight little handling course set up on the tar lake at Chrysler's Arizona Proving Grounds. But more on that in a moment.

The Viper roadster is just coming back into production after a year's hiatus. It was put on hold so Chrysler could move production to a new plant and then launch the all-new Viper GTS coupe. You hear a lot about continuous improvement from Detroit these days, and both the roadster and the coupe have gone through some changes. But they still live up to the program's original, simple and straightforward philosophy, stresses John Fernandez, the new head of the Viper program who has earned a long list of credits in the racing and performance field. Unlike most Japanese sports cars—and even the new Corvette—the Viper is a paean to the past, to the era when a sports car meant performance and handling. Forget the bells and whistles. (Well, most of them, anyway.) We're talking Shelby Cobra as a role model.

No to side pipes, yes to real windows

It'll take a close look to see the differences between the '96 and '97 roadsters. Perhaps the most apparent cue is the lack of the massive, chromed exhaust pipes that used to curve out of the rocker panels, just behind the roadster's doors. The side pipes were a great look, but they wouldn't pass the increasingly tight noise requirements more and more states have been passing, according to Fernandez. And side exhaust pipes made it difficult to mount—and protect—the sensors needed for the new federal OBD2 onboard diagnostics system. So Chrysler borrowed the rear exhaust system developed for the GTS. Indeed, virtually every change on this year's roadster has been lifted from the coupe.

A closer inspection will reveal the '97 roadster has real, electrically operated windows. There's little to miss about the removable plastic curtains that came with the original Viper. True, they were more like what you'd find on past classics, but they were awkward, clumsy, leaked like the Titanic and, when not in use, took up too much of the Viper's too-little trunk space.

Viper fans know that there's never been an exterior door handle, and the '97 stays true to form. With its hardtop, the coupe needed a creative alternative—and it came in the form of an electric pushbutton system mounted on the window pillar (above). With power windows, you can now lock your roadster. And that means you get the pushbutton door handles, too. The system does pose a problem if the battery fails. With the GTS, you can unlock the rear hatch with a conventional key and reach over to grab an emergency manual release. With the roadster, there is no hatch, but the tiny rear window is now hinged and locked (below). So, in the unlikely event the button releases fail, you simply unlock the back window and reach for a manual release.

> The '97 roadster also adopts the novel, adjustable pedal system developed for the GTS. With the twirl of a knob, you can move the clutch, brake and accelerator pedals forward or back by up to 4 inches. It may sound like a gimmick, but it's not. It made it amazingly easy for this 6-foot-2-inch driver to optimize seating without awkwardly compromising either leg's position to steering wheel grip. For some folks, it's the only way to drive a roadster, as one especially short woman reporter discovered during the original Viper preview a few years back. She couldn't even reach the pedals until a thoughtful PR person propped a couple of large pillows behind her back.

For '97, the roadster's hardtop (above) and air-conditioning systems now come standard, though that bumps the base price of the open-top Viper up to $66,000, the same as for the coupe. The move actually won't affect many people since the reality was that 95 percent of the roadsters rolling out of the plant were being sold with tops and AC, says Herb Helbig, the Viper's top engineer. But if you're an absolutist purist, you can still delete one or the other, saving $3,700 for both.

Upgraded engine, steering control

There's yet another change for '97 that was also influenced by the GTS. The reborn roadster gets the coupe's upgraded—and almost completely redesigned—version of the 8-liter Viper V-10. The upgraded engine is stronger and lighter, it has better cooling and, for Viper fans, the best news is that it bumps the pony count from 415 to 450. Unless you're using a radar gun, you may not really notice the difference stomping the accelerator when the light turns green. The originally Viper had enough neck-snapping power to keep your chiropractor in business. But get out on the tight-and-twisties, and you'll understand why more really is better.

The course laid out at the Arizona Proving Grounds was a maze of sweeping turns and switchbacks. Putting a plain vanilla Chrysler Concorde through its paces required a degree in patience and caution. But the Viper held its line as if it were driving on rails. You could squeal those massive tires in a corner, but you had to work hard to get much more than a chirp. Driving the '96 roadster first, we found ourselves constantly working our feet. But with the '97, what used to take a lot of quick and accurate gear shifts to deliver a good track time could now be controlled simply through the flexing of your ankle. The added advantage was the ability to use the accelerator to help control steering.

It's hard to believe that the Viper roadster is now one of the oldest cars in the Chrysler lineup. How much longer will it continue to maintain its appeal? In the fickle sports-car market, that's hard to determine. But if the '97 is an indication of how the folks at Team Viper are thinking, they've got plenty of tricks left up their sleeves. If the Viper philosophy is to keep it simple, the '97 roadster is simply better.



Dodge Viper Roadster