By Richard Truett
As if the standard Dodge Viper wasn't mean enough, Dodge has developed an even faster, better-handling version of America's most powerful sports car.
It's called the Viper ACR -- American Club Racer. And nothing you have ever experienced in an automobile can equal what you'll see, hear and feel behind the wheel of this very venomous snake.
Apparently there's a big enough group of people with enough money and time to buy their own wheels and play race car driver.
With a Viper ACR, you don't have to be a mechanic, and you don't need a trailer and a big truck. You can drive the car to the race track -- such as Speed World Dragway in Orlando -- burn up the pavement and then drive home -- legally.
The base model, which we tested, doesn't even come close to reaching the full absurdity of performance available. For those with extremely large wallets, you can order from Dodge a factory-built, race-ready engine with as much as 650 horsepower. But this optional motor, which Dodge will deliver to your door, is not street legal because it doesn't meet federal emissions standards.
I found the 460 horsepower in our test car to be more than adequate. So did the Oviedo Police Department. And thereby hangs a tale ...
Dodge engineers extracted 10 extra ponies and better response from the massive 8.0-liter, V-10 engine just by changing the air filter from the stock setup to a less restrictive unit made by K&N.
The Viper's raspy engine is far and away the most powerful automobile engine I have ever experienced. Though I have driven cars with more horsepower, such as a Lamborghini Diablo, not one has had the massive thrust of the Viper.
Press the accelerator and the Viper strikes. In the blink of an eye, you're knocked back in the seat and headed to 60 mph. Because the V-10 has so much power, the engine doesn't need to be revved high for awesome performance. I rarely saw the tachometer needle cross into the 5,000 rpm
In fact, the engine has so much power that you can make the giant rear tires burn rubber at 45 mph on an upshift.
The Viper comes only with a six-speed manual transmission. The clutch pedal takes quite a bit of muscle to press, and the clutch is either in or out. There isn't much in between, so you have to be prepared to move once you let the clutch pedal up.
All this power would be useless if it could not be controlled.
Not to worry.
The ACR has high-performance adjustable Koni racing shocks, special springs, one-piece aluminum wheels made by BBS and the best street tire Michelin makes. All these things help keep the Viper ACR under control when the speed picks up and the corners come quickly.
Because of the Viper's low center of gravity, the car is nearly impossible to flip over. About the worst that could happen is that the rear end could get loose and the car could slide while cornering. But an experienced driver who knows how to manage the accelerator, shifter and brakes
will find that the Viper is an easy car to drive safely at triple digit speeds.
The power rack-and-pinion steering makes the Viper easy to steer, but because of the giant tires, the turning radius is about as wide as your average battleship.
An impressive set of four-wheel disc brakes erases the Viper's speed as
efficiently as the engine delivers it. From the very start, the Viper was envisioned as a back-to-basics sports car. But anti-lock brakes in a car this powerful are a necessity -- yet an ABS system is not available.
Fit and finish
As an everyday car, though, the Viper is barely tolerable. It has several huge shortcomings:
And yet all these things don't seem to matter when you're driving down the road knowing that nothing can be ahead of you unless you allow it to be there.
The ACR comes from the factory without air conditioning, a radio and power mirrors. Leaving out these optional items saved about 60 pounds but makes the ACR very tough to drive in city traffic. And in the summer, this car would be a killer to drive.
The absence of a radio and an air conditioner leave you with nothing to
fiddle with (so that all of your attention can be fixed to the road), but the ACR can leave you physically drained after a couple of hours behind the wheel.
The V-10 engine generates an enormous amount of heat, much of which travels into the cockpit and leaves you with a just-emerged-from-a-sauna feeling. You drive down the road with the vent open and the fan running at full blast, but hot air from the engine gets sucked into the vent at
speeds lower than 30 mph. That's because the vent is behind the motor.
I found the Viper's cockpit to be nicely designed and arranged. Yet the massive drivetrain takes up much of the room. The transmission tunnel is so large that the seats are narrow and there isn't much elbow room.
The Viper never was about comfort. The dimensions and the heat are two of those things you just learn to live with. Because the ultrahigh performance charms you, you forgive the Viper its shortcomings.
When you have a car like the Viper, the biggest challenge is not seeing how fast the car will go from 0 to 60 mph. It's leaving your ego at the door.
For most of the week that I drove the bright red Viper, I behaved myself. I did nothing as drivers in hopped-up Mustang GTs revved their engines at stop lights and squealed away in triumph.
I would not be provoked into tangling with lowered, louvered, Japanese sporty cars.
Not even the odd Corvette got me to lower my guard.
And then came the Sunday trip to my girlfriend's house in Oviedo. There is a subdivision there where the streets are paved, but the houses are not yet built. Like most other American kids, my girlfriend's two boys like cars, especially fast cars. So I took them for a ride (one at a time, of course) around the unbuilt subdivision.
Let's just say I was eager to show off the ACR's cornering ability and made some excessive noise with the tires. Let's also say someone with a cell phone felt it was his civic duty to alert the authorities.
Not long after I parked the car, there came a knock on the door. Oviedo's finest had heard reports of a red Viper slicing through some curves, and they weren't happy about it. I issued the perfunctory apologies and promised it wouldn't happen again, not in their city at least.
That's the thing about the Viper. No matter how hard you try, you can't always be an angel behind the wheel. If there is one corrupt molecule in your law-abiding body, the Viper will somehow expose it.