Dodge Viper Central

Everything on the road looks like absolute toast when you're behind the wheel of the 450-horsepower Dodge Viper GTS coupe.

Moreover, the Viper is an absolute bargain when it comes to performance for the dollar. The Viper coupe has a $66,500 base price. The few exotic foreign cars that offer comparable performance cost a small fortune. It takes a $200,000-plus Ferrari and Lamborghini to match the Viper.

And, while those foreign cars are more technically sophisticated than the Viper, you wouldn't want to face their repair and maintenance bills without the financial resources of, say, a brain surgeon or an NBA player.

This model costs a bit more than the $64,000 Viper RT/10 Roadster but is the model to get because it's a knockoff of Carroll Shelby's stunning 1960s Cobra Daytona coupe, which beat Ferrari for a world championship in 1965.

The plastic-body Viper GTS gets its punch from a giant 488-cubic-inch V-10 engine, which is the biggest, most powerful U.S. production car engine; it develops awesome torque along with 450 horsepower and hurls the car from 0-60 m.p.h. in 4.1 seconds. You often are going faster than you think you are, although a sportier exhaust sound would be appreciated.

The aluminum engine is hooked to a fairly smooth six-speed manual transmission, which works with a long-throw clutch and requires a healthy tug on the shifter to put it in reverse gear.

There's no place to put your left foot except under the clutch, although clutch, brake and gas pedals are adjustable--as is the steering wheel. The fairly quiet interior's race-style front bucket seats are firm but highly supportive. Although spread across the dashboard, the black-on-white gauges are easy to read quickly.

Trunk space is more generous than in the convertible model, allowing enough space for a weekend's worth of soft luggage.

The aggressive styling of the GTS makes it look bigger than it is. It has a rather tight 96.2-inch wheelbase and isn't overly heavy at 3,383 pounds. A taut sport suspension and extremely wide tires allow it to feel glued to the road at all speeds. However, with all that power and torque, it's easy to break the rear end loose in curves if you hit the throttle hard.

The penalty paid for those tires, short wheelbase and firm suspension is a slightly jiggly ride over most roads, although I soon got used to it. At least the ride is supple and not punishing.

A driver must be careful with the super-quick steering, or he may find himself partly in an adjacent lane if, say, preoccupied with working the ridiculously small radio controls. The steering sometimes causes the Viper to feel ``darty''--as if it would be more at home on a track than on public roads.

Early Vipers had an impossibly stiff brake pedal, which had virtually no travel to allow brake modulation; it was like shoving your shoe against a stone wall. Dodge has fixed that problem, as the 1998 Viper's moderately stiff pedal can be modulated fairly well. However, no anti-lock system is offered.

Fuel economy on highways isn't bad at an estimated 21 m.p.g., as the engine is barely ticking over at 65 m.p.h. in sixth gear. However, the city figure is 12; brisk stop-and-go driving causes the gas gauge needle to plunge towards ``empty.''



Viper GTS