Ducati Vyper

Superpowers, Refined: Dodge Finally Tames the Viper

Few vehicles scare me like the Dodge Viper. It isn’t the massive V10 shoehorned under the hood, or the dimwitted steering, or even the broiling interior of the original that’s as comfortable as a root canal.

No, it’s the fact that Dodge’s thermonuclear warhead of a supercar always has been, well, dumb. It was almost an anachronism — an absurdly large engine driving the rear wheels, with little in the way of grace, manners or poise. It was to driving as a sledgehammer is to carpentry — a tool way too big and crude to do anything more than destroy everything in its path.

The keyword there: was. The new Viper is almost everything the old Viper wasn’t. The go-fast gurus at Dodge’s Street and Racing Technology (SRT) team set out to develop a Viper that was more usable, more manageable and yes, more powerful than any that had come before without losing what SRT President and CEO Ralph Gilles calls the car’s essential “Viperness.”

My eyes rolled too, but for Gilles and Co. keeping the Viper big and brash — a defiant middle finger at the Chevrolet Corvette, not to mention anything those guys in Germany or Italy build — is key to maintaining the Viper’s rabid fan base. It’s not sophisticated, but neither are its buyers. And SRT is playing to that strength.

The key to that strength comes from a comically well-endowed engine stuffed beneath a hood the size of an aircraft carrier. It’s 8.4 liters of aluminum V10 extremism putting out 640 horsepower and 600 pound-feet of torque. Those numbers rival those of the Lamborghini Aventador, at roughly one-third the price. You can have any transmission you want, as long as it’s a six-speed manual (an auto option is likely in the cards).

Get up on it and you’ll hit 60 mph in a claimed “low 3-second range,” but a senior engineer divulges the car could, in the right hands, dip into the high two-second range. Keep the pedal floored and you’ll do the quarter mile in 11.4 seconds. Keep going and you’ll see 206 mph if the road is long enough (and your courage high enough).

Impressive numbers, especially for a car that’ll run you $120,000. But the Viper always delivered impressive numbers. What’s different about this Viper is what it does while reaching those numbers.

Dodge let me wring the car out up the road at Sonoma Raceway. I gave the Viper the utmost respect as I eased out of the pits. After cresting turn two and getting a clear view of the 90-degree right hander off in the distance, I pegged the throttle and inadvertently discovered Ludicrous Speed.

Before I can even consider a 3-4 upshift, I’m hard on the massive, 14-inch brakes, lifting as I enter the bend. It’s the moment I’d been dreading since getting into the car.

The Viper, until now, had been a low-tech marvel, compensating for its utter lack of traction control and other electronic nannies with more rubber than a Trojan factory. The moment the massive tires lost their grip, you were in the weeds or, worse, the wall. The Viper did not suffer fools lightly.

The new Viper is far less likely to send you to your grave. I gave the gas a judicious squeeze just past the apex and was slingshotted through the corner and onto the checkered rumble strips.  The traction control light didn’t even flicker.

It’s a triumph of the driver-configurable Bilstein shocks, aluminum suspension bits and tires that lay more rubber to the road than the all-conquering Bugatti Veyron.

But it’s not the power or the grip or the much-improved interior – with actual elbow room! – that constantly blew my G-force-addled mind. It’s the utter and complete control this new Viper imparts on the driver. Something this big (although lighter, at around 3,300 pounds), this powerful (yet manageable) and this raucous (although oddly refined) shouldn’t be this composed and confidence inspiring.

Ducati Vyper

This is not the four-wheeled guillotine of yore.

By my third lap I was braking later and accelerating sooner than I would have ever dared in previous models. This car is far easier to drive than any Viper that’s come before, with far less propensity to kill you. Things only started getting slightly unhinged when I switched from “normal” mode to “race” mode, which is a bit like choosing a triple espresso instead of a single latte.

It makes the car just a bit … meaner, with the traction control loosening up just enough to make tight corners a quick exercise in opposite lock. But even then, it’s predictable, the back end sliding ever so slightly with no need to back off the throttle. SRT has made the fat-kid-turned-linebacker dance.

It’s no Fred Astaire, but it’s no Napoleon Dynamite either.

Off the track and onto the roads of Sonoma County, the Viper proved equally compelling, if slightly out of place. The gun slit of a windshield might get the job done on the track, but navigating traffic belies the Viper’s track-day roots. The board-stiff suspension, snarling intake roar and cacophonous exhaust note are a bit much for daily driving.

If you’re more at home on the boulevard than the track, the GTS version is a bit quieter and a bit plusher, with leather coating the interior and scads of amenities (although no heated seats, to which Gilles responds, “We’re not getting soft.”) That said, Dodge knows its owners, and recognizes that the Viper is a more of weekend toy than an overpowered commuter. That’s as it should be.

When I finally roll back into the parking lot and hop out of the Race Yellow GTS ($120,395, if you’re wondering), I can only shake my head and smile. Dodge has tamed the beast but retained the beastliness. Or Viperness.


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