Let us drive then, you and I, while the morning is spread out against the sky like a crash victim autopsied upon a table. Let us drive, up winding rain-slicked streets, the chattering traction control and sideways exits in too-narrow lanes . . . All apologies to T.S. Eliot, but what you are about to read can only be characterized as “The Love Song of a Supercharged Viper.” I was a fan of the 500-horsepower new-generation SRT-10 when it arrived in 2003, fell in love with the variable-cam 600-horsepower variant in 2008, and was utterly smitten by the final Viper ACR when I drove it at Chrysler’s proving grounds last year. With this 750-horsepower, ACR-inspired droptop, however, PRI has created the fastest rental car available in the United States, and that means it is interesting.
What’s it like to drive a car with this kind of power? Let’s look at the average freeway on-ramp: it’s a little less than a quarter-mile long. You and I both make a rolling left turn onto the ramp at about 20mph. You’re in a BMW 328i, not a bad little car. I’m in this supercharged Viper. We both floor it. If you give it your all, you will be driving at about a hundred miles per hour when it’s time to merge. Better hit the brakes, friend.
Meanwhile, I will have cleared one hundred and sixty miles per hour by the time I swing to the left and enter the freeway. I’m six seconds down the road from you, and by the time you merge in after me I am knocking on the door of 186 miles per hour, already nearly a half-mile away. In moments, I will be out of your visual range on most American Interstates. On what Jethro Tull called “a machine-born six lanes” this Viper bends time and space in a way only the Suzuki Hayabusa and similar motorcycles can.
Too bad I don’t have a freeway. Instead, I’m lowering myself into the Viper’s seat by the side of a wet mountain road. PRI’s equipped the car with RaceLogic traction control to operate the StopTech brakes. I check to see that it’s set to “Wet” instead of “Off”. Even on dry pavement, this snake will spin its Michelin Pilot Sport PS2s at 100+; on slick roads, each corner exit produces an opportunity for a humiliating accident.
Much has been written about the Viper’s size, its plainly awful cockpit, the bizarre relationship of its controls. It’s all true, and it all fades away in the first few miles. I’m light on the throttle, rarely using more than half its travel as we climb a long, twisty road full of blind corners marked “25mph” or lower. The infamous V-10 “UPS truck” exhaust note is a dull roar as I short-shift again and again, tentative on the brakes, careful through the midcorner, bending the long nose in and avoiding the road imperfections which can shake the car off-line in a heartbeat.
Up, up we climb, and then I see that a dry line is starting to appear. At the next corner I wait, brushing the StopTechs lightly before touching the clipping point to the inside of the turn and then simply pinning the throttle to the floor. The response is instantaneous, brutal, far beyond what any motorcycle can deliver. The V-10 barks and I am pressed backwards with a force normally reserved for braking maneuvers. Now there’s a harsh series of kicks in the back as the RaceLogic boots me up the long straight, cutting and releasing power in staccato bursts quite unlike any factory-tamed traction control, accompanied by the drumbeat shriek of the V-10 running around the tach at a speed seemingly beyond real-world physics.
Shift to third. The traction control is now a discreet series of knocks against my spine. Fourth. The trees a blur beside me, eyes wide, fully focused, light fingers on the wheel as the nose darts left and right with every bump. Now there’s a turn and I engage the ABS with a single solid shove, shedding over a hundred miles per hour of velocity and fighting the overactive tail which shimmies in rhythm with the calipers’ action. Look, turn, release the wheel to fight the slide, point, exit. And do it again, and again, and again.
We live in an age of bicycle helmets for children, twelve-airbag family sedans, initiatives against childhood bullying, and Antioch College’s guides for consensual sex. If you like that stuff, you’ll hate this car. This Viper is unrestricted power and untrammeled speed, unrepentant American bad-assed masculinity. It could kill you in a heartbeat, but I tell you this: it is a straight shot of heroin to the veins, a sledgehammer to the forehead, and I love it as I have never loved another street car.
[Performance Rentals Inc. provided the vehicle reviewed, insurance and a tank of gas.]