Dodge's racy-looking GTS had obvious competition potential, and Dodge realized it with a squadron of GTS-Rs designed for LeMans and other long-distance events. With factory backing and hard work by several outside teams, these Vipers proved almost unstoppable. In a trio of "three-peats" they claimed the FIA GT2 and GT World Championships in 1997-1999 and class victories at LeMans in 1998-2000.
At home, GTS-Rs won the 1999 American LeMans Series (ALMS), scoring a class win in each race they entered, followed in 2000 by overall victory at the 24 Hours of Daytona. Dodge then left international sports-car racing to focus anew on NASCAR.
Meantime, roadgoing Vipers kept evolving nicely. The '99s, for example, exchanged 17-inch wheels for 18s, added power mirrors and aluminum-finish cockpit trim, and offered genuine British Connolly leather upholstery as a new option. Also new that year was an American Club Racing (ACR) package for the GTS with five-point competition seatbelts, special suspension, unique one-piece wheels, and a low-restriction air cleaner that helped liberate an extra 10 horsepower.
The option wasn't cheap at $10,000, but weekend warriors loved it on their local racetracks, though they did without air conditioning, audio, and even fog lights Monday through Friday.
The package was improved for 2000 with adjustable monotube shock absorbers and a "performance" oil pan providing better lubrication of the mighty engine's innards. For 2001, both roadster and coupe got standard antilock brakes, a great advance for "active" safety, though another step back from Viper's original uncompromising nature. Colors came and went each season through 2002 and the finale of the basic 1992 design. By that point, Viper owners numbered over 14,000, each a happy soul no doubt.
Yet with fewer than 1500 sales per year, Viper was a bit player in the Dodge drama of the 1990s, when minivans, light pickups and sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) increasingly upstaged cars in consumer affections. Indeed, Dodge was then selling way more cars than trucks each year -- a record million-plus in 1998-2000, about three times its nontruck volume. The same was true to a lesser degree for Chevrolet and Ford, but Dodge had fewer car models, so its total business depended relatively more on trucks.
Though Dodge remained far behind its rivals in truck sales, a series of successful products helped close the gap some. First up was 1994's all-new full-size Ram pickup, whose broad-shouldered styling and available V-10 power (related to Viper's) helped pull in almost three times as many orders as previous models.
A further sales boost came in 1998 with the "Quad Cab," an industry first adding two rear-hinged back doors to Ram's extended Club Cab for easier entry/exit. The idea proved so popular that rivals rushed to copy it. Dodge's midsize Dakota pickups also enjoyed much stronger sales after getting a Ram-inspired redesign (for '97) and their own Quad Cabs (for 2000) with four front-hinged doors. And after sitting on the sidelines for five years, Dodge launched the Dakota-based Durango for 1998 as a much more-competitive SUV than the ancient '70s-vintage Ramcharger.
As ever, though, Dodge's biggest strength was owning America's favorite minivan, its Caravans drawing at least a quarter-million sales each calendar year through 2000. Much of that success stemmed from the full redesign for 1996 marked by sleeker looks; roomier, quieter and stronger bodies; larger available engines with more power; and thoughtful new features like "Easy Out" back seats with built-in rollers and sliding rear doors for both sides, not just the right.
While the related Plymouth Voyager and Chrysler Town & Country offered all this too, only Dodge tried for a measure of sportiness, fielding ES and Sport models with firmer suspension, youthful styling touches, even a manually shiftable automatic transmission.
Alas, heavy reliance on one product also remained Dodge's biggest weakness, aggravated by a growing public perception of minivans as uncool "soccer mom" transport. But though minivan demand did soften somewhat, Caravan sales weren't seriously affected. What did start to hurt was stronger competition, especially from Honda and Toyota, whose U.S.-bred minivans were stealing Caravan sales with superior workmanship and mechanical finesse.
Dodge responded with mostly new 2001 Caravans, but they didn't look that new and were more expensive, in part because Chrysler's controls on production costs, once the envy of Detroit, had become rather lax. With all this, Caravan, though sales dropped to some 242,000 for calendar year '01, still tops in class by far, but it is the lowest for Dodge in a decade. Then again, 2001 was a tough year for most businesses as the nation's decade-long boom economy ended and a frightening war on terrorism began.
For more on the all-American Dodge, see:
- Dodge New Car Reviews and Prices
- Dodge Used Car Reviews and Prices