After an 11-year run, the iconic Viper finally changed for 2003, fully redesigned with a more mature demeanor but an even hairier chest.
Initially offered as a newly named SRT-10 roadster, it spanned a 2.6-inch-longer wheelbase (98.8) and spread no less than nine inches wider, but was slightly shorter overall, thanks to trimmer front and rear overhangs. Styling, credited to former Toyota designer Osamu Shikado, was recognizably Viper but crisper, more squarish in proportions and, from some angles, more aggressive.
Enhancing the appearance was a full manual-folding soft top that dispensed with the fixed rear "sport bar" while improving convenience and weather protection versus the old afterthought "bikini" top. One simple latch released it for stowing in a well behind the cockpit, one reason for the longer wheelbase. Side exhaust pipes returned, but were now inside the rocker panels, shielded to meet noise regulations -- though that didn't prevent accidental fried legs.
The cockpit itself was vastly upgraded, gaining better-quality plastics, some needed seating space, and a more orderly dashboard with a speedometer calibrated to 220 mph (which Dodge said was deliberate). The pedals now adjusted electrically, and lined up in axis with the steering wheel, thus eliminating the old model's irksome pedal offset.
Despite these advances, most testers thought cockpit fit-and-finish weren't worthy of the price -- initially $80,795, plus a $3000 Gas-Guzzler Tax.
Construction again involved a steel chassis and a body made of composite-plastic and aluminum. This time, though the windshield frame, door-pillar hinges, and front-fender supports were rendered in carbon fiber to hold the line on weight, which ended up at around 3400 pounds curbside. The four-wheel double-wishbone suspension stayed roughly the same, but wheel diameter swelled from 18 to 19 inches, allowing larger four-wheel antilock disc brakes. Traction and/or stability control were still nowhere in sight. Dodge wasn't about to change the Viper's "purity" as a driver's car. The rear tires did change, becoming broader at the rear, with 345/30s over 13 inches wide replacing 335/30s.
Viper's trademark pushrod aluminum V-10 continued, but displacement went to 8.3 liters and 505 cid. Power and torque were initially mooted at 500 each, but pound-feet ultimately settled at 525, and fiddling took bhp to 510 for 2006. A mandatory Tremec T56 six-speed manual gearbox returned with its previous gearing. The rear-axle ratio was also unchanged (3.07:1).
Despite adding a measure of civility, the '03 Viper was even more of a rip-snorting muscle machine than its previous incarnation. Car and Driver reported 0-60 mph at just 3.9 seconds and a dragsterlike quarter-mile of 12.9 seconds at 121 mph. Handling remained trackworthy as well, C/D measuring a full 1.00g on the skidpad. Sure, the ride remained buckboard hard, the cockpit would still heat up like a sauna, and control efforts would again challenge Mr. Universe, but Viper fans wouldn't have it any other way.
In fact, Viper owners liked the new one so much, they snapped up the entire 2003 model run, some 1500 units, in just two weeks. No one else had a chance. That's because Dodge mailed out presale certificates giving existing owners first dibs. Dealers, obliged to honor these guarantees, wailed loudly when certificate holders came in demanding to buy at just a few dollars over invoice, thus depriving dealers -- and Chrysler Group -- of thousands in potential profit. Would-be first-time Viper buyers were doubtless plenty sore at having to wait a year. Oh well, it must have seemed a good idea at the time.
For more on the all-American Dodge, see:
- Dodge New Car Reviews and Prices
- Dodge Used Car Reviews and Prices