2003 Dodge Viper
Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Grant Yoxon

Santa Barbera, California – I have to admit I am feeling a bit nervous at the prospect of driving one of the fastest cars in the world. The old Viper RT/10 had a well-earned reputation for being a real handful for even experienced drivers. And I have never driven a car as powerful as the 450 horsepower Viper RT/10, let alone the all new and much more powerful 2003 Dodge Viper SRT-10.

I take a deep breath and observe the object of my trepidation.

Parked beside the old RT/10 with its removable toupé top, the new SRT-10, a true convertible, looks lower, sleeker, even more European, but still it is an outrageous, in-your-face, raw sports car design.

The dash is simple and functional with a large centre-mounted 7000 rpm tachometer dominating the main instrument cluster. To the right, oil pressure and temperature, coolant temperature and voltage gauges, as well as audio and air conditioning controls are housed in a removable panel with exposed fasteners.

As I settle into the Viper’s high bolstered leather drivers seat, I once again remind myself � “just take it easy. You can do this.”

2003 Dodge Viper

2003 Dodge Viper
Photos: Daimler Chrysler
Click image to enlarge

My first impression, before even starting the car, is that I don’t fit. The leather wrapped, carbon-fibre-look steering wheel is jammed against my legs. A DaimlerChrysler employee notices my predicament and instructs me how to lower the power-adjustable pedals to their limit. With four inches of travel on the pedals, the car will accommodate drivers of almost any size. Whoever drove this car before me was certainly much shorter than I.

Turning the key does nothing except activate the car’s electrical systems. But pushing the bright red starter button immediately brings the Viper’s ten cylinders to life with an adrenaline inducing roar that makes no attempt to mask the power that lies within.

The Viper V10 has been bored and stroked, increasing the displacement from 8.0 to 8.3 litres and bumping up the power output significantly, to 500 horsepower and 525 lb-ft of torque.

2003 Dodge Vipers
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I ease off the clutch and the Viper moves gently forward and we proceed slowly down a long winding lane out of Hill Top Farms, east of Santa Barbara, where journalists from across North America have gathered for this first opportunity to drive the new 2003 Dodge Viper.

I remark to my co-pilot how compliant the Viper feels ambling down the hill in first gear. The clutch action is sure, but not heavy, the throttle is progressive and not at all twitchy. My nervousness recedes.

Once on the highway, I push the throttle forward and the car responds in dramatic fashion. The tachometer quickly climbs to 5000 rpm and I make a soft shift into third.

Dodge Viper V-10

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“How fast was that?” asks my driving partner.

“About eighty-five,” I reply, backing off the throttle.

The Viper’s proven Tremec T-56 transmission has six gears, but in the next three hours we will rarely use more than the first three.

The speedometer reads 220 mph – that’s a whopping 335 km/h in Canada-speak – and there is no way in the world that we’re going to experience the upper reaches of that gauge on this trip through the hills and canyons of Southern California. I value my license too much.

But there is much more to the new Viper than raw horsepower.

As we make our way into the mountains along twisting roads with switchbacks and off camber curves we quickly come to realize that the 2003 Viper can handle too. Large yellow signs caution us to slow down to 20 or even 15 mph, but we could just as easily leave the Viper on cruise control at the posted 45 mph speed limit – if the Viper had cruise control.

And passing slower moving traffic is sport bike quick. The V10 delivers 90 percent of its 525 lb-ft of torque from 1500 to 5600 rpm. There is tons of power on tap whenever you need it.

And tons of braking power too. New brakes consisting of 14-inch vented cast iron rotors (335 mm x 32 mm) with Brembo four-piston/two pad fixed calipers with advanced ABS at all four wheels ensure that the car decelerates as quickly as it accelerates.

After an hour, any thoughts that the Viper might be more car than I can handle have completely dissipated. I come to realize that this SRT-10 Viper, the first completely new Viper in its 12 year history, is a much tamer beast than the old RT/10.

Words like refined, mature, sophisticated and cultured cross our lips, but in truth, the 2003 Viper is no more refined than Wolverine dressed in his best Sunday suit. He looks good, he behaves himself, but at heart he is a street fighter with one hell of a vicious streak.

Take the revs up to 3500 rpm and dump the clutch, the massive P345/30ZR19 tires light up with just a hint of smoke as the Viper lunges forward and the tach streaks toward its 6000 rpm-governed redline. In only a couple of blinks, you slam second gear, the tires squawk, the air leaves your chest in a rush, and the Viper is headed into speeds beyond any legal limit in this country.

2003 Dodge Viper SRT-10 and 2001 Viper RT/10
2003 Dodge Viper SRT-10 and 2001 Viper RT/10, Click image to enlarge

One hundred kilometers per hour comes up in about four seconds – no wildly spinning tires, no dancing rear end. And you think to yourself, “well, that wasn’t too scary.” In almost every respect, from driving ergonomics to ride comfort, the 2003 Viper SRT-10 is a much improved, more everyday driveable car.

But the Viper hasn’t gone completely soft. There is no cruise control, the top is manually operated and the air conditioning, though much better than before, can’t compete against the heat radiating out of the foot wells. The new Viper may be more respectable, but it hasn’t lost touch with its roots.

Of course Viper performance doesn’t come cheap (unless compared to a Ferrari 550 Maranello). Canadian prices are linked to US prices, dollar for undervalued dollar, at $125,600 plus a delivery charge of $1,400. But you will have to wait a year for delivery. DaimlerChrysler offered the new Dodge Viper SRT-10 first to current Viper owners and sold out the entire 2003 production run of 1800 units.

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