The Ultimate Antivenom: The Viper’s Dying, and I Won’t Miss It

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Source: Car and Driver
Full Article: The Ultimate Antivenom: The Viper’s Dying, and I Won’t Miss It

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From the March 2016 issue

As I write this, only 2687 current-gen Dodge Vipers have been produced since the car’s last refurbishment in 2012. Maybe we should think of calling Sir Elton John. He could belt out another rendition of “Candle in the Wind,” perhaps holding a deceased snake.

Fiat Chrysler might well pay for his performance, too, because Viper production will cease next year. The original Viper appeared 24 years ago and is now in its fifth generation. It’s now almost pretty, rather than merely manly, with many of its Frankenstein flaws finessed. But now, of course, it’s too late. It reminds me of the Pontiac Fiero, which debuted for 1984 as a plasticky turd and evolved into a fairy princess for 1988, just in time for GM to snuff it dead.

From day one, the Viper has always felt to me like using a Louisville Slugger to play ping-pong. The results, while interesting, have been clumsy. Not that it was always the car’s fault. I drove a Viper to a Detroit Tigers game and got food poisoning. I drove one to southern Ohio where late tech editor Don Schroeder steered it into a ditch, flattening one side exhaust into the thickness of an envelope. I drove one to a Mugg & Bopps in Gregory, Michigan, where a Hells Angel angrily asked: “You work at Car and Driver? I don’t know who you are, but I recognize your dog.” At Grattan Raceway, I got a Viper sufficiently airborne, then backed so far into a turn that it took me 15 minutes to stop shaking. I had a girlfriend refuse to climb back into a Viper after she burned her leg on the side exhaust. In a tribute to that particular heated exchange, photographer Aaron Kiley and I cooked bacon and eggs on the doorsill and popcorn over a hood vent, prompting then–Chrysler COO Wolfgang Bernhard to ban me from all further Mopar machinery. I was mortified, but his ban fizzled when he comprehensively deep-fried his own career.

Bad juju for him, too.

You know what? I even blame the Viper for giving Plymouth the confidence to build the retro faux hot rod that was the Prowler, a car I always felt had been so horrible on Chrysler’s own proving grounds that they released the thing prematurely so they wouldn’t have to drive it anymore. In fact, if I were married to a Viper and had to listen to that blatty-blat mouth every night, the two of us would be divorced, with dual 100-mile restraining orders.

The Ultimate Antivenom: The Viper’s Dying, and I Won’t Miss It-media-2

How could you not love a face like that?

I don’t mean to be cruel, but the Viper began as a rough-and-tumble Dutch oven of a kit car. “It’s all about back to the basics,” we were told. But so is wearing suspenders. When I first drove that 1992 Viper, it felt like one of Bill Thomas’s ­Cheetahs, with its drivetrain open to the cockpit and with decent HVAC available only if the windshield collapsed.

While the Viper was reporting to its various parole officers, the Chevy Corvette kept getting more and more user-friendly, with a cockpit that eventually could have served duty in an Impala. Yes, this last-gen Viper’s interior is all leathered-up and full of ­Easter eggs—designed by an honest-to-God European, no less—but the interior was of Iacocca K-car quality in all earlier attempts. And now a Viper is a $90,000-plus proposition, which must be herding buyers toward Audi R8s and Nissan GT-Rs and Mercedes-AMG GTs, and, uh, maybe even either of the Hellcats. Heck, a new Porsche 911 can be had for just over $90,000. Any of those competitors will serve as a commuter. The Viper will serve as a commuter only if you ride in the truck that’s hauling it.

You know why there’s no Viper automatic? Because “the cost of developing it . . . would have equaled the cost of the whole program,” confessed design chief Ralph Gilles three years ago. That’s like hearing your dad say, “We can’t afford the baseball game, but I can buy you a box of Cracker Jack.”

And, of course, the Viper has always been expensive to build, what with an engine that takes 2.5 hours to assemble, followed by a 42-minute dyno run-in.

When Fiat Chrysler supremo Sergio Marchionne first drove the last Viper, he returned in 15 minutes—maybe his sweater caught fire—then said to Gilles, “Ralph, that’s a lot of work.” He meant that it was a brutal car. Of course, Viper enthusiasts have always preached, “We never wanted the car to be as sophisticated as a Corvette.” What goes unsaid is that Chrysler never had the cash willpower to get there anyhow.

It’s easy to criticize cars, which explains my career. It’s terribly hard to build one, and the Viper sure was an astonishing line drive to the draft drinkers in the upper deck. Maybe it will return, as it did two years after Chrysler flushed its cash box and held a party for the Italians. If the car returns, will it be an SRT or a Dodge again? Come on, just find a name and stick with it.

When Carrie Fisher was married to Paul Simon, the two got into a ripper of an argument on the way to the airport. Fisher said to Simon, “You’ll feel bad if I crash.”

Simon replied, “Maybe not.”


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