Follow-through is an underrated talent. Commitment, you might call it. Seeing things through. And through three generations, the Dodge Viper did exactly that.
I’ve come to appreciate cars that never ended up in a compromised take on their original vision. You know, the ones that got watered down, went to four-cylinder setups or became large, electrified crossovers, or had their production outsourced to Austria to save costs.
Granted, Stellantis hasn’t announced an electric, three-row SUV version of the Viper yet, and the way things are going I wouldn’t put it past them. (It would also cost $150,000, because of course it would.) But the Viper is not only a delightful symbol of American ultraviolence that you seldom see anymore—it’s also a car that went down exactly the way it started.
The Viper had a few iterations over the years but generally, those can be broken down into three major generations.
Take the original, which debuted in 1991. The SR I Viper had a big, nasty, menacing V10 engine. I tend to think accounts that it was a machine with murder in its heart are a bit overblown; maybe it was if you didn’t know how to drive. At the same token, you had better know what you’re doing in this thing, and probably a lot of fools didn’t.
1996 brought the SR II Viper. America simply could not get enough 10-cylinder mayhem the first time around, so Dodge had to do it again. And this time, they made the engine bigger. Displacement went from 8.0 liters to 8.4. Dear God! These days, you’re lucky if your engine goes over, I dunno, 2.5 liters. It too was nothing to mess with.
Then we have the final Viper, which arrived in 2013 and survived through 2017. This where things get really interesting to me. I remember when this thing came out: they branded it the SRT Viper (though the Dodge name was later added back, and with a horsepower bump in the process) and made it nicer, more comfortable and better-built than ever—yet still unhinged to drive. Dodge could’ve thrown a supercharged V8 into this thing for downsizing and CAFE reasons, but no; it kept that insane 8.4-liter motor, now packing 640 horsepower.
I drove a few of these back when they were in production. I always really liked them. The last Viper’s biggest problems were twofold: one, that the excellent C7 Corvette could do 75 to 80% of what this Viper could at about 50% of the cost, and two, that the market for such cars was just declining. It’s been a rough few years for sports cars and Fiat Chrysler/Dodge/Stellantis/whoever’s in charge this week gave their trucks and SUVs the muscle car treatment, and those were much easier to live with. And Stellantis these days is run like a private equity company, so it’s not going to take crazy swings like it once did.
I’m not even going to sit here and argue for an “electric” Viper or whatever. I’m sure it would be fast. But it’s better that our only memory of this car is as an example of utter devotion to the idea that there is no replacement for displacement.
Godspeed, Viper. May your legend last 1,000 years.