Payne: Dodge Viper saves best for last

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

You don’t see a Dodge Viper for the first time. You feel it.

My first time was on Woodward 17 years ago, shortly after my arrival in Michigan to work for The Detroit News. My rib cage started rattling as a first-generation, 488-cubic-inch — 488! — Viper Roadster pulled up alongside me at a stoplight. Ten cylinders pounded the asphalt like jackhammers. I was smitten.

Looking out my right window, all I saw was hood. The Viper’s red front end was so long it seemed to have come out of a Tex Avery cartoon. The exhaust pipes exited under the doors, soaking the non-air-conditioned cabin in heat. All that was missing was nitrous fuel to make my eyes water.

The Viper was the most visceral car on the road. It was a locomotive engine strapped to four wheels, a throwback to raw muscle cars of the 1960s like the legendary 427 Shelby Cobra I worshipped as a kid.

At this year’s Dream Cruise we celebrate the mighty beast’s end. After 25 years, Dodge is retiring the snake.

I joined 200 Viper owners for a trip up memory lane last Saturday to open Dream Cruise week. The parade kicked off at Detroit’s Conner Avenue plant (where the snake has been made since 1995) and finished at M1 Concourse’s Champion Motor Speedway in Pontiac — one of 15 U.S. tracks (and counting) where Dodge’s supercar owns the lap record. That statistic is testament to how far Viper has come in 25 years while still holding true to its roots as the rawest, baddest, fiercest sports car on the planet.

Fittingly, the last Viper is the best of the breed. Where today’s supercars — the Porsche Turbo, Audi R8 and Acura NSX — are digitally tuned, all-wheel drive cyborgs from the future with paddle-shifting, millisecond-quick dual-clutch transmissions and quick-revving, overhead-cam engines, the 2017 Viper ACR is a relic.

It sports a brutish, big-block, push-rod V-10 mill mated to a six-speed manual shifter driving the rear wheels. Yet its brute power, ginormous brakes and extensive aerodynamics — generating 1,300 pounds of downforce at 150 mph — lick all comers on track.

In short, the Viper ACR is a race car. A raw, no compromise weapon.

It was always such. First shown as a concept car at the 1989 Detroit Auto Show, the Viper was an instant sensation. It stole the show. It had to be built. And two years later it rolled off the assembly line as a 1992 model virtually unchanged from the roadster concept. If superheroes were cars, Porsche would be Iron Man — smart, high-tech, well-dressed — and Viper would be the Hulk. Powerful. Simple. Half-naked.

The first gen Viper came topless, sans exterior door handles or air conditioning, with an interior as Spartan as a bachelor’s first apartment. The side exhaust pipes would burn your calves, the heat from the front-mounted engine would soak your shirt, and its bellow would make your ears bleed.

“The Viper is a raw, unique car,” said parade-participant Peter Peia, owner of four Vipers - including an ACR with “Downforce” on the license plate. “Particular people want it. It’s a driver’s car. I’m glad they always made it in a manual.”

As I paraded behind “Downforce” up Woodward in my Viper tester — our stiff suspensions porpoising over every road imperfection — I reflected that Viper’s purity of purpose was surely its undoing: The $60,000 Corvette has made giant strides over seven generations to become a dual-mode track-it-Sunday, drive-it-to-work-Monday sports car that sells 30,000 in a year. Meanwhile, the $90,000 Viper has remained stubbornly one-dimensional. Last year it sold 630 cars.

Sure, the fifth-generation Viper has automatic windows, a coupe roof and air conditioning. But the side pipes still barbecue your legs, manual-shifting effort requires Thor’s forearms, and the V-10 drinks like a fish.

I got 10.8 miles per gallon in my Viper this week, which meant that — at 184 miles on a full tank — I had less range than a Chevy Bolt EV. Without America’s extensive filling-station infrastructure, Vipers would need airborne tanker support like Air Force fighter jets.

It’s worth every gallon. Press the red starter button and the Viper gurgles like a hungry T. Rex. Nail it over 4,000 rpms and the predator really hunts. Get off Detroit’s ox-kart roads to M1’s smooth track and the snake is in its element; its stiff, race car-flat handling chews up corners as fast as the V-10 devours straightaways. At the hands of M1 chief instructor and pro race jockey Aaron Bambach, the Viper lapped M1 in a stupefying 1:08.

Such performance attracts fans from every corner of the world. Like Romanian-born Peia. Or Dodge designer and snake owner Tome Joranowski, whose family gave him a scale-model Viper in his home country of Macedonia when he was 8; thus began a life-long dream to come to the USA and work for Chrysler.

Detroit chief of police and chief motorhead James Craig led the parade up Woodward in a new, black-and-white ACR (“Dodge Law” emblazoned on its hood and doors). He was like a kid in a candy store. Craig once worked for a Los Angeles police department that was gifted a black-and white Lamborghini, but he’ll take the Viper, thank you very much.

“This is a truly iconic Detroit muscle car,” he said at the Conner facility. “But this is also a bittersweet occasion because it marks the closing of the plant.”

Viper will be gone but not forgotten. As the chief led us up Woodward, workers poured from businesses along the route to record the moment on smartphones and cheer us on. We responded with lots of ground-shaking engine brap-brapppa-braps. Viper has inspired a visceral Dodge brand that now includes Scat Packs, Hellcats and a new icon to replace Viper: the insane, 840-horsepower Demon that stole the New York Auto Show this year like the Viper stole Detroit in 1989.

My 20-something motorhead son flew through Detroit from California Monday and I met him at the airport in the Viper just so he could get a taste behind the wheel. And to pass the torch.

When I was growing up in the late 1960s, I was awestruck by the raw, 427-cubic-inch Shelby Cobra. It was obscenely fast. Loud. Visceral. Today my peers collect originals, make Cobra kit replicars, and take them to the Dream Cruise. The Dodge Viper will be that car for a new generation.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2017 Dodge Viper

Vehicle type

Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-passenger

sports car


8.4-liter V-10


6-speed manual


3,400 pounds (est.)


$95,895 base ($154,885 GTC with ACR aero package

as tested)


645 horsepower, 600 pound-feet torque


0-60 mph, 3.4 seconds (Car & Driver);

top speed: 177 mph (mftr)

Fuel economy

EPA est. 12 mpg city/19 mpg highway/14 mpg combined

Report card


Grips like glue; dive planes on a Viper!


Loud, stiff, hot; gulps fuel


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★