Massive torque makes up for poor gearshift, while hard-top'scabin now offers some practicality.

As far as serious sports cars go, convertibles are for cissies. Lop off the top and you instantly risk transforming a driver’s weapon into a wobbling lump of silicon.Stiffness and rigidity go straight out of the window, and for what? Just to see, be seen and be subjected to a dose of facial radiation. And you end up with hair like Don King’s into the bargain.It messes up the designer’s art, too. Think of the all-time greats: Jag E-type, Aston DB5, Porsche 911. In coupé form they’ll take your breath away; roof off, they’re all ho-hum. A convertible McLaren F1? Gordon Murray would rather have hacked off his left testicle.But it’s not surprising that Dodge introduced the latest SRT-10 – Viper in the US – as a look-at-me convertible. It was down to demand.But now, two years after the debut of the third-generation SRT-10 roadster, comes the real Viper: the Coupé. Thirty per cent stiffer than the roadster, aerodynamically more efficient and a whole lot sexier too.Surprisingly little surgery was involved in ‘coupéfying’ the soft-top Viper. The chassis, powertrain and bodywork forward of the windscreen all remain essentially untouched. For the roof, Dodge grafted on a Zagato-like double-bubble panel to add a touch of retro cool to proceedings and, perhaps more importantly, to give extra headroom and space for a helmet; most race series in the US require cars with hardtops. The roof flows seamlessly into a glass rear hatch and ends with a neat but effective rear spoiler that adds an extra 50 or so kilos of rear downforce at 150mph-plus.One of the Coupé’s smartest features is the design of the rear lights. Like those on the original ’96 Viper GTS coupé, they’re deep-set into the rear wings, adding to the car’s visual drama. You’ll also love the giant, brushed aluminium fuel cap that looks like surplus stock from a Le Mans Viper racer.The changes add just 18kg to the weight of the roadster and keep performance levels pretty much identical. While the new roofline lowers the Viper’s Cd from 0.40 to 0.39, the top speed is unchanged at 190mph.To put this car through its paces you need a proper road. That’s why we’ve come to Los Angeles, home of the famed Angeles Crest Highway. Sixty-six miles of billiard-smooth blacktop that zig-zags its way across Southern California’s towering San Gabriel mountains, all the way to the Mojave Desert. In traffic-snarled LA this road is a treasure.Around town you cannot help but be astonished by the Viper’s muscle. Leave the stubby gearlever in fourth and the 535lb ft of twist will do the rest. The 8.3-litre V10 pulls like a railway shunter from walking pace, delivering up to 90 per cent of its torque from just 1500rpm. If anyone asks you why Dodge doesn’t offer an automatic on the Viper, you can tell them it does: it’s called fourth gear.But as the last 40mph speed limit sign disappears in the mirrors, your first burst of real acceleration still feels like a thump in the guts. The engine doesn’t build revs, it simply explodes in a cacophony of hissing and rasping though side-exiting exhausts the size of drainpipes.Against the clock, the Viper is good for 0-60 drags in 3.9 seconds and zero to the ton in just over nine. But when you’re blasting through the Crest’s narrow, carved-out canyons it seems much quicker. And that’s one of the Viper’s problems; it still feels the size of a small cruise ship.From behind the wheel you look out over a bonnet the length of Wales, while the view back through the door mirrors is dominated by the Coupé’s huge shoulders. Mirror to mirror it measures over 1900mm and on the Crest it feels every bit of it.We’re in the groove now. Scream up to a bend, brush the brakes, notch it down a gear – on second thoughts, don’t bother – balance the power through the apex, and pour it on as you exit. Great.Back in Viper days of old, summoning up 500 horsepower without your full and undivided attention would be rewarded with snap oversteer and plenty of opposite lock. Three generations in, the SRT-10 feels much better behaved.Suspension development by Dodge SVT plus sticky 14-inch-wide rear tyres mean the Coupé is usually planted to the road. But you still need to concentrate. Get it wrong and there’s no traction control to safeguard your backside.It steers like a dream, though. The salami-thick wheel will test your muscles at low speeds, but on these fast twisties it feels nicely weighted, surgically precise and a great line of communication to what’s happening up front.But the wide, run-flat Michelins and roll-free suspension don’t make for a smooth ride: over anything other than ripple-free roads the Viper is uncomfortably jiggly.Mercifully, the V10’s mountainous torque keeps gear-shifting to a minimum. The lever for the Tremec six-speed is unfailingly stiff, and trying to rush a change is usually rewarded by a gnashing of cogs or a wrong-slot. You soon learn to take things nice and slow.But if you do need to scrub off speed, the four big Brembo calipers and 14-inch ventilated rotors bite every bit as hard and reassuringly as you hope they will. Even on the Crest’s long, downhill sections, there isn’t a hint of fade or snatch, regardless of the fact that you’re in 1545kg car.The Viper’s interior gets a healthy increase in interior space courtesy of the new roof. There’s now six cubic feet of luggage space, compared with the meagre two you get in the roadster: enough for a couple of decent-sized squashy bags.The new double-bubble lid also improves headroom. And driving seats don’t come much better than this: leather-clad with a suede insert for trouser-gripping, and pronounced side bolstering at shoulder level. The chair doesn’t move back far, but the pedals power-adjust and the wheel moves sufficiently to allow a near-perfect driving position.Viper interiors have come a long way since the original’s. That said, this latest effort won’t cause any sleepless nights at Audi. There are more shades of grey than a Russian winter and the dash plastics have a cheapness that doesn’t belong here.But it won’t quell demand for this car. Most of the 2500 to 3000 Vipers they’re building next year have already been sold, with 700 Coupé orders in the bag.European Coupé deliveries will start in a year’s time, but there are currently no plans to sell the car in the UK, even in left-hand drive. Seems those Premiership footballers are happy with a roadster.Break over, we’re back on the Crest and still climbing the five, six, seven thousand feet to the summit. Even with the previous day’s rain sending streams of water across the road, the Viper never flinches. And when we sweep around one bend to find a mini avalanche of rocks strewn across half of the road, a flick of the helm is all that’s needed to navigate around it.Then, as we crest the Crest, we spy the distant El Mirage dry lake, shimmering in the afternoon heat. Back in the 1950s, this was the place to test out the top speed of your hot-rod. Maybe the SRT-10’s top speed requires a little verification.Howard Walker

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