Snake charmer
7 December 2004

Let’s assume, for the moment, that you’ve just inherited a diamond mine. You can afford any car you like, and the latest, 2005-spec Dodge SRT-10 is in the frame. Should you sign the cheque? Possibly, but first there’s a burning question you must answer, one which will massively affect your ownership experience: do you want the car for itself or for the promise of its performance?

This is a question buyers of fast cars should always ask themselves, though they rarely do. But it’s especially important in the special case of Dodge’s thundering 8.3-litre roadster because it completely governs whether you’ll end up loving the car or loathing it.

Before you answer, let me explain why it matters so much. If you’re buying this car on the basis of its 190mph top speed and sub-four second 0-60mph time, thinking it’s going to be blindingly quick wherever you go in Britain and Europe, you have a major disappointment in store. Any car this wide, in which you sit this low, with a bonnet this long, which weighs this much, whose gearbox action is this slow and whose overall gearing is this tall, cannot be the fastest thing on the roads of Britain.

On the other hand, if you love and understand big American cars, if you enjoy the challenge of deploying enormous torque, if you even get pleasure from the simple act of firing up an engine with that much capacity and that many cylinders, then this Dodge SRT-10 could be ideal. However, you’d better get on the phone fast. DaimlerChrysler has fewer than 20 SRT-10s to sell in the UK next year. And ring your accountant, too: the on-road price is an eye-watering £77,500, at least £30,000 bigger than the tag just announced for the (admittedly lower-powered) Chevrolet Corvette.

However, when you settle into the Dodge to drive, your thoughts will not be on money. Funnily enough, I found myself thinking of this as a massively powerful, hugely updated big Healey: same long nose, same feeling of size, same ultra-low seating position. And the interior reminds you of a very big Mazda MX-5: no challenge or confusion in the cockpit layout, and mainstream manufacturer quality in the materials and fittings.

The cockpit itself is bigger than that of the first- and second-generation models, mainly because a longer wheelbase allows a couple more inches of cockpit length. It’s comfortable now, though still snug, mainly because your backside is lower than the fat side-sills that contain the car’s exhaust side-pipes. When you’ve been going for it, or even crawling around town, the sills get really hot, and there’s a pervading smell of cooking composite, but Dodge swears the system is durable.

It would have been easy enough, on our day out with this SRT-10, to obey the cliché – to find a test track and paint it black with the rear tyres. As seen on TV. However, real people will buy this car, and they’ll want to know it has a practical soul. So we pointed its nose for London, for a day of reality checking.

The engine starts instantly and runs with a flat, even rumble, not the ‘woofle’ of a V8. It’s obviously big: the car rocks to the left when you blip the throttle, yet the response is surprisingly quick and crisp – I’d have expected a mighty flywheel tied to the end of this engine, but there’s little sign of it. A push on the heavy, long-travel clutch, snick the heavy, short-throw gearlever forward into first, and we’re away. Clutch bite is progressive, and the car ambles off the mark. It drives easily at low revs.

The Dodge has a sort of ‘autobahn plus’ gearing, and will do nearly 60mph in first. With five ratios to go.The SRT-10, as everyone knows, is really the Dodge Viper. It was called Viper here, too, for the first few years, but there’s a UK-based kit-car maker which has prior claim to the name. So the big Dodge arrives fully-built from the US, the British importer removes Viper name-badges from seats, engine, instruments and body-sides and sell it us as the leader of a range of ‘race inspired, street legal’ Dodge SRT models, some of which will come to the UK in the future.

We cruise down the M1 motorway towards London from the Viper’s home 40 miles to the north-west in Milton Keynes, just running with the traffic at 80-85mph. We’ve already established that the gearbox is a rather slow-changing affair, but with a precise gate. 

The combination of that and the long-throw clutch – and the sheer, massive tidal-wave of torque – discourages you from snapping frequently between ratios. Occasionally I try sixth gear, but the engine is plainly happier in fifth. Sixth is really no use until you’re doing 90-plus, and that’s 95ish on the speedo. Even in fifth at 85mph you’re still 1000rpm under this mighty engine’s torque peak. I know this is a sports car, but you can’t help wondering how it’d be with a nice, modern Aston Martin DB9-style auto, and a pair of paddle-shifts. But the SRT-10 wasn’t born to be that sophisticated.

Even so, its mechanical parts are sophisticated here and there. The Viper recipe hasn’t much changed since 1992, when Dodge decided the time was right to steal some thunder from the Chevy Corvette, ‘America’s sports car’. It has a simple, sturdy steel chassis-frame, clad with highly durable plastic panels.

The chassis supports an all-independent suspension system which uses lightweight aluminium arms top and bottom, and sophisticated DS coil-over shock absorber units. The all-disc brakes are massive Brembos (with anti-lock, though there’s no traction control).

The engine is a truck-derived petrol V10 mounted ahead of the occupants but well behind the front axle line to centralise weight distribution. It is a mighty mill, but a rarity in this day and age for having old-tech pushrod-operated valves and only two of them per cylinder.

On the other hand, the 8.3-litre engine block is all aluminium, a progressive feature. It started life as an 8.0-litre, but in time for the launch of this third-generation model about a year ago it grew to 8.3 litres. Viper engine outputs have previously strayed between 415 and 450bhp, but this one has 500bhp at 5600rpm (the red line is 6200rpm) along with 525lb ft of torque at 4200rpm.

All that urge drives the rear wheels through a six-speed gearbox most notable for its seven-league top gearing: 46.2mph per 1000rpm. That’s 1500rpm in top gear at the legal limit. Or just over 286mph, if the SRT-10 could pull its red-line revs in top gear. Power reaches the wheels through a torque-sensing limited slip diff, and there’s more than enough performance to light up the tyres — even the massive 30-series 345/19 Pirellis on the back. Any half-interested prod of the accelerator shows why this car can do a 0-100-0mph run in around 14 seconds, and 190mph flat out.Around London, the SRT-10 is at once hoot and a trial. 

People love it, and you love driving it. The cabin’s easily warm enough to drive top-down on a winter’s day (thank the contribution of the sill-mounted exhausts for some of that). Passers-by are all the more engaged by the car because it doesn’t have a badge they’re familiar with. On the move, it erupts into gaps in the traffic with great gobs of torque, and the brakes have an instant power that feels utterly dependable. On the other hand, the nose is very long and the car is very wide.

The firm and relatively unsophisticated suspension crashes into bad urban bumps, made worse for the driver because he’s sitting on the gutter side of the road. But the whole thing hangs together well, and there’s no feeling of flimsiness or fragility. It doesn’t take you long to decide that, cumbersome though it is, the Dodge can cope with – and be fun in – the city.

We tool about in the West End, thunder up and down a couple of inner-city dual carriageways, squeeze into a few parking spots, and discover that police and parking wardens will cut the Dodge driver quite a lot of slack, just because the car looks so special. Then the light starts to fade, so we head back to Milton Keynes.

Thirty miles from home I realise we haven’t ‘felt’ the mighty V10 engine at all. In this Dodge, even at unmentionable speeds, you just don’t have to. In a day’s driving we’ve barely reached its 3600rpm torque peak, and gone nowhere near its 6200rpm red line. 

So we divert into the countryside for a few miles of in-the-gears sprinting in the half-light, soon to discover an engine which definitely works best in the mid-ranges. When revved it booms and buzzes, with a flat exhaust note and a general response level that seems markedly less impressive than the rule-breaking kick in the back you get when you change up at 4500rpm.

I confess, every time I went for the power, every time the nose lifted and all that torque transferred itself to the back wheels, a little bit of me (the part that wasn’t concentrating on keeping the big beast pointing towards the horizon) kept dreaming of a considerably smoother, better sounding and just-about-as-torquey American V8.

Dodge is inclined at times to refer to the SRT-10 as a supercar, which it emphatically is not. Not in the Lamborghini Gallardo or Porsche 911 sense, anyway. Sure, it has their power-to-weight ratio, but the whole point of the car – the glory of it, actually – is that it’s a far simpler soul than they are: more outgoing, less self-obsessed, much easier to get on with.

For all its size, its massive tyres, its mighty performance and its proud Le Mans racing heritage, this is a car built for owners simply to jump into, fire up. A car to just use. There can be no argument about the description: it’s a great big sports car. 

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