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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

The end of an era: the death of the Dodge Viper 

As the muscle car slithers off into the sunset, we ponder why the big-engined serpent had to perish

The Dodge Viper SRT.  Pawan Singh / The National
The Dodge Viper SRT. Pawan Singh / The National

It is the end of an era. This week, Fiat Chrysler’s Conner Avenue Assembly Plant in Detroit, which produces the Dodge Viper, was closed. Production was ended for good. With it, a quarter-century of American muscle car history reached a full stop.

The latest trend in the genre is to coax ever-more-insane levels of power, numbers that make the “standard” Viper’s 645hp seem relatively puny. But while the likes of Dodge stablemates the Demon (840hp) and Hellcat variants (707hp) pump out far-superior figures, in terms of capacity, neither rivals the large-and-lively mass that is the Viper’s mid-front 8.4-litre V10.

It’s a primal force, aurally – and with no little physicality – mimicking an approaching thunderstorm or a fully-laden goods train. The acceleration hits you in the very core. The pace is usurped by the sheer ­sensation of raw power. Drive the Viper for any length of time and you will clamber out buzzing. Literally. Like, mildly vibrating.

So why did the Viper have to die? To find out, I have strapped myself into a tonne-and-a-half of handcrafted beefcake: the 2017 Viper SRT, one of the handful of final fifth-generation snakes to slither into the UAE.

Full disclosure: since its launch in 1992, when I was an excitable 12-year-old with a poster of the glowing-red roadster on my bedroom wall, the Viper has been my dream car. And the reality doesn’t spoil the childhood fantasy; although it is altogether more brutal than I had even hoped. Even if this incarnation is significantly more refined than its first-gen brother, an unreconstructed bruiser with a tendency for burning occupants’ legs via the exteriors of its dual side exhausts doubling as door sills.

If ever you need to conduct a demonstration of the basics of internal combustion – fuel is used to produce movement – the Viper is just about the best visual manifestation out there. Put your foot down and you nigh on see the fuel gauge sink, as that thirsty V10 drinks petrol like it’s not a finite fossil fuel. In the space of a few days, I am almost on first-name terms with my neighbourhood petrol station attendants. The indicated full-tank range of 350 kilometres is ambitious, even when not turning the movement of your right foot into chest-rattling forward forces. The handle to the right of the central console is presumably as much for panicked passengers to anchor themselves while screaming in terror as it is to aid egress.

Toggling to the torque meter is a real-time show of the down-and-dirty potential of the thing. There’s a terrifying 813Nm available, and you can see the meter tip 700Nm even at acceleration that won’t set off speed cameras across the nation. And if the numbers are large, then the single piece of fibreglass that comprises the bonnet covering all that grunt-making madness is positively continent-scale, slashed with numerous air intakes.

There’s a Luddite quality to the tactile side of the driving experience. In the SRT, there is one choice of transmission: a six-speed manual. It’s complemented by reassuringly weighty steering, a bulbous gearstick and a massive physical handbrake. The four-piston Brembo brakes are, you will be glad to know when in charge of so much horsepower and torque, rather immense and plant themselves with sturdy evenness under hard middle-pedal application.

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Refinement is about more than the Viper’s 8.4-inch touchscreen, linked to a pleasingly bassy sound system, or creature comforts such as its thought-of-everything ­connectivity, however. And a few little nags suggest that sanding off the rough edges weren’t quite as high up the priority list in the face of the car’s imminent mortality. Intermittent bleeps that accompany a broken seat-belt warning are irritating, albeit mostly drowned out by that V10, and another light keeps telling me, somewhat worryingly, that I need to get the airbag serviced. The cruise control, meanwhile, often creeps a few kilometres over set limits seemingly at will.

Top speed is a not-inconsiderable 331kph. I wouldn’t recommend using the launch function on a public road, meanwhile, unless you enjoy attracting the attention of the nearest police patrol thanks to clouds of smoke from protesting rear tyres. But off the open tarmac, boy, is that a fun party trick.

The Viper is having its metaphorical head lopped off, then, but realistically, how many 8.4L snakes was its parent company expecting to sell? In a world where the leaders in the horsepower arms races are based on platforms with four seats, having only two, coupled with this much low-end badness, seems almost outdated. The Demon and Hellcats are almost practical, something that the Viper proudly puffs out its chest to prove that it is not.