Consider the car market as an amusement park. Every vehicle has an analogous ride, from the Tilt-A-Whirl Lotus Elise to the Jungle Cruise Ford Taurus. The Dodge Viper and the Chevrolet Corvette Z06, then, can feel a bit like driving the Raptor. It's an experience not unlike doing motorcycle wheelies on a freeway. In short, driving hard in a car with 500-plus horsepower is not for the fainthearted. The appeal is an addictive mixture of scaring yourself within inches of your life and laughing at how easily you can get away with it. Both the Viper and the Vette have this characteristic in spades.
The last time these two cars met ("Motor City Bullies," December 2005), the Z06 beat the Viper handily on the road, track, and drag strip. Since then, the 505-hp Z06 hasn't changed much, aside from revised rear shocks, although the price has crept skyward. The 2007 Z06 seen here starts at $70,000, but options such as heated seats, a premium stereo, extra sound insulation, chrome wheels, and navigation bring the as-tested total to $77,230.
The Viper SRT10, on the other hand, has received a thorough makeover for 2008 in both coupe and roadster form.
The only visual change is a new hood with functional vented gills, and this achieves the seemingly improbable feat of making the Viper look even more aggressive. The V-10 engine has been bored out an extra 0.6 millimeter to increase the displacement to 8.4 liters. It also gets variable valve timing, new cylinder heads, a new intake, electronic throttle control, hollow intake valves, coil-on-plug ignition, a 10.2:1 compression ratio (up from 9.6), and a larger oil pump with a swinging oil pickup. The result is 600 horsepower and 560 pound-feet of torque, improvements of 90 horses and 25 pound-feet. At 2500 rpm, the Viper makes more torque than the Z06 does at its peak.
The Viper's cabin remains unchanged but is much cooler now that the exhaust flows straight to each side pipe instead of crossing under the passenger compartment.
The Tremec T56 six-speed manual gearbox gets a revised shift linkage, triple-cone synchros, and a twin-disc clutch that has 18-percent-less rotational inertia than the previous single-disc setup. At the rear there's a new speed-sensing limited-slip differential. On the suspension front, the Viper gets new Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires set up with more negative camber, new shocks, higher spring rates, and a solid rear anti-roll bar replacing the previous hollow one.
The good news is that these changes come cheap. The Viper's base price of $86,845 is $150 less than that of the Viper in our last test, thanks in part to a lower gas-guzzler tax. And even at the as-tested price of $91,145, the Viper is the most affordable 600-hp car on the market.
For this evaluation, we performed our standard battery of performance tests and some real-world driving, and then we drove to Grattan Raceway Park to see how each car would handle the bumpy 2.0-mile road course. As it turns out, all the changes to the new Viper aren't enough to better the Corvette, but the Z06's claim to the title of America's top sports car is looking a bit tenuous. Read on for a full explanation.
Despite the myriad improvements, creature comfort has never been high on the Viper's list of qualities, and the usual list of complaints still applies. Getting in and out is a gymnastic exercise of hurdling the door sill and ducking under the low roof. The Viper has no cruise control, cup holders, traction control, or stability control. The center stack of the dashboard is surrounded with cheap plastic -- colored inserts are still optional. The deep buckets, however, make the most of the cramped interior, and the pedals are adjustable. Once you're in the Viper and moving, it's actually pretty comfortable.
But enough complaining. If you're going to file a lawsuit over a few minor leg burns from the exhaust or whine about the heavy clutch, Dodge has an all-new Grand Caravan you might like. Stick with the Viper, and you can fly from 0 to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds. It's a 10th or two quicker than the Z06 all the way to 100 mph, but by 150, the Viper has a half-second lead. It's also more than two seconds quicker to 150 than was the previous Viper. Vette and Viper are pretty much even (and impressive) in roadholding, lane change, and braking distance, but the Viper wins on the track. It's easier to drive around the road course as well, thanks to great feel from the quick steering and solid brake pedal. The Viper is more benign than you would think. There's so much rear-end grip that it's difficult to get a little back-end slide using the gas pedal, although the Viper is harder to manage once it does go sideways. We still prefer the Viper's mild understeer to the Corvette's tank-slapping oversteer.
So why the second-place finish? Blame the cruelty of the real world. At lower rpm, the exhaust sounds like a tuba having sex with a vacuum cleaner, and the baritone thrum of engine and road at highway speeds gets annoying in a hurry. The trunk volume of 15 cubic feet seems optimistic -- a road trip for two will require soft luggage. In a street or track race, the Viper comes out narrowly ahead, but in real life, the Viper's claustrophobic cabin and noisemaker mechanicals are too much of a handicap to overcome.
Moving from the Viper into the Corvette is like taking off a pair of glove-tight spandex shorts -- it's not that you weren't comfortable, but the extra space is appreciated. Everything associated with normal driving is easily accomplished in the Z06: getting in and out, working the clutch, turning the lightly weighted steering wheel, or accessing the 22-cubic-foot cargo hold. We have our standard list of criticisms for the Z06 as well, however, such as the flimsy seats and vague shift lever. The shifter and the steering rack have been revised for the 2008 model year, but we weren't able to get our hands on one. It's likely those changes would improve the Corvette's on-track behavior, where the steering gets a little too light and gearchanges turn into a distraction. Around Grattan, the Z06's time of 1:27.2 is half a second slower than the Viper's, and it took more work to keep the Z06 going in a straight line. Take note, letter writers: Lap times were slower than those of the previous comparo because of a damp track.
The LS7 V-8 in the Z06 might be down on power compared with the Viper's V-10, but it revs more freely to its 7000-rpm redline. The Vette's power comes on more explosively as well, which is handy for sliding sideways through corners but nerve-racking on a conventional hot lap. Sure, the Chevy is a bigger handful than the Viper on the track, and slightly slower in a straight line, but the Z06 is no slouch. Its 0-to-60 time of 3.7 seconds is only bested by ultra-expensive exotics and, of course, the Dodge Viper. But the fact is that the Corvette Z06 does not hurt for speed or comfort, and its exhaust note is one of the best in the business. If we had to choose between the Viper and the Z06 for a modern-day Cannonball, the Chevy is the easy choice. Plus, the Vette is almost $14,000 cheaper, the price of a Chevy Aveo. Even at 77 grand, the Z06 is one of the best performance bargains going.