Saturday, February 09, 2008

The end of Viper

According to Jalopnik, the Dodge Viper will be discontinued, presumably as part of Cerberus-owned Chrysler's "Project Genesis" turnaround plan.

It's always unfortunate when a performance car goes extinct, if for no other reason than thins out the "biodiversity" in the car ecosystem. Gearheads like to compare stats, pros and cons, and pit cars against each other, both in reality and in our heads. But frankly I think this is the right business decision. Continuing the Viper just doesn't make sense.

The Viper made a lot of sense when it debuted back in 1992. Let's think back to what the performance car world was like in 1991. Horsepower was on a different scale. The Corvette made 245 hp. If you wanted a performance Mopar your choices were a turbo K-car (e.g. the 224hp Dodge Sprit R/T) or a rebadged Mitsubishi (e.g. the 195hp Eagle Talon). Then the 1992 model year rolled around. The 'Vette was upgraded to the all new, high-tech, "Gen-II" V8 making 300 hp. And the Viper debuted with 400 horsepower. That 400 was an ungodly, extravagant, jaw-dropping number. Dodge finally had a car that could sell posters and make it into video games. It was an exotic beast.

Over the following 16 years, that exoticness became the Viper's Achilles' heel. GM kept the Corvette's development costs low by using a highly tuned variant of their workhorse GenII/GenIII/GenIV V8s, and spread those costs among tens of thousands of sales every year. Meanwhile just about every major component of the Viper was unique to the Viper (except for the flash-in-the-pan Ram SRT10); the snake sold a few thousand units in the good years, and a few hundred in the bad. Over time GM's R&D outpaced Mopar's, and the Viper's initial performance advantage eroded to nothing.

How do things look here in model year 2008? Well, horsepower is up. Plebeian family cars like the V6 Chevy Malibu or V6 Dodge Charger make more horsepower than that '91 Corvette. In 2006 the 500hp, $63,800 Viper was bested by the 505hp, $60,300 Corvette Z06. After massive effort, the Viper was upgrated to 600hp, only to be toppled again by the forthcoming 620+hp Corvette ZR1.

To Chrysler's credit, it has a whole crop of legitimate enthusiast cars in its SRT lineup. Like the Corvette and unlike the Viper, the SRT cars use hopped-up variants of volume production engines, are mass produced in quantity, and are priced within reach of middle class buyers. And they're just hot enough to sell posters and make it into video games -- especially the SRT4 and upcoming Challenger. So what's the point of the Viper? Why bother developing the single-application engine, or keep that factory open, when Chrysler has other halo cars and can't hope to keep up with the Corvette?

There's also the business reality that higher CAFE standards loom, Chrysler leans heavily on its pickup truck and large car sales, and its latest generation of small and midsize cars are generally considered failures. Even worse, every other major manufacturer has some kind of fuel-saving technology up its sleeve: direct injection, hybrids, smaller turbocharged engines, or a small diesel. Chrysler doesn't. Shifting resources makes sense.

1 comment:

Frank said...

C'mon my 88hp Dodge Aries was a true performance car...