Slithering Along at 177 m.p.h.

Dodge Viper packs lots of horsepower, and shamelessly little practicality

Get ready for the ride of your life.

This baby will scoot to 60 miles an hour in a heartbeat over four seconds, then keep blasting forward, straight to 177 miles an hour, if you like.

The Viper is all about performance. If you're looking for everyday transportation - and for $72,000, who would be - look elsewhere.

The Viper is two cramped, minimalist seats hitched to a monster: six forward speeds and a huge, 8-liter, 10-cylinder engine boasting 450 horsepower - more than every production car on the road.

How does that compare with the average suburban motor buggy? A Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited sports eight cylinders and 220 horsepower, and a top-line, Dodge Caravan minivan hits traffic with six cylinders and 180 horses.

The Viper is not your average backyard pet.

It is Dodge's answer to the Chevrolet Corvette and that peculiar quest for an all-American, factory hot rod to compete with European exotica.

It hit the road first in 1992 as an ultra-exclusive boy toy for the rich and would-be famous. Almost 95 percent of Viper buyers are, not surprisingly, men.

Dodge builds about 2,000 Vipers a year, just enough to keep the public interested and the price at a premium.

Vipers sell for $71,849, including luxury and gas guzzler taxes.

But it costs nothing to look, and the public seems snake-bitten.

Oglers swarm to the Viper's sinewy, athletic looks like bees to a field of daisies - even when it's parked in a darkened garage.

Even non-sports-car fans, of both genders, stop to stare and see who's driving. But they can't believe such a good-looking, expensive car has no trunk space and too much power to handle wet roads with finesse.

We've seen thimbles with more storage room, and the engine throws so much power to the rear wheels that the mere mention of rain makes them want to spin.

The passenger compartment feels none too roomy either. Pop the electric door button, crouch down, and slide behind the wheel. The roof stands less than waist high.

Once you're wedged inside, the seat is comfortable, but a big, tall console crowds your right arm and leg. Your left foot has nowhere to rest, and the dashboard looms menacingly close to the left knee.

A large tachometer and speedometer - topped out at 200 miles per hour - dominate the foreground.

So if it doesn't hold groceries and barely holds people, what's the point?

Your basic Viper handler has two motives: race or show. A factory-built race version, the Viper GTS-R, won the manufacturers' and drivers' championship in European FIA racing this year. And the company says it's developing race events for street-going Vipers.

And the show-off factor runs high. Everyone looks, and listens. Insert the custom key, and with your left foot jammed hard on the heavy clutch, the engine sputters, then booms to life, like a distant avalanche.

Inside, it's hard to tell where the noise is coming from. Most of it seems to filter through the plexiglass rear window directly over your right ear.

At least the Viper now has windows. Earlier versions sported a canvas toup with plastic "side-curtains."

But forget cruise control, and don't even think about cup holders. Viper does have a cassette player, so you can listen to your favorite pounding, rebellious driving music at stoplights. But once under way, the engine roar throttles even Sammy Hagar's raucous "I Can't Drive 55." And you won't have time to look for the tiny control buttons.

But enough about amenities. How does this snake slither?

Grip the narrow, meaty steering wheel, and reach way out over the console for the fat, leather shifter. Ease off the clutch to get 'er rolling. But stay off the gas - that's only for tire smoke so far.

Watch out. The wheel's a hair-trigger - just a twitch sends the long hood veering sideways.

Rumbling through town exercises patience: second gear - on and off the clutch. Steer around potholes lest they bounce you out the roof like an ejector seat.

On the freeway the car feels more at home. Accelerate gently through second gear and into third. Other cars and landmarks scroll through the artillery-slit of a windshield so fast they're hard to follow.

By the time you feel up to speed and reach for fourth gear, the speedometer could easily read 80.

Careful.

Two more gears to go, and they probably aren't legal, even in Montana, where "reasonable and prudent" is the only speed limit.

On a race track, even at 100 m.p.h., a flick of the gas pedal would launch the car forward like a firecracker.

The rear wheels accelerate so hard the back end squirms as it rushes to overtake the front.

So who buys such a land missile with so little practical transportation value?

Look for the guy with tousled hair, thick arms and legs from muscling the beast around, and the big grin.

The smile just won't fade.

* Send comments to evarts@csps.com

Hot-Ticket Competition

Dodge Viper RT/10

Price: $71,849

Horsepower: 450

0-60 m.p.h.: 4 seconds

Top speed: 177 m.p.h.

Miles per gallon: 12 city/

21 highway

Porsche 911 Turbo S

Price: $157,000

Horsepower: 424

0-60 m.p.h.: 3.8 seconds

Top speed: 183 m.p.h.

Miles per gallon: 13 city/

23 highway

Ferrari F355

Price: $132,000

Horsepower: 375

0-60 m.p.h.: 5.3 seconds

Top speed: 175 m.p.h.

Miles per gallon: 10 city/

15 highway

Lotus Esprit V8

Price: $84,722

Horsepower: 350

0-60 m.p.h.: 4.4 seconds

Top speed: 178 m.p.h.

Miles per gallon: 15 city/

23 highway

Chevrolet Corvette

Price: $38,204

Horsepower: 345

0-60 m.p.h.: 4.8 seconds

Top speed: 172 m.p.h.

Miles per gallon: 17 city/

25 highway

Acura NSX

Price: $88,135

Horsepower: 290

0-60 m.p.h.: 5 seconds

Top speed: 168 m.p.h.

Miles per gallon: 17 city/

24 highway

Source: Manufacturers, Road & Track,

Car and Driver, Environmental

Protection Agency

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