Traffic has ground to the usual standstill around the Arc de Triomphe. But suddenly, unexpectedly, the phalanx of cars occupied by frustrated French drivers parts, as if they were the Red Sea opening for Moses.
With a deep-throated roar, a procession of 18 cars enters the traffic circle. They go one, two loops, before spilling out onto the Champs Elysees. From the sidewalks, pedestrians approach one of the drivers as he waits at a stoplight. Speaking first in French and then in broken English, one pedestrian pleads, "What are you driving?"
There aren't many cars that can provoke such a reaction in Paris. But the Chrysler Viper isn't your typical car. Certainly not the new Viper GTS Coupe, painted brash blue with two not-so-subtly white racing stripes running from head to toe. It's the second-generation remake of the original Viper RT/10 roadster, the enticing sports car added to the Dodge lineup nearly four years ago.
The family resemblance is obvious, but with a hardtop, the GTS Coupe takes on an entirely new style and manner. It is curvaceous, even exaggeratedly so.
To preview the GTS, Chrysler took a group of reporters on a road rally through Europe a few weeks back. The event mixed back roads and Autobahns, as well as a few laps on some of the Continent's most famous race tracks, perhaps the only place where it's possible to reach the performance limits of Viper's massive V-10 engine.
Lots of new design work
"We started out wanting to just put a top on the roadster, but then the vehicle began to evolve," explains Viper project manager Roy Sjoberg.
Indeed, the new coupe is far more than just a cosmetic change. The body and chassis are stiffer, translating into a smoother, more controllable ride. And the car was put on a strict diet.
"We shot for 200 pounds for the overall reduction so that we could bring in the coupe at a lower weight than the roadster," explains design supervisor Charles Brown III.
To reach that goal, Viper engineers had to pay plenty of attention to the smallest of details. They redesigned the seats, used computer-aided design software to reduce unnecessary metal from the frame. They even changed some of the bolts on the engine, a move that shaved off 4.5 pounds.
And in the process, they found even more power. The Viper GTS Coupe now turns out 450 horsepower, 50 more than the original Viper engine. Flat out on the back straight at Germany's legendary Nurburgring race track, that translated into speeds topping 160 miles per hour.
Speed isn't everything, though plenty of Viper aficionados might beg to differ on that point. But the coupe is clearly more refined than the roadster. It comes with air conditioning, for one thing, as well as dual airbags.
The original concept behind the Viper was to re-create the sort of brute-muscle sports car defined by the legendary Shelby Cobra. Chrysler banished gimmicks and gadgets, like turbocharging, ABS brakes, and electronic shock absorbers, that have come to define the modern sports car. The same philosophy holds true for the GTS Coupe - with a couple of exceptions.
Instead of door handles, the GTS uses a discretely mounted electronic push-button entry system. Press it and the door pops open. Another trick is a new system that allows the pedals to move forward or back up to four inches. "We had smaller drivers who complained they couldn't reach the pedals," explains Viper engineer Sandy Emerling.
Though the concept is found on a number of race cars, Viper is the only production car to offer an adjustable pedal system. Chrysler is studying the use of the concept on other models in the future.
Chrysler spent approximately $70 million to develop the new coupe and making changes to the old roadster. That's barely what it would cost to redesign the instrument panel on the Dodge Neon. But then again, Chrysler will sell perhaps 200,000 or more Neons this year, 100 times more than the entire Viper run.
"We aren't going to make a great deal of money," admits Sjoberg, "though we do break even."
But there's another payoff in the form of image and publicity. Everywhere the Vipers went, the crowds were sure to follow. The students in one French schoolyard spent their entire lunch hour pressed against a chain-link fence watching the 18 Vipers streak by.
In America, there are already more orders than Chrysler can handle for the next year. The first GTS coupes were delivered late last month, with the average price topping $70,000, including taxes, delivery costs, and the few options available. Among the first to take delivery was comedian Jay Leno, who also purchased one of the first Viper roadsters.