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Story by Jack Baruth, photography by Matt Chow and Zerin Dube
Are you a shy person? Do you suffer from social anxiety? Are you uncomfortable with being the center of attention in public settings? If the answer to any of the above questions is “Yes”, then we respectfully suggest you avoid the 2008 Dodge Viper SRT-10 convertible, particularly in the eye-searing shade of blue applied to our test car. As a Viper owner, you will be permanently on the American road’s center stage, targeted by dropped jaws, pointed fingers, and comments ranging from the predictable “NIIIICE CARRRRR!” to the rather confusing statement delivered to us at a gas station by a fading flower of a middle-aged Texas woman in a Town Car -“We’re so proud of you.” Who was “we”, and of whom, exactly, were “they” proud, and why? Perhaps she’d spotted the manufacturer tag on the car and thought we were affiliated with the intrepid (no pun intended) folks at Chrysler’s SRT division, or she simply wanted to let us know how happy she was that we’d chosen an American sports car over the evil foreign competition, or she thought your humble author was a famous bearded celebrity – one of the Geico cavemen, perhaps, or even Michael McDonald, touring the country in a six-hundred-horsepower droptop while contemplating which Motown originals would be easiest to mangle into blandness for his next album. We’ll never know. Apparently, mere possession of America’s most cylinder-intense sporting car turns one into a public figure, with all the attendant positives and negatives. Learn from our experience and consider yourself warned. Driving a Viper is not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for the wallflowers among us.
If, however, you are a painfully modest or fearful individual who nonetheless feels compelled to own an SRT-10, there is one potential solution, assuming you have the bucks: buy an Audi R8 and hire somebody to drive it around behind you. In the Audi’s incandescent presence, the big blue Viper becomes well-nigh invisible, just another minnow in the school of freeway fish which clump and cluster in the R8’s wake, camera phones aloft and trembling at The Presence Of The Future Among Us.
The road-going R8 does not have true supercar proportions; Audi is too conscientious to permit the ergonomic nightmare resulting from the visual packaging of its Gallardo sister. Instead, there’s a full-height cabin in which even a 6’2” driver can comfortably wear a helmet, plenty of window glass ahead and to the sides, and a functional amount of rear visibility. Compared to the Gallardo, the R8 looks a bit like the “Guppy” cargo planes that deliver airliner fuselages to the Airbus assembly lines. The passenger compartment is a touch bigger in profile than one might wish, resulting in a silhouette more reminiscent of a distended TT than a Muricelago. Yet it becomes meaningless when the R8 hits the road. Among the puffy family sedans and factory-built monster trucks populating the Houston freeways after dark, the width-to-height ratio is still enough to shock. From our perspective in the Viper, we see the Audi slicing through traffic and it’s only visible in glimpses of flashing LED and reflected roofline. There’s an eerie similarity to the nighttime television footage from Sebring of the R10 racer bulldozing its way through the GT-class cars, the staggered rectangles of the rear lights pushed out to the corners and shifting across the lanes without the faintest suggestion of body roll.
I’m from the future, and I’m here to kill you. Did I say kill? I meant help!
Should we wish to get a closer look, it’s as easy as rolling the SRT-10’s throttle; as we discovered in Part One of this test, the Viper has the effortless ability to close the gap on anything short of a Top Fuel dragster. But we expected that. It’s a Viper, and Vipers are designed around the concept of raw power, a Shelby Cobra reimagined for the twenty-first century. No Cobra has even been this relaxing to drive on the open road, though. There’s no sense of nervousness, no twitch in the wheel. It’s a monster locomotive running down rails only it can see, and we are in the engineers’ seat, enjoying the scenic view down that long, shiny bonnet. Most surprising of all, it rides pretty well. Surely this is one of the most satisfying ways to travel yet devised, augmented further by this second-generation Viper’s more conventional pedal placement. The original Viper demanded a rather bizarre seating position, but this one will let the driver stretch out within the limits of the smallish cockpit and simply relax.
There’s an angry buzz behind us, followed by a flash of headlights. In this transcendental state, watching the R8 carve around, listening to the Sirius satellite radio on the 70’s station, lulled into complacency by the near-idle thrum of the 8.4-liter V10 engine, we’ve apparently drifted somewhat below the appropriate left-lane speeds for this road. The Lancer Evolution behind us is keen to inform us of this fact, and he’s weaving left to right as if to warm his tires. Sorry about that, pal. We’ll just slot into fourth gear here and press the throttle, move out of your way. The Lancer’s apparently hit the brakes, because he’s disappeared backwards as if he’s hit an aircraft carrier’s arrester hook set into the road surface. Hmm… Oh, it just that this car’s too damned fast for its own good. We relax the throttle and move over. Half a minute or so later, the Evolution rolls by, its driver looking straight ahead, pretending we don’t exist, the stunning young woman next to him winking at us, caressing the Viper with her eyes. Sweetheart, this is what we call a real sports car, and when you’re tired of rolling around in a tinny little econobox that’s been pressurized to within a millimeter of blowing up, you can come ride with us.
If this photograph doesn’t stir something in you, you’re probably a Commie. Note: some of our younger readers may not know what a “Commie” is. Ask your parents.
On the way to the Ruth’s Chris Steak House in downtown Houston, we discover a most surprising thing: this Viper has a navigation system. How’d they fit one in there? Well, it appears that Chrysler has connived to stuff a pretty decently-sized screen into the traditional double-height radio. It really works, too; not like the Audi’s staggeringly competent MMI, but it gets us to the restaurant at least as well as a TomTom or Nuvi would, while muting the (also fairly decent) stereo at the appropriate times. The nav system directs us off the freeway and onto the downtown streets. The Viper’s a little too big to be really happy here, but it’s still perfectly usable. Visibility’s good and the big wheels don’t panic over the potholes. A firm hand on the wheel is recommended, though; this isn’t an Accord. And don’t press the pedal on the right unless you really mean it.
The SRT-10’s interior deserves at least a brief mention here. We’re of two minds about it, you see. As a trackday car or weapon of freeway destruction, the Viper offers just about the perfect setup. The dials are visible, and they’re all present and accounted for, including the critical oil temperature and pressure gauges. There’s no frippery, no unreadable digital dashboards, no different-for-the-sake-of-difference gauge designs. What you see is what you get, and it’s what you need. If, on the other hand, you evaluate the Viper interior in the context of other ninety-thousand-dollar cars, you will come away disappointed. It’s not a “luxury” interior in any sense of the word, the plastics are no different from what we used to have in our SRT-4 Neon, and it’s defiantly short on surprise-and-delight features. And that’s all we’re going to say about that, because the fact is that nobody buys a Viper for its interior, period, point blank.
The aforementioned Viper interior may be why our female companion suggests – no, demands – that we take the R8 back from dinner. Snuggled into the Audi’s ambience-lit cocoon, our every potential need met by an electronic helper, the superlative sound of Bang & Olufsen’s breathtaking stereo installation surrounding us, we finally understand just how good a supercar interior can be. Nobody’s ever achieved anything like this before. Ferrari has made some decent cabins of late, but they lack the complete integration of Audi’s effort. From the B-pillar forward, the R8 competes on an equal footing with everything from the S-Class to the Bentley Flying Spur – and wouldn’t you know it, with the Magnetic Ride, it’s nearly as comfortable as the biggest sedans.
By the end of the night, we’ve almost adjusted to the R.tronic semi-automatic gearbox, and it, of course, has adjusted its programming to meet our expectations and driving style a little better. Still, our R8 order would leave that particular option unchecked. The standard manual box is simply too good, too satisfying, too sensuously mechanical to be replaced. A dual-clutch ‘box, along the lines of Audi’s own S.tronic, might do the trick, but for now we’ll stick with the metal-gated shift-it-yourself model.
It’s difficult to properly convey the experience of driving an R8 on real-world roads without sounding like an Audi brochure. It’s simply spectacular, offering 99% of the thrill associated with something like a Gallardo and combining it with 99% of the full A8 sedan experience. Audi has struck deeply into Porsche’s heart here, offering a car with a full dose of a 911 C4’s all-weather competence and much of the excitement one would find in the GT3. On the racetrack, the 4.2 FSI direct-injection V8 occasionally feels just a little short of shove, particularly with a Viper in one’s mirrors, but on the road it’s never wanting for pace.
Fast car? It’s fast enough for you, old man. This is the car that made the Houston run in twelve parsecs.
Just at the moment when we are thinking that there’s no reason to own any car but this Audi, we hear the angry thunder of the SRT-10 behind us, then past, with the almost comically proportioned raised tail and its snake’s-head third brake light wiggling under power as if mocking our ground-bound spaceship. The R8 has no response to offer, but is one really required? This car satisfies at all speeds, in all conditions. In the real world, it’s a staggering achievement, one which fully justifies the hype and the waiting lists. It won’t match the Viper for raw pace, but outside the track it’s not only a better car than the SRT-10, it’s better than pretty much everything else money can buy.
It’s the end of the evening now, and the neighbors are clustering around our driveway to talk about the two cars. The conversation centers first on the Viper, then on the R8, and the reactions are different. The Viper commands respect and admiration, but the Audi seems to generate something more. Everybody wants to sit in the SRT-10, but they merely want to touch the R8, as if to confirm that it really exists. If the Dodge represents the perfection of the big-motor-in-smallish-car formula, the Audi represents a message from the future, an idea of a car to transcend mere supercar-hood or surface sportiness. We know, intellectually, that it’s related to the Gallardo and carries a modified RS4 engine, but the total effect has nothing to do with Lamborghini or hot-rod sedans. It’s a message from the future, from people who are seeing a little farther than the rest of us, it’s a nearly perfect car, and it’s not for the shy. Not at all.