The mid-engine 2020 Corvette Stingray is an exciting twist on an old classic, but it also leaves a huge hole in the American automotive landscape. For the first time in the post-war era you won’t be able to buy front-engine, rear-wheel drive two-seat sports car from an American manufacturer. This is no dig against the Corvette, mind you, but a recognition of an opportunity. Now is the perfect time for Dodge to bring back the Viper, or at least the general idea of the Viper.
Oh yes, you can point to the Viper’s three-digit annual production numbers for the final generation’s 2013-2017 run, the general decline in coupe sales, the death of the manual transmission, or even the paltry 3,515 copies of the Mazda Miata-based Fiat Spider sold in 2018 as reasons why this is a bad idea. I’m not here to argue a rational business case; I’m here to continue the long-standing automotive journalism tradition of encouraging automakers to build cars that end up not selling and lose a bunch of money. Which is to say, consider this more of a what-if scenario than anything remotely resembling good product planning.
Let’s get back to the main issue here, which is that there is something special about the front-engine, rear-drive setup. The proportions lend themselves to beautiful sheetmetal – just consider how many of the most beautiful cars throughout history use this layout. It lends itself to multiple engine options and aftermarket hot rodding due the ease of access under the hood. And it leaves room the back for plenty of luggage for trip that lives up the Grand Touring moniker bestowed to so many coupes.
The Viper was frequently mischaracterized as a Dodge’s answer to the Corvette. Both were American sports cars, and the original Viper’s $50,000 base price actually undercut the Corvette ZR1. But the Viper was never intended to face off with the Chevy. It was more like a modern-day interpretation of the Shelby Cobra: raw, unfiltered, and, considering the early model’s vestigial roof and side curtains, not for anyone with fresh perm on a rainy day. Later iterations of the Viper would get more expensive, elevating it to quasi-exotic status and limiting the pool of available buyers. Today, the Corvette still makes anything near its price range a tough sell. So how do you make a Viper successful? You make the Viper something different, which is easy now that the Corvette moved the location of the engine. And to pull if off, you just copy FCA’s current playbook.
We’re fast approaching the 12th model year of the Dodge Challenger. Along with its the Dodge Challenger/Chrysler 300 siblings (which started production in 2004), the Challenger represents the greatest example of amortized manufacturing costs this side of the Nisssan Frontier. Why don’t they make a new one? In part because the tooling costs on the current car are spread out over all those year. So double-down on that value and make a new Viper on shrunken-down version of the LX platform, borrowing the running gear, electrical architecture, and anything else that makes sense to scavenge from the parts bin to keep development and production costs low. Then, like with the Challenger and Charger, iterate multiple versions to spread out the price range, from a base 6.4-liter Hemi to a Hellcat and Hellcat Redeye with the inevitable widebody variant of each one. Heck they could even drop a Hellephant engine under the hood for a limited run. And while we’re in the realm of the hypothetical, let’s use the Pentastar V-6 with some different front and rear styling to make 1997 Copperhead concept car a reality as well.
Now, as for whether a Viper based loosely on Challenger running gear would really be worthy of the name, well, I don’t care. Chrysler has proven that if you just throw horsepower at a problem, people will get excited. And really, it doesn’t have to be called a Viper. I’d be happy with a Chrysler Firepower too. Just something with two seats, some luggage, and enough style and horsepower to make your heart ache.
Does this sound exciting? You bet it does. Does it make any business sense? Probably not. But automotive history is rife with examples where the gearheads snuck one past the bean-counters. Why can’t this be one of them? We know Ford won’t do it, as the Mustang will soon be the Blue Oval’s last car on the showroom floor (and I’m saying versions of the Mustang without rear seats like the new GT500 don’t count). GM probably won’t either – It doesn’t need to make competition for the ‘Vette. So come on Dodge, bring back the Viper. For America.