Since the arrival of the Dodge Viper in 1994 as a latter-day Shelby Cobra roadster, its creators at Dodge have staked their banner atop the horsepower mountain. That original car’s monstrous 8-liter V-10 engine bellowed out a then-hard-to-conceive 400 horsepower, a power peak that towered above other cars’ output like the Matterhorn over the local sledding hill.
But pesky pretenders to the Viper’s throne won’t stay down, which prompted an upgrade to 8.3 liters and 500 horsepower in 2004 and now, for 2008, 8.4 liters and an astounding 600 horsepower.
As in every arms race, similar weapons are available to all participants, so what seems like an impenetrable Maginot Line of engine power can be quickly bypassed.
Cross-town rival General Motors already offers 500 horses in the Chevrolet Corvette and is rumored to be readying a 750-horsepower, supercharged reply to the Viper. That is the territory of NASCAR Nextel Cup, Indy Car and Formula One racers.
But for now, the Viper rules.
Press the red “start” button (like a race car; no twist of the key here) and the Viper’s V-10 bellows to life with a Harley-Davidson smoker’s cough out the side pipes. Nothing says untamed and barely legal like a little bit of incivility.
As iconic a piece of Detroit iron as the Viper may be, the car’s pavement-pounding power is not solely the product of hard work by Michigan gearheads. A big chunk of the credit for the Viper’s output — and the industrywide upward spiral of propulsive force — goes to the computer gurus of Silicon Valley, officials said at a recent press event held at Virginia International Raceway.
Immensely fast and powerful engine management computers that fine-tune every aspect of the engine’s operation, combined with computer design, modeling and simulation tools, allow engineers to divine improvements in virtual reality long before moving to aluminum and steel.
Underhood computers tweak the ignition timing, valve timing and fuel mixture continuously, based on data gathered from sensors that check the throttle position, engine speed, engine coolant temperature, ambient temperature and oxygen in the exhaust to ensure near-perfect combustion in every cylinder, every time.
Such perfection not only makes more power and less pollution while using less fuel, it also lets the engine run closer to its theoretical limits with less margin for error — because there is less error to account for. Running nearer the limit also contributes to improved efficiency, which translates again to more power, less fuel and less pollution.
(EPA mileage figures have not yet been announced for the 2008 Viper, although the previous model was rated at just 13 miles per gallon for combined city and highway driving.)
All these improvements also contribute to a hefty price tag, starting at $84,000.
Even with improvements in efficiency and emissions, the Viper’s raison d'etre is being extreme. Extremely powerful, extremely brutal, extremely uncompromising. It must have the most, or it will become disillusioned and possibly join a commune.
The trouble is, as rivals ramp up the horsepower, they could set the bar very high for the Dodge guys to match.
“You can’t be No. 1 in everything, all the time,” concedes Herb Helbig, vehicle synthesis manager for the Viper. So if Chevy rolls out a super-expensive, limited edition 'Vette with more power? “Then you have to continue to be the top of the heap in price/performance,” he said.
Four-door sedans like the BMW M5 have 500 horsepower at the ready for milk and diaper runs to Costco with the kiddies snuggled into their child seats in the back. The Dodge Magnum station wagon boasts 425 horsepower in SRT8 trim — perfect for humiliating sports cars at the drag strip if not fetching plywood from Home Depot.
Engine power may not have obeyed the Moore’s Law of the computer world that posits a doubling in power every 18 months, but just a couple model years of age can let prestigious names like Porsche and Corvette be outgunned by the likes of a Dodge Magnum wagon.
Today’s Porsche 911 Turbo has 480 horsepower, plus an “overboost” button that permits it to crank out extra power at lower revs — here again computers are wringing every possible calorie of energy from a drop of fuel. By comparison, a millennial 911 Turbo made “only” 415 horsepower. The limited production 2001 Corvette Z06 model debuted with a then-impressive 385 horsepower.
As in every conflict, civilians feel the effects too. The Honda Accord and Toyota Camry — U.S. sales leaders and the definition of a plain vanilla transportation for many people — have optional V6 engines rated at 268 horsepower. Twenty years ago, the Corvette had 230 horsepower. The Accord makes more power than that 'Vette with an engine that can meet California’s stringent Partial Zero Emission Vehicle pollution standard.
This rising tide of power boosts expectations of thoroughbred supercars, for which legendary reputations are no substitute for underhood power. That means that Ferrari and Lamborghini are raising their games, with 500-plus horsepower increasingly seen as the price of entry, and more is better. That is why the Ferrari F599 Fiorano’s V-12 churns out 620 horsepower.
The expectation might be that in the face of uncertain fuel supplies the wave of such cars will crash ashore and then roll back. But in fact, limited production supercars sell in very small numbers and are driven relatively little by their owners who can easily afford to fuel them even with expensive gasoline. That is why super-high-performance cars have evaded the sights of environmentalists, in contrast to the high sales volume, high daily mileage SUV family haulers.
But even absent political considerations, the expectation is that the recent forward march of increased power simply cannot continue. There are practical reasons to think power of our most muscular machines will soon plateau. The first is that before computerized controls the internal combustion engine was still a fairly primitive machine, with plenty of low-hanging efficiency fruit for engineers to snatch. That tree has been largely picked over now, so the potential for additional improvement has diminished.
But even if power could be boosted further, it gets increasingly difficult to get such power to the road without snapping axles and driveshafts under the strain.
To this day the Viper wears wheel hubs with six lug nuts, rather than the usual five. That is because the only hubs in the corporate parts bin when the Viper team concocted the original car that had a hope of withstanding its then-mind boggling 400 horsepower were from the company’s rugged Ram pickups.
Today’s drivetrains look more like they’ve been lifted from dump trucks, and the wheels seem to come from steam rollers, so it is not practical for sports cars to add much more power. And of course, such power is a challenge for drivers to control.
“There is a point at which the power becomes more than you can hold onto,” observes Helbig. Where is that point? “I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe 800.” Hmm. That number is just higher than the forecast Corvette’s output. Coincidence? Probably not.
If 800 horsepower is the Viper’s final destination until the day when Star Trek transporters convey us instantly, perhaps we won’t mind too much. Of course the electric power guys are promising motors mounted directly to the wheel hubs that could put down even more power. So perhaps the fuel cell era will herald a new age of still higher-performance sports cars.
Ford fired the opening shot in that contest, claiming a land speed record in August with a 207 mph fuel cell-powered version of the company’s Fusion sedan. Today’s production Viper tops out at 200 mph. “What we’ve accomplished is nothing short of an industry first,” crowed Gerhard Schmidt, vice president of research and advanced engineering for Ford Motor Co.