The Viper is, let's face it, a cartoon. Everything about it exaggerates reality — the hood is longer, the rear is stubbier, the curves are curvier, the engine is an insane 8.4L brute. If modern supercars were sandwiches, the Viper would be corned shark on rye topped with live scorpions. It's bonkers. And that's why I like it.
The Viper I got to play with — in fact, the first Viper I've had the chance to drive — is the new for 2014 SRT Viper TA (which stands either for Time Attack or Tiger Anus or Tickle Aggressor or something). It's SRT's track and racing-focused Viper, and differs from the other models in a few key ways.
They start with the lightest version of the Viper, the SRT model, to keep the weight down to 3,390 lbs. It's very clearly front-mid engined, with the engine well behind the front axle, so weight distribution is kept to a tidy 50/50. The springs used are 20% stiffer, solid sway bars replace hollow ones for a 35% stiffness boost at front and 31% at the rear, Brembo 2 piece rotors replace the already huge stock ones for 13% more swept area, and the modified aero package increases the downforce at the rear by an absurd 700%.
The gigantic X-shaped cross brace up front is carbon fiber instead of aluminum as well, and to cap it all off, there's some limited run special colors just for the TA: 93 in that great don't-shoot-me orange, and 33 apiece for black and white. This is not a high-volume model.
The Viper has always been a car built around an engine, and the 640 HP/600 lb-ft V10 in the TA is clearly the root of the car's character. The Viper started out with a modified truck engine, which brought some derision from the expected snobs, but it turned out to be a potent and reliable lump.
The current 8.4L engine's character may be best summed up with this detail: it's a V10 with a 90° angle between cylinder banks. That's because 90° is the ideal, balanced angle for a V8, and the 10 is basically a V8 with an extra V-twin stuck on. But when you have 10 cylinders, to keep the engine smooth and even-firing, you'd want an angle of 72°.
That's because an Otto-cycle engine fires once every two crankshaft revolutions, or 720°, So, divide that by 10, and you get the optimal angle for even, balanced firing. This would help keep the engine quiet, smooth, and unobtrusive.
The Viper engine doesn't care about quietness, smoothness, or that other word that it doesn't even know the meaning of.
That's not to say the engine will rock itself apart or anything like that, but it does give the V10 a note and rhythm that nothing else really has. It's a little more growly and raw, and it fits the car perfectly.
All of these Viper-ish details proved even more interesting in the context of Willow Springs because I just recently drove a Mercedes-Benz AMG SLS Black edition around the track, a car that's comparable in design and excess to the Viper. And there's a reason for that — the fundamental platform for the SLS started out as a Viper.
There's many out there who deny this, but the story I got from an engineer (I won't name) who was there at the time is that some very very preliminary work was done on the next Viper right as the Diamler-Chrysler merger happened. When the state of Chrylser's finances was finally understood, many projects were cut, including the next Viper along with all of the SRT divison. Mercedes wisely took the work that had been started on the Viper and turned it into the SLS, which, if you look at it, has some distinctly Viperene proportions.
To corroborate his story, the engineer reminded me that the pre-merger Viper platform was known as the ZB platform. The current Viper is built on the ZD platform. The SLS is that missing ZC.
Either way, it barely matters — they're both very similar and yet very different cars. Where I found the SLS to be an impressive piece of incredibly fast machinery that made it possible for dipshits like myself to fairly easily whip around a tricky track at speeds up to 140 MPH, the Viper made me work much, much harder for those sorts of results.
I was slower around the track in the Viper, and that wasn't the car's fault, it was mine. The Viper is simply a much more demanding car to drive. Where the SLS had a sophisticated dual-clutch robot-shifted auto, the Viper had a nice but comparatively old-school six-speed. The Viper's electronic traction control system is very advanced and is likely a key reason why I didn't end up upside down and sobbing — but it's also the most unobtrusive system like that I've encountered.
Driving the Viper was a more visceral, engaging experience than the SLS. The car felt powerful and feral, and the job of driving it was more like guiding a hurricane than the SLS's fighter-jet refinement. I was slower, yes, but I think I ended up having more fun.
Granted, this feeling isn't for everyone. Not everyone wants a car that can so easily make you look like an idiot. I did, several times. For example, I found the shift pattern a bit tighter than I was used to, and ended up shifting to 6th instead of 4th on the long straight, making all the wrong noises so everyone around could hear the dumb mistake I made.
I hit the rev limiter in 3rd a couple times, slowing myself but at least I got to see the red snake that appears at startup and every time you hit the rev limit, which does make that kind of fun.
If you're willing to risk looking like an idiot, the Viper is a hell of a good time on the track. Do it often enough and I'm sure you'll end up a much better driver, too. Even off Big Willow, the Viper is both fun and challenging. To prove this, Dodge/SRT had set up an autocross course for the Viper, and that was very entertaining, and smelled like smoldering tires.
One of the SRT guys described it as having a "tiger inside your house." The dashing Ralph Gilles took me out on a guide lap of the autocross circuit before my run, and I'm happy to say I learned absolutely nothing. The SRT chief whipped through it so fast all I can say was I think there were cones involved.
When I drove it, we were told to keep it in 1st gear the whole time, since you can get to an absurd 60 MPH in 1st. In a run with the traction control off, I wisely spent at least the first second laying a nice fat stripe of rubber on the ground that would have made any Dairy Queen parking lot proud. But that's not a good plan for autocross.
The Viper is more nimble than you'd think in a tight autocross, and the potent acceleration and powerful brakes make it quite fun. The hardest thing to get used to is the fact that you're basically sitting in the back seat. The driving position is so far back, you're behind the car's central pivot point, and that can make the motions a bit unfamiliar.
For all the Viper's crazy brutishness, it's also surprisingly refined in some ways. The interior is leather-covered enough to give a cow nightmares, and the seating and controls are all highly adjustable. As a short guy, I often find myself hopelessly lost in long, low sports car interiors, but the Viper's seats adjusted on every axis our three-dimensional life provides, and in a very helpful touch, the pedals move fore and aft.
The dash cluster is dominated by a nice, full-color LCD that offers a high degree of customization, and most delightful to me, the Viper will not just throw a check engine light, but will actually give you the code and an actual, English description of the code's meaning right there on the screen.
Yes, this is exactly what I've been calling for for over almost two years, and the Viper is the first car I've seen to implement it. A dedicated SRT engineer who used to race Neons named Erich is the man to thank, and I think we all owe him a big, collective hug.
For all my love of vintage weirdos and tiny Kei cars, there's still an undeniable part of me that's a sucker for an overpowered, long-hooded, sleek monster like this. It's definitely more demanding and brutal than many of its competitors, but a part of me thinks that if you're already going to go for a car like this anyway, why not go a little bonkers? This kind of car should be demanding, it shouldn't be too easy to drive, and it should look like everything was taken just a bit too far.
Fuck restraint — if you're going to do this, may as well do it big, and name it after a snake.