Chrysler's SRT performance unit has tweaked and relaunched the old Dodge Viper under the SRT brand. Is it a rehash of the V10 beast with the Neon-esque interior that precedes it, or has SRT written a new chapter in the book of Viper? We found out. Boy howdy, did we.
(Full disclosure: Chrysler wanted us to drive the 2013 SRT Viper so bad that they flew me to Detroit to test a pre-production Viper GTS on a wet autocross course alongside a 2006 Viper (no, they weren't trying to harm me), then to Sonoma Raceway for a track day and road drive in later near-production models. And they didn't even make me take the red-eye back to NYC.)
Do something for me, would you? Jump into a 2013 SRT Viper GTS and lap a race circuit for a whole day. If you can't do it now, do it in a year or two or 10 years or 20. Don't think of it as a "bucket list" entry; think of it as a Cosa Nostra vengeance killing. Live each moment with the quiescent light of a future Viper track day flickering in your mortal essence. Make it happen by sheer wille zur macht, as Friedrich Nietzsche would say. Or was that Schrödinger's cat?
Either way, when that day comes, hammer the '13 Viper with all the talent and courage you can rally — four nutsacks to the wind. Then, come back and tell me that goddamn car isn't magnificent.
Here's what you'll feel like on the evening of that day. You will be exhausted, soaked in adrenaline; ears buzzing like some jangly bulb, weakly casting its hazy lumens over a punch-drunk middleweight in a basement boxing gym. Sleep won't come. You will relive every turn of every lap in a twilight dream. Your sense of proportion will have slipped its breakers. You will be hungry, but won't eat. You may, however, want to drink quite a lot of alcohol. Don't. You'll want to remember every minute of that day.
Every minute. The profound outcry, the time-bending thrust, the animalistic roar of the 640hp/600lb-ft V10 greedily drawing air into its massive lungs – all comprising a cartoonish parody of a normal sports car's acceleration – the isometric-workout grip limit; quick, feelsome steering; precise handling, lap after lap, corner after teeth-clenching corner. The taut, raging, reverberating, twisted madness of it.
As you emerge from the trauma of sensory overload, you will arrive at a disquieting truth. That every other modern sports car, everything you know about modern sports cars and everything you know about anything tangentially related to modern sports cars needs realignment.
For one, forget about wanting less sound and fury in your high-performance vehicle, you want more. For another, you needn't have stressed so much. The 2013 Viper has excellent stability control, which means that even with all the profundity of sound and mind-boggling power-to-weight (imagine 640 thoroughbreds, each with a chicken sitting on its back, thundering across a prairie landscape), you probably won't die. Probably.
No, SRT hasn't gone all Henry Higgins-like, teaching the Viper to trill its Rs or sip its tea with an extended pinky, or don a waistcoat to candlelit dinner parties like the young Lord Greystoke. What they did, however, was to give it a bit more empathy for the driver, which is all the Viper really needed.
And that's the trick. A vastly improved, updated, empowered and tightened Viper that retains the boorish, chainsaw-juggling, rock-out-with-your-cock-out vibe of the previous model, but with a little more civility. Mod cons like traction and stability control, and an everyday ride quality and interior that don't suck? That too.
Unlike most cars in its performance profile and six-figure range, the Viper offers no patronizing nod to "having it all." Sure, it's got a far better interior and considerable refinements, but even in its softest, most docile settings mayhem is high in the mix. You can drive longer distances in it without fatigue or worse, third-degree burns. But at the same time, it's still the most intense motoring experience you can get in a world of ever-decreasing motoring intensity.
Even if it won't kill you for sport.
All the Viper visuals are in place: The block-long, clamshell-opening hood, the Brock-coupe-like curves, the "double-bubble" roof, the exhaust exit ahead of the rear wheels. But with a stretched roofline, everything appears just a bit more refined and buttoned up. The big changes are in materials: hood, roof, and liftgate now of carbon fiber, and doors and sills of superformed aluminum. The result is a body that's 32 percent lighter than the previous model's. The new face incorporates the now de rigeur LED daytime running lamps and turn signals, and most notably, those Cleopatra-snake-eye bi-xenon headlights. There's also so much functional ductwork — intakes and extractors — it's as if NACA owns Chrysler instead of Fiat (you'll get that joke later).
Still, the Viper's design is just still as unashamedly headlong and self-assertive as before, and that's bound to cause six more years of pub fights and fan forum hard-trolling sessions. Ultimately, that's a good thing.
Appraising the Viper's interior was once a challenge – a challenge to see how creatively you could rip on it. It was cramped, cheap and had a transmission tunnel that could cook a standing rib roast. Arguably, the most conspicuously improved vicinity of the new Viper is inside. A couple of remnants of Vipers past remain – the cramped footwells, for example – which remain impervious to incremental change. Funny story. I forgot my sneakers, and my Clarks leather flippers kept getting stuck between the clutch and the dead pedal, so I rocked out with my sock out, as it were. In the old Viper, the searing heat would have turned my foot into a roasted shank inside of an hour.
Otherwise, the newly redesigned insides are a very serious upgrade. The grippy, lightweight Sabelt buckets — of Kevlar cushion and fiberglass shell, and accommodating of a three- or six-point harness — are comfortable, and set an inch lower in the cabin than previously. The ergonomics are better too. The shifter's smaller but easier to reach, the controls are within a normal adult male's wingspan, and while the steering doesn't telescope, the pedals are adjustable. Overall, the cockpit feels more snug, which is a subtle difference, but an important one.
The GTS had the optional Laguna Interior Package, with premium leather surfaces, an Alcantara headliner and embossed outlines of Laguna Seca and the Nürburgring, if you can find them.
More power, closer ratios, shorter final drive, massive torque, natural aspiration. BLAM-O. Zero to 60 in the low three-second range, with massive midrange thrust. Add to that more aggressive and easier-to-modulate throttle. Upgrades to the aluminum 8.4-liter V10 – now 25 pounds lighter — are incremental but potent: high-flow composite intake, forged pistons, sodium-cooled exhaust valves, aluminum flywheel and new cats. All told, that's 40 more horsepower than the engine it replaces.
Also, there's launch control, which they told us not to use. Of course we didn't use it, but if we had, we'd have found out that either the calibration may not quite be ready for prime-time — since we would have pitched sideways during a very smoky power-on, and had to back off the throttle to get back on line — or to err is human. We'll have to check that out later.
The optional track-pack Brembos with StopTech rotors performed without flaw and with nice, bitey-but-progressive feel. The standard brakes with four-channel ABS – while the feel is good — didn't make it through a full day at the track without some fade. Not sure whether the issue was boiling fluid or overheated pads. Consensus was the pads.
Unlike some cars' angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin adjustable damper settings, the GTS's standard Bilstein DampTronic two-mode dampers offer two dramatically different settings. The normal setting is well tuned for moderately warped and slightly craggy pavement at worst. The "race" setting, on the other hand, is completely undrivable on the road — they are not at all kidding. At Sonoma, which has some big elevation changes and at least one dip causing serious lateral loading under compression, the normal setting was perfect — digging in and allowing all that sticky rubber to do its work. Race means race.
Have you heard about Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 126? It requires electronic stability control (ESC) systems on all model-year 2012 passenger cars, multipurpose passenger vehicles, trucks, and buses with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less. The Viper GTS's excellent four-mode unit (Full On, Sport, Track, Full Off), is the tits. Thanks to Moore's Law, a higher-spec ECU means the new Viper can take advantage of these fast-data systems. The benefit for you is that the nanny is both quicker-acting and less abrupt – more nurturing, if you will. That means although you can turn it off, you don't have to sacrifice lap times by keeping it on.
But enough about nurturing nannies. The Viper's mechanical makeup is so much better sorted-out, predictable, communicative and able to put power down earlier out of a corner than the previous generation. The torsional stiffness has been improved by 50 percent (and total weight's down three digits, with 25 lbs out of the engine alone). The front track's been widened to put it in parity with the rear and the rear suspension's been tweaked to add toe compliance and stability, while the front's been tuned to be slightly looser. The result is a Viper that's more controllable, stable and poised under fire.
In tweaking the new Viper's performance profile, engineers rethought the gearing — putting closer ratios in its Tremec TR6060 six-speed box and winding up the rear to 3.55, replacing the previous model's 3.07 highway cogs. Top speed (206 mph) now happens in sixth gear, not fifth, and the overall result is a more responsive and engrossing drive than before. Yes, it's nice to feel needed in the driver's seat.
The throws are shorter and the shifter itself is less intrusive (long gone is that old Viper lollypop), and while at first feel, I'd been concerned about missing shifts on track, the setup turned out to be intuitive. Ultimately, more shifting rather than less makes the new Viper more fun — not that you ever really need to leave third gear anyway.
The GTS gets 18-speaker Harman Kardon system with Logic 7 surround sound sounds decent when you're loping along in 6th gear. The highs are crisp enough and lows thumpy enough to transcend the V10's commanding rumble. I'd imagine a true audiophile would rather hear the Philadelphia Orchestra's recording of The Swan of Tuonela restored from the original 78 record without the car-engine equivalent of a construction crew digging a subway tunnel next door. In that case, perhaps a car with less-assertive traits is in order.
Aside from its considerable box of high-performance toys, the Viper gets all the new toys from Chrysler's lab, like the new-generation UConnect in-car data system with Sprint 3G, with an 8.4" screen. It also comes with SRT Performance Pages, whose apps rival the Nissan GT-R's performance info and Ford Mustang GT's Track Apps for track-day data fun. It's toys galore up in here.
Depending on whether or not you can resist the temptation to add too many optional gew-gaws (like the stunning, $14,600 Stryker Red paint on the concept car), the base SRT Viper (at a hair under $100,000 with destination) is probably the cheapest new car that will break 200 mph right off the showroom floor [Update: Nope, that would be the '13 Shelby Mustang GT500]. Not too shabby.
The GTS model is the one for those who must have their creature comforts — the dual-mode dampers, the four mode stability control (Full On, Sport, Track, Full Off), good leather, the better audio, a UConnect upgrade to get Sirius Travel Link services — though it pushes the price to $122,390, all in.
We suspect many will take the standard Viper, add the Track Pack — the upgraded Brembos, Pirelli PZero Corsa tires (295/30ZR-18 up front, 355/30ZR-19 rear) and lighter Sidewinder II wheels — take the 50-lb reduction and call it a day. It's the one for Spartans looking for an automotive rush like no other. Call that one a 9.
Either way, the new Viper is everything a sports car should be, tight, capable, immensely powerful, usable and absolutely out of its goddamn mind. It makes us giddy. And these days, that's priceless standard equipment.
SRT Viper GTS