The Viper has always scared the hell out of me.
My aversion to the famed American sports car has nothing to do with its immensely powerful ten-cylinder engine or its Matchbox-like styling - those attributes are genuinely captivating. Instead, I have found little to like in a vehicle that is brash, coarse, uncivilized and untrustworthy at the limit. Rather than unload a slew of bitter complaints directed at each of its previous four generations, let's just say that the Viper has always represented the automotive equivalent of barbarous mechanical mayhem.
That is, until now.
After a three-year absence, an all-new Viper debuted at the 2012 New York Auto Show. No longer under the Dodge umbrella, Chrysler's supercar returned wearing the new performance-oriented SRT (Street and Racing Technology) brand label. Despite its familiar shape and engine configuration, the completely redesigned coupe promised not only more power but better handling, superior craftsmanship, innovative technology and a world-class cabin.
While this may sound as if the automaker's halo two-seater has been tamed after being forced through politically correct manners and etiquette classes, my observation - after spending a couple days with the snake on public roads and at Sonoma Raceway - is that the iconic Viper may be much more refined and less temperamental, but it still has some of the longest and sharpest fangs in the segment.
The original 1992 Dodge Viper RT/10 Roadster was one outrageous street car. Available only in red, each of the 285 copies was fitted with a truck-sourced 8.0-liter V10 engine developing 400 horsepower and 465 pound-feet of torque. While raw performance was impressive at the time (0-60 in 4.6 seconds and a top speed of about 165 mph), the two-seater was about as domesticated as Paleolithic man. It not only lacked a roof, but windows and air conditioning too.
As the rest of the industry was embracing anti-lock brakes (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC), the Viper seemed to shun anything that would have resulted in even mild domestication.
The old Viper was unfriendly to the uninitiated, uncomfortable on the road and very difficult to drive at the limit.
Four generations of Dodge Viper would eventually be built (through July of 2010), Unfortunately, years of evolutionary changes improved performance but did little to tame its natural callousness – the old Viper was fast, but unfriendly to the uninitiated, uncomfortable on the road and very difficult to drive at the limit. Chrysler finally ceased production of its flagship in July of 2010, with the promise of a new super sports car diligently in the works.
Despite the three-year gap, the 2013 SRT Viper isn't an entirely clean-sheet design. Carried forward from its predecessor is its basic backbone tubular steel space frame, but it has been significantly upgraded with a sturdy-but-lightweight cast magnesium firewall and countless other tweaks including a new aluminum x-brace under the hood (overall, the new platform provides 50-percent more torsional rigidity). Bolted to the frame is a new carbon-fiber clamshell hood, roof and decklid (all are painted, but the woven material is easily viewed when the hood or trunk lids are opened). The door skins, and kick plates, are constructed from lightweight aluminum alloy. All told, the lighter materials have cut about 100 pounds off the weight off the new chassis.
Lighter materials have cut about 100 pounds off the weight off the new chassis.
The aggressive styling of the bodywork pays homage to the original Viper GTS Coupe (circa 1996), but is fresh and modern with bi-xenon HID headlamps (LED running lights) and diode-based illumination for the brakes and blinkers. The engineering teams worked very hard to ensure aerodynamics were optimized. The front splitter feeds air to the radiators and front brake ducts while an intake on the B-pillar feeds cool air to the rear brakes. A lift-reducing spoiler is integrated cleanly into the rear decklid. Overall, the drag coefficient is .364, as downforce took priority over sleekness. Interestingly, the '13 Viper coupe is shorter in overall length than the '13 Porsche 911 Carrera (175.7" to 176.8") – I'm guessing a betting man could score quite a few drinks based on that optical illusion.
Mechanically speaking, the Viper's specifications should rouse an automotive enthusiast to the point of giddiness.
Under the long hood is the automaker's famed naturally aspirated 8.4-liter ten-cylinder engine. Even though it lacks four-valve cylinders and direct injection, the updated 90-degree 20-valve sequentially injected all-aluminum engine features sodium-filled exhaust valves, forged aluminum pistons, a forged steel crankshaft and a lightweight composite intake. The wet sump engine has also been engineered with a swinging pickup in the oil pan to ensure lubrication under racing conditions (Pennzoil synthetic is now the factory fill, replacing Mobil 1). Burning premium unleaded gasoline, the V10 is rated at 640 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 600 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm. (As of today, EPA estimates for fuel economy are not available.)
Burning premium unleaded gasoline, the V10 is rated at 640 horsepower and 600 pound-feet of torque.
Mated to the front-mounted engine is a standard six-speed manual gearbox. Compared to its predecessor, the Tremec TR6060 has been improved with closer gear ratios and a shorter final drive (reduced from 3.07 to 3.55). While this arrangement may come at the expense of fuel economy, all of the gears are much more useable and top speed is now reached in sixth. A GKN ViscoLok speed-sensing limited-slip rear differential helps put the power to the pavement while a new short-throw shifter inside the cabin improves shift feel, accuracy and speed.
The suspension is comprised of cast-aluminum unequal-length upper and lower control A-arms, front and rear. Damping is fixed on the standard model, but there are two-mode Bilstein DampTronic shock absorbers on the GTS trim (more details on that in a moment). Both models benefit from engineering upgrades (e.g., the rear toe link has been moved forward of the axle for better tow control and improved stability). The steering is traditional, relying on hydraulic assist for its rack-and-pinion.
Braking is accomplished with 14-inch ventilated iron rotors at all four corners, each clamped by a four-piston monobloc caliper. An optional SRT Track Package upgrades the brake system with identically sized StopTech two-piece slotted rotors (iron friction surfaces with aluminum hats) to reduce unsprung weight and improve cooling under extreme abuse. The ABS system is now four-channel, a marked improvement over its predecessor's three-channel system.
Tucked inside the flared quarter panels is a staggered wheel/tire package. Even though larger diameter rolling stock is fashionable these days, the engineers found the best handling and ride with slightly smaller (and lighter) wheels with a bit more sidewall. Standard models receive five-spoke "Rattler" 18-inch alloys up front (wearing 295/30ZR18 summer-compound Pirelli P Zero tires) and 19-inch alloys (355/30ZR19 tires) in the rear. Optional are split-six spoke "Venom" wheels wearing the same tires. Vehicles with the SRT Track Package are fitted with ultra-lightweight (the 19x13-inch wheel weighs just 23 pounds) multi-spoke "Ultra Lightweight Track" wheels with sticky race-ready Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires.
In terms of performance, the new Viper finally rivals the best in the world.
In terms of performance, the new Viper finally rivals the best in the world.
The standard Coupe with SRT Track Package has a curb weight of just 3,297 pounds (that works out to a dry weight – minus fluids – of just 3,143 pounds). Doing the math, the 2013 model boast a horsepower to weight ratio of 4.91 (for comparison, the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 is 5.01 and the Porsche 911 Turbo is 6.22). On level pavement, the rear-wheel-drive Viper is capable of blasting through the all-important 60-mph benchmark in about 3.3 seconds (and it never leaves first gear!) with a drag-limited top speed of about 206 mph.
Yet many will argue correctly that while the Viper has always provided its owners with performance, it primarily lacked refinement and innovation. Thankfully, Chrysler has addressed those concerns in a very big way.
It's capable of blasting to 60 mph in 3.3 seconds with a top speed of about 206 mph.
The SRT Viper will be sold in two models: Viper and Viper GTS. While both share the identical engine and powertrain, each is configured for a unique buyer. Traditional Viper enthusiasts will prefer the standard Viper model ($97,395 plus $1,995 destination) with a functional scalloped hood as it delivers a "more direct" (trying to avoid the word "raw") driving experience with its two-mode stability control, fixed suspension setting, less acoustic insulation and fewer frills. Conquest customers, meaning those coming from other brands, will prefer the GTS model ($120,395 plus destination) with its two-port hood, dual-mode dampers, four-mode stability control, 40-plus pounds of additional noise suppression and premium passenger amenities. Have no fear track junkies, as both models may be equipped with the almost obligatory SRT Track Package (including the aforementioned StopTech rotors, Ultra Lightweight Track wheels and Pirelli P Zero Corsa soft compound tires).
Those familiar with previous Viper cabins will barely recognize the new interior, as its transformation rivals that of raw carbon being compressed into a diamond – with nearly the same improvement in overall quality. Aside from the welcome improvement in ergonomics, all major interior surfaces are now swathed with high-grade materials and upholstery (standard models feature seats covered in ballistic nylon with leather inserts while full leather is standard on the GTS models). Everything is upscale, and even the hard surfaces receive
triple-paint-finished Gun Metal appliqués (e.g., cluster bevel, window switch bevels, HVAC outlets, shifter surround, parking brake bezel and passenger grab handle on the center console).
All seats are lightweight Kevlar/fiberglass deeply bolstered racing buckets manufactured by Sabelt (a supplier to Ferrari). For those looking to trump their European friends, the optional GTS Premium Interior package (only offered on the GTS model) adds an Alcantara headliner and SRT Laguna premium leather surfaces on the seats, doors, instrument panel and center console, along with unique trims and finishes – it not only smells wonderful, but it is hands-down the nicest interior I've ever seen from a domestic automaker.
The interior's transformation rivals that of raw carbon being compressed into a diamond.
Lastly, the Viper has finally entered the twenty-first century with a full suite of modern electronics that includes digital displays, infotainment and driving aids. Directly behind the meaty flat-bottom three-spoke steering wheel (now with button controls) is a seven-inch full-color instrument cluster with a 220-mph speedometer, digital peak-hold tachometer, voltmeter, oil pressure gauge, coolant temperature gauge and fuel gauge. Through an easy-to-use menu accessed on the steering wheel, the driver may change the primary display to suit their preference.
The secondary display, located high on the center console, is an 8.4-inch full-color touchscreen with the automaker's Uconnect Media Center (8.4A and 8.4AN) including Bluetooth phone connectivity and SiriusXM Radio. Traffic and Travel Link, HD tuner and full 3D navigation are available options. Of course, there is also a backup camera, USB port, SD media slot and AUX input. The standard audio package includes a nine-speaker stereo, with two optional systems including an 18-speaker Harmon-Kardon package with four subwoofers and Logic 7 surround.
I know I am still leaving things unmentioned like standard remote keyless entry and ignition, standard bi-xenon headlamps, standard power-adjustable aluminum pedals and standard automatic dimming edgeless rearview mirror, but it's time to get behind the wheel.
My six-foot, two-inch frame found the new seats snug and comfortable.
Dropping into the new Viper is much easier than it used to be. Compared to its predecessor, the seats are now .78 inches lower, height-adjustable by 1.57 inches, and seat travel has been increased by 3.54 inches to improve comfort for those who are vertically blessed. Even the front bulkhead has been moved forward for more legroom. My six-foot, two-inch frame found the new seats snug and comfortable, without the slightest feeling of being cramped (there was even room for my helmeted head... but just barely). My only complaint was lodged against the small metal dead pedal on the far left. When my foot was resting on it, my size elevens were also brushing against the clutch pedal immediately to the right (and I was wearing narrow Piloti racing shoes).
Scrutinizing the rest of the cabin revealed very few irritants. For the most part, ergonomics were good. All major controls are logically placed, easy to access and within sight (the exception are the twin two-mode suspension setting buttons found on the GTS, as they are hidden from the driver's perspective behind the shift knob). Kudos to the engineers for placing the launch control and stability control buttons directly on the steering wheel spokes.
The passionate team at SRT were generous enough to allow me time to drive both of their new Viper models on public roads, an autocross/skidpad and on the track at Sonoma – I'll touch on the differences after covering the common basics.
Each side pipe is coughing out five cylinders worth of hot air.
All Vipers are awakened with a depressed clutch pedal followed by a firm press of the red start/stop button. After a brief engagement of the starter, the V10 roars to life and settles down to an impatient growl. There are no crossovers in the exhaust, so each side pipe is coughing out five cylinders (still a whopping 4.2 liters) worth of hot air. SRT has done a fine job tuning the pipes so it sounds every bit as spectacular whether seated inside the vehicle or in an adjacent car at a stoplight. Rev the engine up a few thousand rpm and it thunders, cackles and pops deliciously.
The shifter is expertly placed and its mechanical action is rewardingly precise (plus, the throw length is just about perfect). Thanks to the huge powerplant with all of its spinning inertia, stalling the coupe in first gear is all but impossible. Of greater concern is wheelspin, as there is more than 450 pound-feet of torque available at just 1,500 rpm – even with traction control engaged, the Viper will spin its rear 355s as if they were standing on marbles. The bottom line is that full throttle is mostly out of the question as grip becomes the driver's primary focus (in its defense, the electronic stability control in default mode is rather unobtrusive allowing some wheelspin yet still keeping the vehicle heading primarily where the front wheels are pointed).
Thanks to immediate throttle response from just about anywhere the needle sits on the tachometer, power is available NOW. Few things in life are as thrilling as the instantaneous thrust from a naturally aspirated 640-horsepower 8.4-liter engine – it only takes but one minute behind the firewall of the V10 to erase all memories of its weaker forced-induction competitors.
Even with traction control engaged, the Viper will spin its rear 355s as if they were standing on marbles.
As owners will confess, there is more to the engine's muscle than just outright speed. It improves drivability too. The Viper pulls confidently in any of its gears, even when it is far from the 6,300 rpm redline (it has plenty of guts, even when floored in sixth at 70 mph). The engine's tractability makes driving around town very comfortable and far from laborious.
Speaking of comfort, now is an ideal time to mention the suspension settings. Damping on the standard Viper is very firm. On a scale of 1 - 10 (with "1" being a Toyota Yaris and "10" representing an ALMS race car), it likely earns an "8" for its occasionally jarring disposition. The dual-mode dampers for the GTS, on the other hand, bracket the standard vehicle's ride harshness. If forced to assign it numbers, the GTS would rate a "7" in its Street setting and a "9.5" in its Track setting (yes, it is every bit that brutal). The upside is that the reworked chassis is as stiff as Al Gore, meaning the suspension has a solid platform from which to work and the cabin is free from squeaks and rattles.
The GTS model was certainly more comfortable on the open road when compared to the standard model. Most of that is credited to the dual-mode dampers, as there is a big difference between the settings. Street mode was acceptable, while the Track setting is brutally unusable outside a racing circuit. It was difficult to tell how much quieter the additional insulation makes the cabin, but I did note that the exhaust note was more muted.
Street mode was acceptable, while the suspension's Track setting is brutally unusable outside a racing circuit.
Rain was falling when our group arrived at Sonoma Raceway, so the team at the track set up a very large autocross course for us to safely explore the Viper's limits on the damp pavement. Unlike its predecessors, all lacking ESC, the standard 2013 Viper is fitted with a two-mode stability control (ON or OFF) while the 2013 Viper GTS is equipped with a four-mode stability control system (ON, SPORT, TRACK and OFF). In a vehicle with this level of power, these refined systems are your guardian angels.
I jumped behind the wheel of a standard Viper, switched off traction control, and set off to play. I shifted to second gear immediately out of the chute, and left the lever there. As expected, the torque-laden V10 delivered tail-happy levels of power even out of the tightest turns. Thanks to its lightning-fast throttle response, quick steering ratio and excellent chassis balance (a near-perfect 49.6 percent of the mass is over the front wheels), modulating oversteer slides was so easy that I didn't clip a single marker (I tried the same thing last month in a previous-generation '10 Viper and wiped out row after row of the fearless orange cones on my first lap).
I was admittedly nervous about driving the new Viper on the big track at Sonoma – I had been avoiding its ruthless predecessors for years – but the street drive and skidpad exercise had boosted my confidence significantly. With the track mostly dry, I dropped into the driver's seat of a GTS with the SRT Track Package, switched to Track damping but left the stability control completely engaged.
The torque-laden V10 delivered tail-happy levels of power even out of the tightest turns.
It took but a few laps for me to warm up to the Viper (and to get some heat into the summer-compound Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires). After the two of us finally bonded, meaning I trusted it wasn't going to send me into the first tire wall, I began to push harder. The same balance the GTS brandished on the skidpad translated well to the much larger, faster and more challenging circuit.
In terms of feel, the Viper still drives big (it was never expected to be a Lotus Exige), but the accurate steering meant I had no issues clipping the curbs with precision. There was an astonishing amount of grip from the tires, and the suspension tuning seemed spot-on as the wheels followed the pavement with tenacity. Yet in the face of its refinements, a heavy foot on the throttle will still kick the back end out abruptly. The trick is to drive very smooth, have patience and always ensure the front wheels are straight before burying the accelerator.
Using its V10 engine to my advantage (driving a high-horsepower vehicle on a track is often less harrowing as chassis balance may be altered mid-corner with throttle modulation) and finding not one hint of fade from its upgraded brakes, I was able to focus on driving the line, avoiding a few standing puddles and enjoying myself. Although the snake still commanded plenty of respect, the Viper was – for the first time in my memory – accurate, civil and very fun.
The Viper was – for the first time in my memory – accurate, civil and very fun.
Emerging once again, after a three-year hiatus, there is no doubt that this is the best two-door coupe to ever wear the coveted Viper badge. Every single aspect of the completely redesigned vehicle is exceptional and its transformation is just short of phenomenal. While I'm not yet ready to declare the 2013 SRT Viper the best sports car in its competitive set, it is currently the finest this country has to offer.