2014 SRT Viper TA

SRT CEO Ralph Gilles could have been detailing his brand's top-secret plans for the next five years, or taking potshots at the Corvette for all I knew. I was only about 10 feet away from Gilles as he was telling a small group of assembled media something or other about the history of the Viper – just now enriched with this "Time Attack" TA model – though I was barely aware of the fact that he was addressing me at all. Despite my laptop being dutifully erected for the purpose of taking notes, my concentration had been splintered by the sensationally orange coupe that was hurtling into my peripheral vision, trailing a wake of baritone exhaust that seemed only mildly filtered by the brick and glass building in which I was sitting. The test drivers were getting some last runs in the TA and it was... distracting.

The 8.4-liter V10 that sits like a loaded gun under the 2014 SRT Viper TA's six-vent hood makes all of its 640 horsepower at 6,200 revolutions per minute. On the last third of the long straight at Willow Springs, just before shifting up from fourth into fifth gear and with the speedometer tickling 140 miles per hour, it also makes a noise like The Devil Himself has cracked open Hell in southern California. The wail is unmistakable, even at a distance, to the initiated, and might be the highest-decibel production-car exhaust note I've ever encountered. It certainly doesn't make a presentation easy to sit through, either.

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The magic of the Viper TA isn't in the massive V10 engine.

But the magic of the Viper TA, which uses the very same powerplant as the standard SRT and the deeply contented GTS, isn't in the massive V10 engine. Rather, it lies in a host of synergistic components that allowed the best drivers at our test day to come out of Willow's treacherous Turn 9 with enough speed to require the shift up into fifth. Because, while it's perfectly natural to drop your jaw and gawk at the heroic power and torque figures this car offers, being able to use them to their fullest on a fast track requires some rather tricky work on the part of the SRT team. Thankfully these guys seem to live for shaving off seconds and adding exit speed; the daubs of extra handling performance that make the TA such a monster on a super-fast track like Big Willow.

Many of you might have first heard about the Viper TA by way of an article and video Motor Trend put together this past spring. The car the MT crew drove for that outing was a very early sample of the TA formula, accelerated by the SRT team as a way of demonstrating that the Viper could indeed out-gun the 2013 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 around Laguna Seca. That trial resulted in racing driver Randy Pobst setting a new production car lap record at Laguna, but the specifications of the record-breaking car are slightly different than they are for this 2014 model year production version.

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SRT will build some 165 examples of the TA, with 99 of them slated to be painted in signature TA Orange.

SRT will build some 165 examples of the TA, with 99 of them slated to be painted in signature TA Orange, 33 painted black and 33 white. Continuing along the exterior, one can easily pick out the aero kit that sets the TA apart, with a deep front splitter and rear lip spoiler being crafted from carbon fiber. In addition to really setting off the flaming paintwork, the aero additions create 278 pounds of downforce at 150 miles per hour, or 460 pounds if you make it up to the car's 196-mph top speed. The added aero also reduces said top speed by about 10 mph versus the standard Viper – a tradeoff we'll take any day. Dark-finish, lightweight "Sidewinder" wheels are also part of the TA suite, and make the car look menacing even when sitting still.

TA underpinnings have been judiciously applied to add at-limit handling performance, while also trying to keep weight down. Front and rear spring rates have been increased (and the springs themselves painted TA Orange), while solid front and rear sway bars add significant stiffness. A prominent carbon-fiber X brace also takes the place of a similarly shaped aluminum unit in the engine bay, shaving nearly three pounds in the process.

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The net-net of the new spec list is a Viper that is sharper and more durable in a track situation.

The Viper TA also gets a set of model-specific brakes front and rear. The 14-inch Brembo rotors are the same diameter as the standard issue items (and as the optional, lighter-weight StopTech units), but offer more swept area and greater thermal capacity. The TA braking system offers the same performance as the available StopTech gear, but should provide less fade in demanding race conditions. Speaking of durability, SRT has even dialed in more negative camber to the front and rear wheel alignment (1.1 degrees front, 0.35 degrees rear) as a means of reducing tire wear over the course of a race.

The net-net of the new spec list is a Viper that is sharper and more durable in a track situation while gaining just 12 pounds of curb weight versus the most basic version of the coupe.

Before I hit the full track at Willow Springs – a 2.5-mile monster of a thing whose layout has remained unchanged since it was first laid down over the mountainous desert in 1953 – the Viper guys put together an autocross course for all of the sweaty-palmed journalists to use as an icebreaker with the TA. You probably don't tend to think of the Viper in terms like "nimble" or "tossable," but the truth of the cone course proved those descriptors to be pretty accurate. Once I got a run under my belt, I found that it was almost easy to flick the snake through the tightly wound course, including being able to actually gain speed by the fourth gate of a slalom section.

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I didn't expect the Viper to be world-class in terms of road-feel and feedback, but that's exactly what I found.

The genius here, at least for a non-racer like me, is that the Viper controls are all incredibly straightforward and tactile. The steering wheel presents with heavy turn-to-turn effort, to be sure, but the weight is more reassuring and stabilizing than it is cumbersome. The steering ratio isn't overly quick at 16.7:1, but the very small steering wheel made it a simple thing to change direction rapidly. More impressive is the incredible touch on offer from the wheel; I felt as though every fissure in the asphalt surface was evident through the tiller. Honestly, I didn't expect the Viper to be world-class in terms of road-feel and feedback, but that's exactly what I found during both track drives and public road excursions.

Like its steering experience, the Viper TA also offered me incredible response via the pedals. The clutch and gear lever are really well matched, both mechanical and not overly heavy in terms of feel, making at-speed shifts quick and accurate to execute. Bite from the brake pedal was instant and progressive as I dug in deeper, while booting the accelerator offered an equally linear response for the opposite effect.

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I felt right at home behind the wheel after about 30 seconds.

Newcomers to the model might very well expect the SRT supercar to be difficult to drive without practice, but the fact is that I felt right at home behind the wheel after about 30 seconds. There are, I've no doubt, uncountable and exotic ways in which to make this ludicrously fast car go wrong. But the ultra-communicative nature of the Viper with its well-sorted controls means that cockups should mostly be matters of bad driving, rather than the results of a truculent machine.

The talkative nature of the car also meant that I was more or less at ease when I set out to do my first lap of the big track at Willow. At a moderate pace around the nine-turn road course I was inundated with tactile information about road surface and grip levels, making it an easy sport to increase my pace, along with my confidence, lap after lap. Willow's Turn 2, a double-apex, sweeping bowl of a thing called "The Rabbit's Ear" is the place where I made best use of the rock-steady suspension, pushing the car hard and never feeling the slightest note of waver or lean from the underpinnings.

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My stomach never let me get as deep into Turn 1 as my brain told me I'd be able to pull off.

My favorite moment of the day came while making the fast right-hander at Turn 4 that lies at the top of a hill; a dab of brakes and flick of the wrist was all it took to rotate the car smartly, and a tiny mid-turn correction all that was needed to reel in a slightly upset rear end before plowing down the hill towards Turn 5 and 6. Here, the lovely balance and prodigious grip of the Viper were the stars of the moment, and the fluidity into brutal acceleration a microcosm of what makes the TA so killer. (No joke, pinning the throttle while pointed straight out of Turn 6 is close-to-sex good).

I never came close to rounding the track in anything like the pace of the SRT hot-shoes and professional racers that were on-hand, of course. I took a right-seat ride with one of the pros after dozens of laps of my own just to see how much speed I was leaving on the table. No surprise: I was leaving a lot. The Viper TA's brakes are impeccable, but my stomach never let me get as deep into Turn 1 off the main straight as my brain told me I'd be able to pull off. And the massive tires – Pirelli PZeros in a 295-section out front and 355-section in the back, making the largest contact patch of any production car in the world, says SRT – offered so much grip that even corners I thought I'd attacked with maximum effort were slow when compared with the pros' pace.

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I came away with notions of balance and poise rather than tales of lurid spins and high-speed turbulence.

But the impressive part wasn't the speed with which I drove, but the confidence with which I learned. In the track-ready version of what is, even in this mildly gentrified new generation, a car with one of the meanest reputations on the planet, I came away with notions of balance and poise rather than tales of lurid spins and high-speed turbulence.

Which isn't to say that the Viper TA, or any Viper, is subtle. It most certainly is not. The same world-class levels of driver feedback that make the snake such a superb driving tool also create an on-road experience that is never placid, despite the lovely new interior treatment and straightforward controls. The Motörhead exhaust note is thrilling when pouring on revs at Willow Springs, but might become more draining when used in the heat of close-quarter city driving. The Viper isn't a car that every 911 owner or Corvette enthusiast will want, or should consider. It is intense and evocative, an acquired taste for discerning drivers. Not, emphatically not, a car that everyone should be expected to love.

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The Viper TA is a beacon for heart-over-head passion in today's dispassionate car business.

And, to say it plainly, the Viper TA is absolutely the most idiosyncratic of the now three-deep Viper range. The extra performance it offers can really only be found in race conditions, and it's simply not as easy to live with as the already compromised, yet luxurious, Viper GTS. The Time Attack represents a micro-niche so small that I wonder if a target of 165 examples is slightly aggressive, despite my being personally head-over-heels in love with the thing. The likely $120,000-price tag deepens my concern for the business plan, while leaving my ardor for the model untouched.

In the end, I think my introduction to the car – interrupting a serious meeting by way of flaring orange paint and blasting V10 voice through side-pipe throat – was perfect. The Viper TA is a beacon for heart-over-head passion in today's dispassionate car business. Flawed, original and completely charming, its capabilities as a civilian racer should not be in doubt, nor its claim to the title of the best sports car in the world dismissed. Cool car, Ralph.