After a brief hiatus, the Viper is back. It’s not a Dodge any more; Chrysler has created a new SRT brand to better focus on the desires of high-performance enthusiasts, and the Viper is the top dog. The big, burly Viper has always been something of a throwback vehicle, reveling in its status as a minimalist container for a huge engine. The all-new version manages the difficult trick of at once remaining true to its street-brawler roots while becoming more civilized and capable in just about every other aspect. The Viper has successfully grown up without going soft.
Oh, it’s still a handful to drive, either on the road or the track. SRT’s big snake may have gone to finishing school, but it hasn’t been neutered in any way.
The design carries more elements of the svelte, muscular original Viper, doing away with the more boxy look favored by recent Vipers. There’s been a lot of aero work as well–SRT’s engineers like to say that the car has been “science-d out” with lots of wind-tunnel work and computer modeling. The only carryover body panel is the windshield, in fact. The deep hood vents are reminiscent of GT-class endurance racers, and improve high-speed stability similarly. The front splitter is also functional, providing front-end downforce and brake-cooling air. Stylistically, the new Viper features fashionable LED accent lighting up front, a “snakeskin” pattern on its various grilles and trim panels and the hallmark “gill” cutout at the terminus of the front fender. The double-bubble roof has been a hallmark of the hardtop Viper since the first, and the C-pillar hides a duct directing more cooling air to the rear brakes. The side exhaust has been shielded so it doesn’t scorch the calves of the unwary, but still delivers a sonorous song directly to your skull when the Viper is at speed. There are two distinct models of Viper, distinguishable primarily by hood and wheel design. The SRT gets an aggressive six-port hood, while the uplevel GTS gets a two-port hood and lightweight wheels when equipped with the Track package.
The Viper’s gone on a diet as well. The hood, roof and decklid are all carbon fiber, offering a dramatic weight reduction as well as lowering the center of gravity. The doors are superformed aluminum, for additional weight savings. Overall the car is about 150 pounds lighter than the previous model.
Inside, an extremely snug two-person cabin is distinguished by Sabelt-style seats with cutouts for racing harnesses and ultra-thin construction. The seats are supportive and comfortable enough for a full-day’s drive, and the thin-wall construction means they offer a greater range of adjustment in the tiny cabin. The console has been lowered, to make the interior less claustrophobic. The dash is dominated by a large 8.4-inch touch screen which houses the sound system, HVAC and available navigation system controls. In front of the driver, a 7.1-inch reconfigurable display provides vehicle information. There’s still nowhere to put anything except in the cargo area under the hatch, of course. The Viper GTS takes interior comfort to levels previously unheard of in a Viper, however, with buttery-smooth leather in three colors and additional soft-touch surfaces. The GTS also gets a small lidded console bin and cupholders where the SRT has an open tray.
Previous Vipers were notorious for being perfectly willing to bite your face off if looked at funny, and driving one could be as relaxing as walking a Rottweiler through a sausage factory. SRT has made an effort to take some of the intimidation factor out of the drive, without losing performance. The new Viper is more responsive–approachable, even, and you don’t have to be an ex-Formula One driver to safely pilot it. The new space frame is lighter and 50% stiffer, and a standard X-brace under the hood further tightens things up. Thanks to the improved chassis stiffness, the suspension is a touch softer, which means a more refined ride that doesn’t give up responsiveness or grip. With faster reflexes as the stated goal, the Viper’s front track was widened to improve balance. The engineers at SRT also baked a bit of passive understeer and flexibility into the rear suspension, improving the “bite” when the power is put down. With the resulting reduction in axle hop, the Viper gets power to the road more efficiently. The Viper’s got enough compliance to keep the rubber on the road on not-so-smooth real-world roads.
The introduction of an electronic stability control (ESC) system may cause some consternation among the hairy-chested Viper owners who insist they don’t need an electronic nanny, but SRT has calibrated the system for minimal intrusion. It can be switched off entirely for track duty, should you desire. A launch control function is also included. The Viper’s new ESC rarely makes itself known, intervening only if you’ve done something truly stupid to keep you from splattering the car and yourself all over the landscape. Think of it as an early-warning system rather than a tether.
And it works. On the road or track, the Viper’s massive tires hold on well past the limits of many cars, and the improved communication makes the sledgehammer blow of that 640-horsepower engine more manageable.
Ah, yes, the powerplant. In the words of Dick Winkles, head powertrain engineer for the Viper, “The car is just a pretty place to put the engine.” Hiding underneath the NACA ducts on that massive hood is a thoroughly revitalized 8.4 liter V10 engine. Lightening measures like a composite intake manifold have resulted in an engine that’s about a hundred pounds lighter than the 8.0 V10 in the original Viper. Forged pistons are used, at the request of the many Viper owners who turn to the aftermarket to supercharge the cars, and a swinging oil pickup is used instead of a dry sump. On-track performance is enhanced by variable exhaust timing and a lightened flywheel. And of course, the Viper’s engine is still hand-assembled. Out on the road, the Viper provides freight-train grade torque at just about any engine speed, and it’ll pull hard to 200mph-plus if you’ve got the room. It still sounds like a UPS truck around town, but when the revs go up it becomes a thunderous, howling roar that’s not like any other performance car on the road. The Viper is not subtle. A six-speed short-throw transmission is the only transmission offered.
Kinder and gentler? Maybe. But the Viper is still a 640-horsepower car that’s bred for racing, and you won’t forget that. The Viper still responds to violence with violence, but the more responsive suspension means that the rewards for smooth and skilled driving are greater. The manly-men will be glad to hear that it’s just as easy to get into trouble with a Viper–it’s just that the car’s more willing to help you get out of it these days. Pricing starts at $97,395, not including destination and delivery.