The original Dodge Viper was the definition of irresistible force in a movable object -- a V-10 powered roadster that couldn't be beat in a straight line but punished those who couldn't master it around a curve. After a two-year hiatus driven by Chrysler's bankruptcy, the only V-10 American-built supercar has been reborn as the 2013 SRT Viper, and gifted with Ferrari-fighting levels of power and refinement. The fangs have grown sharper.
To a packed crowd at the New York Auto Show preview, SRT chief Ralph Gilles drove not just a production Viper on stage but a race version that will compete in the GT class of the American LeMans series. Gilles, wearing a "Detroit" t-shirt, made clear that the Viper wouldn't sell in huge numbers nor really matter to the company's finances. "The Viper shows we still have a soul here at Chrysler," Gilles says, adding that one colleague announced when the Viper plan's won approval that "today, we are a car company again."
While the company considered using pieces of the Fiat-Ferrari parts bin, Gilles and team chose instead to rework the internals of the previous Viper, which has soldiered on for several years as a track killer that was barely suitable for everyday driving. Engineers redesigned the frame to raise its stiffness and lightness, the restyled body uses mostly carbon-fiber panels, and the 8.4-liter V-10 was given a brace of updates that not only raised its power by 40 hp to 640 hp and 600 ft.-lbs. of torque, but made the power more usable. The combination of all such measures, Gilles says, creates a car that has a better power-to-weight ratio than a Lamborghini Aventador and the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1. (Fuel economy ratings are to be determined, but if you have to ask...)
But it's inside where the Viper breaks with tradition most. Admitting that the previous Viper's interior was considered a "joke" by competitors, Gilles said the new one was designed to match them. The seats are built by the same supplier who sells them to Ferrari; the dash includes two video screens. And for a car whose owners reveled in the lack of electronic driving aids, the new Viper not only comes with cruise control and stability control, but a launch system to snap off consistent drag strip times. (The launch control can be shut off, so that owners can turn the massive 355-ratio Pirelli P Zero tires to smoke upon demand.)
In one small change, the Viper will be sold as two models; the GTS as a loaded version and a regular Viper with different bodywork and fewer interior options. Chrysler didn't release prices for the Viper, but the ZR1 Corvette and the Nissan GT-R now run about $100,000.
The previous Viper still holds the record for the fastest lap around Nürburgring of any production sports car. Given Chrysler almost sold off the Viper in bankruptcy, it's a marvel the car exists again at all -- but the Chrysler SRT team seems ready to take any comers once again when the Viper emerges this fall, if for no other reason than to show the company's soul survived.