2013 SRT Viper treads soft, bites hard: Motoramic Drives

With journalists flocking to Northern California to sample the all-new 2013 SRT Viper, you can expect to hear an abundance of terms like "more livable," "less likely to kill you," and "finally an interior suitable for human eyes." But the real question we must unearth is when achieving these factors, has the Viper been tamed too much, eliminating what made a Viper such a revered beast in the first place?

The previous Dodge Vipers were crude and raw. The original evoked thoughts of certain death — especially in faster turns where the car produced lift, making the rear-end treacherously snappy. By the fourth generation Viper in 2010, things had settled down somewhat. It became a car that still demanded unparalleled respect, but it rewarded a skilled driver who was capable of manhandling the machine at its limits. It was a car for serious (and talented) enthusiasts. No stability control, traction control and a comfortless cabin that looked like something of an afterthought -- and yet it still can claim the record for a production sports car around the Nürburgring.

It was a hard car to live with. A prerequisite for a Viper owner was to have earned the nickname "opposite lock." You needed reactions like a cat to tame its perilous nature on cold tires, for a car that produced a level of excitement (mixed with fear) absent in today's vehicles. The Viper wasn't for everybody. But nor should it be.

The 2013 Viper was promised to be tamer, more manageable and more livable. But can you really achieve all this without losing the Viper's undeniable magic?

With Chrysler's troubles of late it is a mere miracle we are even talking about a new Viper — especially one as redeveloped as this. Back in 2009, SRT CEO Ralph Gilles asked Chrysler for a couple of million bucks to develop the stability control system. Request granted, and that took over two years. And it was only after its completion did any work on the actual car begin. What started out as refresh turned into a complete overhaul.

SRT's goal? Compromise without compromising. Seems a stretch.

The engine received a 40-hp boost, to 640 hp, with torque also increasing an additional 40 lb-ft to 600. That gives the 8.4-liter V10 the title as having the most torque of any naturally aspirated sports-car engine in the world.

But why no turbo or supercharger? In a word, cooling. Sticking with a naturally aspirated engine allows track-goers to maintain temperature for longer, without the need for constant pit stops to cool down, and an induction system would require extra plumbing. The Viper's notorious air scoops provide improved efficiency, which blends with a superior radiator. The increased runner length produces more power, yet the manifold runs cooler. All said, the metal temperature in the engine is reduced by 40 degrees.

Due to a carbon-fiber hood, roof and deck lid -- mixed with super-formed aluminum doors -- the 2013 Viper's body is 32 percent lighter. The car has burned over 100 lbs. of excess fat and is 50 percent stiffer, too, thanks to tricks like the aluminum X-brace above the engine.

Aesthetically the new Viper stuns. It's modernized and freshened but still just as brutish. The traditional side-exhaust system remains and headlights contain the now obligatory LEDs.Inside, the Viper is a vast improvement. Sabelt seats come standard (they're optional in a Ferrari) and soft leather wraps around most surfaces, especially in the GTS. A new generation Uconnect system graces the standard 8.4-inch navigation and, of course, the only gearbox available is the shorter ratio/tighter throw Tremec 6-speed manual.

Firing up the car is somewhat underwhelming -- the engine truly only begins to shine over 4,000 rpm. But when revving, or returning to idle, a beautiful, subtle regurgitating hippo-like gurgle is produced, masterfully enriching the experience.

Driving the car -- with its preposterous lack of vision and mountainous front hood -- immediately grabs your attention. It feels different from any other car, just like the old Viper did. A brisk acceleration to 60-mph in the low 3-second range ensures every hair on your body stands to attention. The Viper tops out at 206-mph and braking is, thankfully, mesmerizingly good. The additional stiffness is noticeable and the body resists roll much better than its passengers.

For its revival, Chrysler has split the Viper into two models, the SRT and the upscale GTS. The GTS model has two-mode Bilstein shocks that have a street function as well as a track mode (SRT has only single-mode Bilsteins) — making a bumpy road feel slightly more comfortable. A wider front track (62.4 inches vs 61.7) and the X-brace make the steering feel far quicker than the old model. The ratio is exactly the same, but you would place your life savings on it being different. In fact, it's too quick. Perfect for drivers with reactions like an elderly snail, but for normal humans, the response is just too jerky. Even after hours of driving you still find yourself having to consciously focus on smoothness.

To combat the historic lack of rear grip with Vipers, the rear suspension has been re-engineered with the toe link moved forward of the axle for better toe control and dynamic stability. The roll stiffness is also softer, in an effort to diminish the notoriously "dangerous" handling traits.

The changes feel subtle. It's still tail happy, but far more neutral than the Vipers of old. In fact, the subtleness makes the car brilliantly balanced. At the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma the high-speed balance is flawless. A touch of understeer is present in the tighter turns, but power down certainly keeps you on your toes. It's one of the best, and fastest, production vehicles I have ever driven at this track.

The GTS has a four-mode stability/traction control system that allows less experienced drivers to maintain a safety net previous Vipers lacked. The standard SRT has either fully "on" or fully "off," but even with it "on" the system merely keeps you out of trouble. It does not unnecessarily interfere.

The optional Track Package (approx. $3,500) saves 57 lbs. of weight, due to lighter wheels and brake rotors, as well as lighter, stickier Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires. The weight savings are noticeable and a must for any buyer — regardless of whether you intend to utilize your Viper on track.

The SRT model is a further 50 lbs. lighter than the GTS and for the hardcore track driver -- in pursuit of every millisecond -- the SRT is the way to go. The track model also gets a far lower window sticker, starting at $97,395 versus $120,395 for the GTS. For the normal driver who has a suitable credit rating, the GTS is the car of choice. The heavier but more elegant, plush interior produces almost no significant deficiencies in driving feel.

In my opinion, the old Viper garnered an unfair reputation. If you knew what you were doing it was breathtaking; however, most people don't. The 2013 SRT Viper deserves every accolade it will undoubtedly receive. It still had my heart racing every second I drove it and as a passenger I utilized the "Oh S**t Handle" (SRT's in-house name for the handle next to the passenger seat) multiple times.

The difference is my heart wasn't racing with fear of imminent death. It was racing with pure adrenaline based upon the magnitude of personality, handling prowess and power the 2013 Viper exudes. It's everything the old Viper was. And at the same time, everything it was missing.

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