Barry Manilow’s 1970s hit song “Looks Like We Made It” wasn’t blaring from the loudspeakers on the Chrysler stand at the Javits Center in Manhattan today, but it might as well have been. There was no better way for Chrysler to announce to the world that it’s back from the brink, it’s made it through its bankruptcy and painful restructuring, and it fully expects to thrive than by taking the wraps off the 2013 SRT Viper at the 2012 New York Auto Show. After all, imagine how unlikely a new Viper was only three years ago, when Chrysler almost went out of business altogether. If the company survived, bread-and-butter products like family sedans, crossovers, and pickup trucks would, naturally, have to command the bulk of product-development dollars. How could there possibly be interest in something as indulgent as a low-volume, expensive, high-performance sports car?
“We had to do a lot of soul searching,” admits Ralph Gilles, Chrysler’s longtime design star and now head of the SRT brand, which takes ownership of the Viper nameplate. (That’s right, it no longer is known as the Dodge Viper.) “[After the bankruptcy and acquisition by Fiat] we had the privilege -- not the right -- to develop a new Viper. This car was born when we were righting the house.” SRT design chief Mark Trostle also has memories of that dark period: “The summer of 2009,” he recalls, “Ralph told me to rally the troops. [Working on a new Viper] was a great way to help morale among our designers.” Trostle’s team, mostly working after-hours, did six scale models on the down-low, as there was no guarantee -- indeed, it was unlikely -- that a new Viper would be green-lighted by Chrysler’s new management team, which clearly had more pressing product programs to finance.
Yet by June 2010, with Chrysler barely off life support yet pointed in the right direction toward solvency, the time was right for Gilles to present the Viper to Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne and his management team. In the darkened Chrysler design dome, Marchionne hushed the small crowd and sat, silently, watching a Viper foam model rotating slowly on a turntable, illuminated by spotlights from the tall ceiling. After some five or ten minutes, Marchionne walked over to the model, ran his hands along it, and declared it to be the most beautiful car he’d ever seen. “Ten minutes later,” says Gilles, “the program was approved.”
The 2013 SRT Viper is not an all-new car, although from what we’ve seen so far, it is a remarkable on-the-cheap remake. The Viper is virtually identical to its predecessor in length, width, and height, although its front track is one inch wider. The windshield carries over, but all other windows and body panels are new, and the body is comprised entirely of aluminum, plastic composite, or carbon fiber. The mighty 8.4-liter V-10 returns, sending about 640 hp and 600 lb-ft of torque through a reworked six-speed manual gearbox.
The new Viper’s big catchword is “refinement.” The old car had virtually no soundproofing, whereas this one has sixteen pounds of insulating materials. The cabin, thankfully, bears no resemblance to the cut-rate, kit-car environment of the previous car, and with the luxurious GTS model, Chrysler’s SRT division hopes to snare Porsche and Lamborghini owners who in the past rightly dismissed the Viper as being too crude.
Let’s take a closer look at what Gilles and his SRT team have created for this new-generation Viper:
The Viper design project was a juicy piece of red meat to Trostle’s designers, who set up a secret room they called “Area 51” to collect ideas for the new-generation sports car. “We started to push the shape and change the form vocabulary,” Trostle recalls, “but eventually we started to say, ‘we don’t want to reinvent it.’ It’s an iconic vehicle like the Porsche 911 or the Jeep Wrangler. The proportion is iconic.” Trostle views the side gills, especially, as being a signature Viper design, yet his designers sought to re-think the gill’s form. They kept returning to the “beautiful shapes of the 1996 coupe” for inspiration, Trostle says.
“We were looking for timelessness,” confirms Gilles. “We eschewed some of the trends out there. These are [design] forms that Viper owns.”
That adherence to the past aside, all of the body panels, and even the badge, named “Stryker” by the Viper Club of America, are newly designed. Gilles promises that “every scoop, duct, and gill is functional.” The forward-hinged hood, the roof, and the deck lid are made of carbon fiber, while the doors, rocker panels, and lower section of the front quarter-panels are aluminum. Some body panels are made of molded plastic. The hood’s 9x2-inch intake scoop, a nod to the 1996 coupe, feeds cool air directly to the engine without mixing with air taken in for the radiator. The standard Viper model has three air extractors on its hood, while the Viper GTS model has two, for a cleaner appearance. The lower front grille, an evolution of the traditional Viper “bottom mouth” configuration, has body-color front-brake cooling ducts on the Viper and black ones on the Viper GTS. The coefficient of drag is 0.364.
The more elongated roofline’s double-bubble design allows a bit more interior headroom for a helmeted driver and passenger. The rear window is narrower and longer than before and is more cleanly integrated into the body. The doors open with an electronic-solenoid-switch touch pad like the ones in the Chevrolet Corvette and the Cadillac CTS. You still have to cross a fairly wide sill to enter or exit the car, but the sills are nicely finished and the side-vent exhaust pipes are ringed in aluminum bezels. The last Viper was infamous for scorching the ankles and shins of unwary drivers, and Gilles promises somewhat less heat buildup in the sills but admits that “it will still be hot.”
The Viper’s lighting has entered the modern era, with dual-function, bi-xenon headlamps accented by LED daytime running lights and LED turn signals that are meant to evoke a snake’s eye. The projector headlamps themselves are 70 mm, or 2.8 inches, in diameter and are ringed in silver, the only bright work in the Viper’s face. Headlamp bezels are matte-black for the Viper and metallic graphic for the Viper GTS. The “snakeskin” texture in the LED tail lamps’ lenses apes similar surface textures in the gills and hood.
The standard Viper model gets a body-colored rear appliqué, while the upmarket Viper GTS gets a gloss black panel or an optional carbon-fiber trim package that is admirable in its tasteful restraint. (A supplier in Detroit manufactures all of the Viper’s carbon fiber pieces.) The stock five-spoke, forged-aluminum wheels, called “Rattler,” are available fully polished, painted black, or painted low-gloss black. The Viper GTS gets a more refined, polished, six-spoke “Venom” design with graphite pockets as standard, with either glossy black or low-gloss black as options. The wheels themselves are now 18 inches by 10.5 inches in front, representing a half-inch increase in width, and 19 inches by 13 inches in the rear.
SRT has switched from the previous Viper’s Michelin footwear to Pirelli. “We worked hand-in-glove with Pirelli,” says Gilles, “and the car should be far more drivable on a much wider variety of road conditions.” Pirelli P Zero run-flats are standard, while P Zero Corsa run-flats are part of the optiona
l track package.
“We conducted a research clinic with owners of Porsches, Lamborghinis, Corvettes, and other sports cars,” recalls SRT head Ralph Gilles. “To our surprise, they respected the Viper, but they also had lots of cutting comments.” No surprise, that. With the new Viper, SRT hopes to attract both the members of what Gilles calls “the historic audience” for Viper as well as the “supercar audience.” “These are the people who respected the Viper,” says Gilles, “but who wanted more technology, a better interior, and a better ride before they would consider it.” To be sure, the new Viper still has to satisfy the members of the very vocal and opinionated Viper Nation, an owner body of some 3600 members that Gilles and his team kept very much in mind during the new car’s development. We suspect that even the most diehard members of Viper Nation were never really fans of the previous Viper’s down-market interior and will very much appreciate the increased room, the premium finishes, and the modern equipment that they’ll find in the 2013 Viper.
Klaus Busse, the same German-American designer who led the team on the new Dodge Dart, was in charge of the Viper cabin and concentrated on improving three areas: 1) materials; 2) craftsmanship; and 3) technology. The Viper GTS gets a full interior leather treatment, including the instrument panel, but even the base Viper, which we have not yet seen, will have far better quality interior materials and additional padding for elbow, knee, and wrist touch points, with a sewn-and-wrapped instrument panel, center console, doors, and A-pillars. The standard cabin treatment will be black fabric, but black, red, or tan Nappa leather will be offered.
The centerpiece of the revised cabin in both models is an 8.4-inch center-stack UConnect Media Center touch screen to control Bluetooth, stereo, navigation, and the like. A 7.0-inch cluster screen in front of the driver displays track telemetry and other programmable information. A nine-speaker stereo is standard on the Viper, with a twelve-speaker Harman Kardon system optional. The Viper GTS gets the latter system as standard and a sixteen-speaker version as an option.
Gilles recalls an early interior styling buck that was shown to Marchionne, who got in, sat down, got out, and said, “What the f -- k are these Barcaloungers doing in here? Let me call Italy and see what we can do.” People in Italy clearly take Marchionne’s calls, and the Fiat alliance paved the way for lightweight, elegant, and supportive seats from Sabelt, the same supplier that Ferrari uses. We haven’t sat in them yet, but they clearly will be far superior both to the previous Viper’s chairs and also to the inferior seats used in all current Corvettes.
The GTS model will be available with black, black and red, or black and caramel leather. An available Premium Interior Package provides Laguna premium leather in either black or sepia throughout the entire cabin plus Alcantara for the headliner. “We sold 500 Vipers in 2010,” says Gilles, “in run-out production of the old car. [With such a small number of cars], we learned how to do different packages. Only 30 of those 500 cars were outfitted the same way.”
Both Viper models have slightly more interior room. The seats are about an inch lower than before and have 90 mm (almost four inches) additional travel, and the roof is almost an inch higher. The center console and door armrests are lower, and the seat height can be adjusted by up to 40 mm (just short of two inches).
THE HEART OF THE BEAST: 8.4-LITER V-10 ENGINE
The Viper has been as closely identified with its ten-cylinder engine as the Porsche 911 is with its flat six, so this was certainly not something that SRT wanted to change. That said, the huge V-10 has come in for a thorough round of improvements, and its preliminary output is 640 hp and 600 lb-ft of torque, the most torque of any naturally aspirated automotive engine in the world, SRT boasts. The block has been redesigned and recast, the intake and exhaust valves are lighter, and the exhaust valves are now sodium-filled. The pistons are now forged aluminum, like the crankshaft already was. A new, lightweight, aluminum flywheel allows the engine to spin up faster and is, according to SRT vehicle line executive Russ Ruedisueli, probably worth a tenth of a second at the drag strip.
The V-10 is some 25 lb lighter overall, is on hydro mounts, and is spanned by a striking aluminum X-shaped cross brace that Gilles has nicknamed “Spidey” and that helps increase the car’s torsional stiffness by 50 percent. The firewall dash panel is cast magnesium, and the engine is slightly offset toward the passenger and is set fully behind the front axle. Weight distribution is 49/51 percent front/rear.
The Tremec six-speed manual transmission has tighter gear ratios and shorter throws. Sixth gear is now the top gear rather than an overdrive gear. “Our analysis says that the top speed will be 206 mph,” says Ruedisueli, “which is up 5 mph from before, but this is an estimate.”
CHASSIS & SUSPENSION
A revised spaceframe, the lighter body panels, the lighter V-10, and various other shavings results in a car that’s about 100 lb lighter than its predecessor, even with the addition of soundproofing materials and more cabin equipment. SRT estimates that the base production car will weigh in at 3320 lb and that the optional track package will shave another 40 lb.
The base car gets 46-mm aluminum-bodied Bilstein dampers and hollow, 27-mm front and rear anti-roll bars. The Viper GTS has gas-charged, monotube, aluminum-bodied dampers with driver-selectable street and track settings.
The old Viper was, to many drivers, a difficult beast to tame on a track, and the fact that there were no stability aids didn’t help matters. Naturally, the 2013 Viper has standard stability control with four modes ranging from Full On to Full Off that are controlled by a button on the steering wheel. All Vipers will have standard launch control, which is also engaged by a steering wheel button.
Four-piston Brembo brakes are standard, with gloss black calipers on the Viper and gloss red calipers on the Viper GTS. StopTech slotted and vented lightweight two-piece rotors are part of the Track Package, which is available on either the Viper or the Viper GTS.
THE 2013 SRT VIPER, PROUDLY BUILT IN DETROIT
The previous Viper was built since 1995 at a quite rudimentary production plant on Detroit’s east side, Conner Avenue Assembly, which also built the Plymouth Prowler in its day. The 2013 SRT Viper will also be built at Conner Avenue, but the plant has been completely revamped and modernized, with the aid of assembly line workers who would otherwise have been idle during the production break.
Whether the 2013 SRT Viper will be able to capture buyers who usually turn to Europe for their sports cars is certainly debatable, but this car certainly seems to have made quantum leaps in refinement, livability, and desirability, with likely no compromises to performance, which should now be more accessible to drivers of differing skill levels. Prices haven’t been announced, but it’s pretty clear that the base SRT Viper will cost less than $100K, while the upmarket Viper GTS will definitely be a six-figure car.
What’s not up for debate is that the new Viper is going into production late this year, it looks spectacular inside and out, and, if we can invoke another Manilow hit from the 1970s, “It’s a Miracle” that it even exists. We can’t wait to get behind the wheel.
2013 SRT Viper
On sale: late 2012/early 2013
Engine: 8.4-liter V-10, 640 hp, 600 lb-ft (estimated)
Top speed: 206 mph (estimated)