First Drive: 2013 SRT Viper

The 2013 SRT Viper nearly didn't make it. Chrysler put the Viper brand up for sale in 2008, seeing little justification for a 600-hp sports car when the company was fighting for survival. Luckily, there were no takers, Chrysler made it through a government-directed bankruptcy and became a ward of Fiat, and the Viper was saved. A prototype for the fifth-generation Viper was unveiled at a Chrysler dealer conference in September, 2010, and the production model was shown at the 2012 New York auto show in April. Orders for the new Viper begin on November 5, production at the revamped Conner Avenue Assembly plant in Detroit begins in late November, and first deliveries commence in late December or early January. But before final production specifications were approved, Chrysler invited a small group of journalists to GingerMan Raceway in South Haven, Michigan, to drive a pair of development cars around the 1.88-mile road course.

The Dodge Viper has become the SRT Viper. SRT, which was once an abbreviation for Chrysler's in-house Street & Racing Technology division, is now a brand in itself, and the Viper makes a perfect halo product for that brand. SRT's goal for the new Viper was to offer more refinement and technology without sacrificing the rawness of the outgoing car. Longtime Viper owners -- the Viper Nation, as they're collectively known -- are very particular and didn't want anyone to ruin the character of "their" car. They can rest easily. As you approach the new car, it's clear that this is undoubtedly still a Viper. In fact, at first glance, it is difficult to tell the difference between the old Viper and the new one, but as you get closer to the new car, you start noticing that the details are different. The clamshell hood, which had disappeared in the third-generation car, is back, and the engine intake scoop in the hood is larger. The taillights are LED and the headlights look like the eyes of a snake. The whole car has a more aggressive, yet refined, look.

The refinement jumps to a new level inside the cabin. The old Viper's horrible, overbolstered seats have been replaced by fiberglass shell seats from Sabelt, the same supplier Ferrari uses. The seats are height-adjustable for the first time and also offer greater fore-and-aft adjustment. A seven-inch TFT screen behind the steering wheel serves as the main instrument cluster, while an 8.4-inch touch screen in the center stack controls the stereo plus the optional navigation system and rearview camera.

Chrysler will offer two Viper models. The base car, officially called the SRT Viper but referred to simply as the SRT by Chrysler engineers, is geared toward more traditional Viper buyers and has manually operated, cloth-upholstered seats as standard. The SRT Viper GTS, the more luxurious version, is aimed at conquest buyers, people who perhaps considered the purchase of a Dodge Viper in the past but always found the car too crude; they might now be lured by the GTS model's additional sound deadening and NVH refinements, standard navigation, and Harman Kardon audio, not to mention its standard, full leather upholstery that covers nearly every surface. The GTS interior can be further upgraded with SRT Laguna premium leather.

Mechanically, the SRT and GTS are very similar. The 8.4-liter V-10 develops 640 hp and 600 lb-ft of torque -- an improvement of 40 for both measures -- and that torque output is the most of any normally aspirated engine on sale today. The six-speed manual gearbox is now a close-ratio setup, and the quoted top speed of 206 mph is achieved in top gear. Both cars feature Bilstein dampers, though the GTS has standard two-mode adjustable units with a softer-than-SRT road setting and a firmer-than-SRT track setting. Stability control, never before offered on a Viper, is now standard. The SRT model offers only the ability to fully defeat the system, but the GTS model offers two additional settings, sport and track. Sport raises the threshold of system intervention and track keeps those same yaw-control limits but fully turns off the traction control portion of the system. Launch control is standard on both Viper models and is operated via a straightforward button on the steering wheel rather than buried in a touchscreen menu because, as Erich Heuschele, manager of Viper vehicle development, told us, "If a Mustang pulls up to race, you want to get to it [launch control] fast."

All of the updated mechanical parts make for a faster and friendlier Viper, at least on the track, which was the only place we were allowed to drive. First, we drove a last-generation Viper, which was fast and powerful but suffered from numb steering that was too quick off-center. That's before we get to the old car's nasty cabin and horrible ergonomics. We quickly remembered how very much we did not miss that old-school driving experience.

The new Viper was remarkably different. Its chassis is 50 percent stiffer and lighter, and the base car weighs 3354 pounds, some 100 pounds lighter than before. The optional track pack -- which includes two-piece StopTech brake rotors, Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires, and lightweight wheels -- drops an additional fifty-seven pounds. On the track, this newfound structural stiffness and lightness results in far more linear steering and much-improved chassis balance. Where the old car lacked cohesion and balance, the new car allows you to fully exploit the Viper's handling limits. Obviously, having the well-calibrated stability control system to save your butt helps your confidence, but the underlying chassis balance we felt at GingerMan is also crucial to making the new Viper feel like a modern sports car.

The additional horsepower and lower weight, combined with a new aluminum flywheel and shorter gearing, gives the engine newfound character as well. The old engine was more lethargic and trucklike, but throttle response in the new car is excellent. We found ourselves downshifting and running to the 6400-rpm fuel cutoff in the lower gears just for fun, despite the fact that the immense torque of the V-10 doesn't really necessitate such maneuvers. The newly refined gearbox and lower center console also made shifting a pleasure -- something that certainly can't be said for the old car. The standard Pirelli P Zero tires performed well on the track, but the optional Corsa rubber added some appreciated steering precision and front-end grip. No matter which Pirelli model, rear grip is excellent, no doubt helped by the gargantuan 355-section rear tires.

Our main complaint during our brief track drive was regarding the brakes, which didn't inspire confidence during their initial bite and lacked overall positive feel. Despite the optional two-piece brake rotors, we also experienced some brake fade. SRT is still working on a few tweaks to the brakes before production begins. We also found the pedal setup less than ideal for heel-and-toe downshifting, despite standard adjustable pedals.

A far more refined Viper comes, of course, with higher tariffs. Pricing has not yet been released, but estimates point toward $100,000 for the SRT and $120,000 for the GTS. The SRT model we drove had the Track Pack wheels and tires and the GTS did not. We didn't notice a big difference in chassis feel and balance between the SRT model's standard dampers and the GTS model's adjustable units, but further runs did demonstrate that the stiffer GTS setup in track mode is slightly superior. SRT engineers claim that the fastest Viper on a racetrack is a GTS with the Track Pack, as the dampers more than compensate for the 77 extra pounds that the GTS carries.

Still, $20,000 is a lot of money for a very small difference in lap times, so it will depend on how important the GTS model's additional luxury features are to you. We'd be tempted to get a stripped, no-options SRT with Track Pack and consider adding the threaded KW coil-over setup from the last Dodge Viper ACR -- which bolt right up -- if we felt the need for additional suspension stiffness. SRT claims that it has no plans to offer the GTS model's adjustable Bilstein dampers as a stand-alone option on the base SRT model, but we'll see how long that decision lasts.

The 2013 SRT Viper provides superior performance compared with the last Viper while offering greater refinement yet hasn't lost the longstanding character that so many present owners love. The new Viper is undoubtedly better than the old Viper on the track, and all signs point to it being better than the old Viper on the street, too. The question is, how much better? The new Viper will keep the "Viper Nation" happy, but Chrysler wants more conquest sales. It wants to get people into Vipers who would have never considered one in the past. How the new car drives on the street is the key to that success. Stay tuned for that answer in November, when Chrysler gives us just that opportunity.

DokkaB
Does the SRT still ride like a brick? That was not discussed.

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