Driven: 2013 SRT Viper

Herb Helbig, the engineer who made the first three generations of Viper the most ruthless, intimidating car on the road, was a deviant. He was so hell bent on creating a hairy-chested sports car -- one that scared women and children -- that he considered building the Viper without doors. That the 1992 Viper and subsequent iterations came with two conventional doors bolted to the body didn't dilute Helbig’s twisted philosophy when it came to dynamics, though. His Vipers were evil.

One assumes that the institutional testosterone level within Chrysler was halved the day Helbig retired in 2008. While the people running Chrysler's newly formed SRT performance brand have high-test pumping through their veins, their idea of a sports car runs closer to the industry norm. Ralph Gilles, plucked from design to run SRT largely due to his passion for cars, fast cars, and race cars, is a dyed-in the-wool car guy. But when the boss talks about the 2013 SRT Viper, it’s clear that Gilles' Viper isn't Helbig's Viper. “I wanted it to be like a 640-hp Miata,” Gilles says. And while it’s nowhere near as forgiving, benign, or slow as the 167-hp, pocket-sized Japanese roadster, Gilles got his wish; he recounts hugging members of the development team after driving the car for the first time. The Viper isn’t what it once was.

Familiar V-10, new feel

At first glance, the 2013 Viper is everything it’s always been: menacing proportions, American attitude, and a fierce V-10. Both power and torque from the 8.4-liter V-10 are up by 40 counts, to 640 hp and 600 lb-ft, but fuel economy ratings won’t move much beyond the last car’s 13/22 mpg. SRT is well aware that the 2000 or so Vipers that will be sold every year have little impact in both the bureaucratic world of Corporate Average Fuel Economy and the real world where these cars are driven only occasionally. As Gilles frames the Viper’s environmental footprint, “It’s like a fly running into a horse’s ass.”

The Viper’s actual footprint looks like two fourteen-inch wide, 200-foot-long black streaks of rubber. The V-10 engine has always been a thundering powerhouse, but it now packs the explosive immediacy that a proper ten-cylinder engine deserves. A 27-pound aluminum flywheel means the engine spins up faster and reacts to throttle changes quicker. The long, lazy gearing that allowed you to grunt through city streets in fourth and fifth gears is gone. Revised ratios and a numerically lower final drive ratio require that you become intimately familiar with the short-throw shifter. With every gear change, the stiff, binary shift action evokes the brutish, raw Viper character that has set the Viper apart from every other sports car.

We’d happily welcome some more polish in the engine note, though. The Viper is still a loud car, especially in the cabin, where the 8.4-liter V-10 has the not particularly proud distinction of sounding like a commercial construction site even as you plod along in traffic. Dominated by valve clatter, belt shuffle, and an unflattering intake chuff, and set to the volume of a Caterpillar earth mover, the audio is subjectively underwhelming and objectively overwhelming. The soundtrack from pit lane is far more visceral, with a deep exhaust bellow under full throttle.

Charming the snake

The Viper’s greatest transformation comes in its handling. The chassis has been stiffened by fifty percent thanks largely to the massive X-brace under the hood, and while the steering ratio is unchanged, the hydraulic assistance has been reworked to speed up the response. In a nod to increasingly sophisticated competitors, the up-level GTS model includes two-mode Bilstein dampers, but engineers are quick to point out that the stiffer of the two settings is called Track, not Sport. So rather than a forgiving touring mode and a firm sport mode, you have a choice between pound-the-road stiff and hammer-the-track rigid.

Most significantly, the suspension geometry has been revised so that the rear end induces more understeer as the suspension compresses. That’s not to say that you can’t unstick the rear tires, but rather that the front and rear ends now dance in harmony. The result is improved stability and predictability giving the Viper an engaging, even approachable, handling behavior that makes it fun to drive even below the limits. These are the qualities that had Gilles benchmarking a Miata and hugging his engineers, and they elevate the Viper from a visceral novelty to a true sports car. “This will be one of the last pure driver’s cars,” Gilles says.

Helbig used to contend that a judicious right foot was all the traction control anyone needed. Today’s Viper packs traction and stability control as standard equipment and you get the sense that it’s not just there because the government requires it, but also because buyers demanded it. The GTS model includes Sport and Track settings between full on and full off, yet we can’t tell you anything about either of those modes. In ten laps on Sonoma Raceway, we never once saw reason to move beyond the default, full-on position. It’s only interruption came in the hairpin at 11A when we asked for full power too early and even then the system gently cut power rather than scrubbing speed.

Engineers also took advantage of the new electronic throttle and traction control to add launch control. Literally at the driver’s fingertips, the foolproof system is as easy as tapping a button on the steering wheel, selecting first, planting your right foot, and lifting your left foot. From a little less than 6000 rpm, the Viper uncoils in a faint whiff of wheel spin and tire smoke on its way to a 0-60-mph time in the low three second range. The new system is pretty much foolproof and should yield significantly faster quarter-mile times for the average driver.

It now has a real interior!

Driving an older model Viper wasn’t just difficult, it was often an uncomfortable experience. Because that V-10 engine was going to cook you like a Thanksgiving dinner in a tube-frame oven, air-conditioning be damned. The notion of cruise control was inconceivable, cupholders were sacrilegious, and you got the impression that the engineers would have been content with an interior made of popsicle sticks if rock-hard plastic hadn't been cheaper. The Viper made a PT Cruiser look luxurious.

The 2013 Viper interior makes a Corvette look like a rental car, reveals a Porsche to be an ergonomic nightmare, and shows up a Lamborghini as a gimmicky caricature. The cabin is defined by high-end materials, intuitive controls, and tasteful trappings. The 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen that’s steadily spreading through Chrysler Group products is standard and is augmented by a thoughtful collection of knobs and buttons. Divine thrones (by Sabelt) can optionally be clothed in rich leather and the thinner seats now slide rearward by an additional 40 millimeters and lower 20 millimeters closer to the floor. Despite that, tall drivers will yearn for even more vertical seat travel as they observe the world through the top three inches of the windshield.

A few other unpolished Viper-isms remain, as well. Navigation is optional and heated seats aren’t available. The power-seat controls of the GTS model are barely accessible between the seat and the body, and your knuckles will scrape across the sharp sill trim when you do get to them. The exterior also reveals a few panel gaps that could swallow a finger whole, a somewhat charming reminder that this supercar isn’t just engineered by a Detroit automaker, it’s also made in Detroit.

It isn’t what it was

Those gripes are trivial in the bigger picture. The Viper has been remade into a world-class sports car, one that wouldn’t be out of place sharing a garage with a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, or a Porsche. The old Viper was an anachronism that embodied fifty-year-old hot-rodding philosophies with technology that was ten years behind the curve. Today’s Viper is well rounded, giving off a sense of finesse and nuance while retaining a 640-hp air of insanity. Raw is now pure, brutal is now aggressive, but fast as hell is still fast as hell. The Viper isn’t what it once was. It’s better.

2013 SRT Viper
On sale: Early 2013
Price: $99,390/$122,390 (SRT/GTS)
Engine: 8.4L V-10, 640 hp, 600 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Drive: Rear-wheel
Fuel Mileage: 13/22 mpg (est.)

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