Much like the fearsome reptile after which it is named, the Viper has shed its old skin and it starts anew for 2013. Quite unlike that sinewy eponymous beast, its muscle and skeleton have changed as well. And this born-again Viper now has two distinct personalities.
Into the snake-pit
Dick Winkles was 37 at the turn of the '90s. He had just returned from a seven-month stint at Lamborghini where he had successfully replaced an expensive Magneti Marelli injection system used in the Italian exotics with a system developed by Chrysler, then owner of the famous brand from Sant’Agata.
On his return, the engine wizard was immediately assigned to the skunk-works team – or snake-pit as the case may be – that had been assigned the mission of transforming the Viper concept, a major hit at the 1989 Detroit auto show, into a production model.
When the Viper R/T 10 was launched for the 1992 model year, the quiet, soft-spoken Winkles says, he never thought it would last more than three or four years.
Yet, here he was, two decades later, at the launch of the fifth-generation of the beast. In November, on Californian asphalt once again. Just like the first time.
Methodically, Dick Winkles described the myriad changes his team had made to the new car’s engine, leaving virtually none of its hundreds of parts and components untouched.
The naturally-aspirated, overhead-valve, 8.4-liter V-10 now delivers 640 horsepower, a 60% hike over the original engine, with much lower emissions and better fuel economy.
The Viper is now developed and produced by Chrysler's SRT (Street Racing Technology) performance division, led by its CEO and standout chief designer, Ralph Gilles who grew up in Montreal.
It is about 70 kilograms lighter than the previous model thanks to upper body panels made of aerospace-grade carbon fibre and aluminum, laid over a space-frame steel chassis that is also 50 % stiffer.
At a touch less than 1,500 kilos, the Viper is lighter than a Corvette ZR1 or a Porsche 911 Turbo. It even carries about 240 fewer kilograms than a Nissan GT-R.
And you can remove 26 more kilos by getting the optional Track Pack that comes with lighter brake discs and wheels, shod with Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires that have more bite than the standard P Zero rubber.
The Viper’s muscular shape look perfectly familiar and yet every square centimetre of its voluptuous bodywork is new. And every crease, bulge and curve has been carefully sculpted to optimize cooling and aerodynamics.
The big coupe’s drag coefficient has been trimmed to 0.369 and lift obliterated to keep it from taking off towards its claimed top speed of 330 km/h, a handful over the mythical 200 mph barrier.
Launched as a coupe, whereas the original started as a roadster, the new Viper is offered in two versions in the hope of expanding its reach by targeting different buyers.
The entry-level SRT is aimed at die-hard fans who seek the Viper’s gut-wrenching appeal. It has less soundproofing, less standard kit, simpler trim and a single-rate suspension but is powered by the same 8.4-liter V10, coupled to a redesigned Tremec 6-speed manual gearbox.
That said, the SRT is no stripper and treats its passenger to perfectly decent comfort and the latest in safety systems and electronic gadgetry.
More versatile GTS
The new GTS is intended as more upscale and versatile. It has the dual mission of effortless street driving and confident performance on racetracks.
Its trump card is a dual-mode suspension that lets you pick between a smoother ride in Street mode and the firm settings of Race mode for track days.
The GTS also has a four-mode stability control system (fully-on, sport, track, fully-off) while the SRT’s system can either be fully active or entirely shut off.
The best way to tell SRT and GTS versions apart at first is to count the vents on their long, carbon-fiber, clamshell hood. The former has six and the latter only a pair.
The SRT also has five-spoke wheels while the Venom wheels on the GTS have six split branches. The polished-aluminum wheels are also available in a black or matte black finish.
Peeking at their respective badges is another good way to distinguish them from the outside, of course.
The spotting game is somewhat easier once you swing open that long door. Both versions come with seats made by Sabelt, a regular supplier to corporate cousin Ferrari, but the SRT’s race-inspired buckets are draped with a tough ballistic nylon and have manual adjustments only.
In the GTS, meanwhile, there is leather on just about every square centimeter, electric adjustments for the seats and plenty of additional niceties. That said, the SRT’s cabin is anything but stark, with stitched leather on the dashboard and all major controls.
The new Viper’s interior is much improved with a modern-looking instrument panel, good fit-and-finish and a lower centre console for better elbow room and movement.
The large, centre-mounted touch screen has clear and crisp graphics but the numerous menus are befuddling at first. Yet, the Viper’s most annoying trait is a paucity of space for the driver’s left foot between clutch pedal and foot-well panel. Even for a normal-size foot.
That is the price to pay for a wide V-10 mounted as far to the rear as possible for virtually perfect front/rear weight distribution and the handling virtues it brings.
At least you get a solid if narrow aluminum dead pedal where there was none for the first Viper. I remember well since I was at the launch of the original R/T10, also in California, twenty-one years ago.
The engine itself is still an overhead-valve design with identical bore and stroke numbers for its ten cylinders and a centrally-mounted camshaft with variable valve timing but all of its components are essentially new.
It now produces 640 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 600 lb-ft of torque at 5,000 rpm. That’s more than any other naturally-aspirated engine in a production car.
With closer ratios in the revamped Tremec gearbox, you can now actually drive through town with the shorter 6th gear. Lever travel is shorter but you need a firm hand to get neat shifts.
The dual-disc clutch is light and progressive enough but the friction point is high, just like in the original Viper.
The standard limited-slip differential and a new launch-control mode, controlled with a steering-mounted button, will help greatly efforts to match SRT’s claims of sub-4 second sprints for its new snake.
Not immediately comfortable
At the wheel, you likely won’t feel comfortable immediately, in spite of substantial gains in refinement and a full array of safety systems, active and passive. I didn't.
My discomfort was due in part to that cramped footwell and the clutch pedal that bites too high. Also to the roughness and the deep hollow growl of the uneven-firing, 90-degree V-10 and to visibility that is somewhat limited in this low-slung coupe.
But it was probably also because it was raining when I set off that morning. Driving a Viper in the wet is not something you take lightly.
Then came a first corner and I was immediately impressed with the utter precision and solid feel of the beast’s steering.
A giant X-shaped aluminum cross-brace under the hood plays a major part in this perception and in the new Viper’s 50% gain in structural rigidity.
On the track
At Speedway Sonoma, the racetrack formerly known as Sears Point, we were finally given the green flag for a few laps on asphalt that was once again dry, save for a patch of puddles.
The Viper quickly demonstrated its great balance and truly tenacious grip. No huge surprise with size 295/30ZR18 tires in front and 355/30ZR19 steamrollers at the rear. Very serious rubber, indeed.
Engine torque is ever-abundant but you need some revs to liberate the entire fury and raucous wail of the V-10. The crescendo is breathtaking.
On that track, the GTS felt slightly more stable and precise, with better body control than the SRT in Race mode.
With the same setting on a normal road, the GTS's shocks reacted harshly to the slightest crack. Street mode, on the other hand, delivered a noticeably smoother ride than the SRT’s fixed-rate shocks.
This brawnier and much more modern Viper is unquestionably safer and more refined than its forebears.
Yet, the fearsome, untamed character of its predecessors lurks just below the surface.
The new Viper definitely has European rivals in its crosshairs but also a formidable cross-town foe in the new Corvette Stingray. The games have begun, anew.