By KBB.com Editor Micah Muzio
[Update: The Chrysler Group has announced the 2013 SRT Viper will start at $99,390 and the Viper GTS will start at $122,390 (both including $1,995 destination). EPA fuel economy and gas guzzler implications are still TBD.]
There is a certain lore surrounding the Dodge Viper. One famous story involves an owner taking delivery of his Viper then immediately losing control and crashing into the dealership. Google "Viper Crash" if you care to explore a vast, dark world of V10 carnage. Unsurprisingly, when huge horsepower, easily accessed oversteer and a lack of electronic stability control meet unjustified driver confidence, bad things can happen.
That knowledge reverberates through my brain as I fire up a black 2010 Viper at Gingerman Raceway, a fun but unfamiliar racetrack planted in the quaint fields near Kalamazoo, Michigan. I'm here to preview the new 2013 SRT Viper - a rebirth of the car formerly known as the Dodge Viper - but first the folks at Chrysler Group's Street and Race Technology performance brand wanted to reacquaint me with where Viper left off when production stopped a few years ago.
Four cautious laps brought it all back. The power, the beastly engine roar, the endearing rawness... the V10-powered coupe was as thrilling as I remembered. Yet my tingly excitement became entwined with the persistent fear I might bend precious Viper metal, an omnipresent specter of doom stoked moments earlier as another journalist misjudged a tight left-hander and slid off track. It was a damage-free reminder that the Viper is not to be trifled with.
That cautionary example leads us to one of the biggest changes for the new car: Unlike all previous Vipers, the new 2013 Viper will be sold with stability control as a standard feature, an addition that causes both relief and concern. Yes, stability control minimizes the likelihood of off-track excursions, but if poorly implemented it threatens the joy some find in taming such a ludicrously powerful four-wheeled beast. So, has the SRT team defanged the Viper? First, apologies for the weak snake pun. Second, no.
Riding shotgun with Erich Heuschele, Manager of SRT Dynamics Engineering, it's clear that even in full buzzkill mode the new stability control system gives the driver room to play. Adjusting the vehicle's driving line with the throttle doesn't cause the overly dramatic, telenovella-style power cutoff we've come to expect with some systems. While the standard Viper's stability system offers just two settings - active and inactive - the pricier Viper GTS offers two intermediary modes. Traction and stability intervention are relaxed in Sport mode, while the Track setting hands even greater responsibility to the driver by disabling the traction control component.
Midway through Erich's flogging of the Viper GTS he switched to the more permissive Sport mode. Sure enough he could slide the car quite a bit before computerized lifeguards felt compelled to intervene, which they eventually did as we blasted a bit too quickly into the same corner that betrayed my journalist colleague earlier. Where the 2010 Viper had spun, the 2013 Viper quickly corrected its sliding tail, shed excess speed and kept itself and its occupants out of the grass. Hurray for technology.
Stability control aside, how does the new Viper drive? During the first of our brief outings we drove a yellow SRT Viper. This was the "entry-level" car. Right off the bat the improvements were obvious. The steering felt more immediate thanks to a wider front track and meaty 295/30 front tires. Fun fact: the Viper's front tires are wider than the rear tires of a Porsche 911 Carrera. So the excellent front grip comes as no surprise. Other big improvements include a shifter with shorter, more precise throws, attached to a transmission with tighter gear ratios. The V10's plentiful 640 horsepower and 600 lb-ft of torque meant the entire track could be driven in third gear, but we dropped to second in the tighter corners regardless, just to put the greatly improved shifter to good use.
Acceleration is as wickedly fast as you might imagine, and accompanied by equally wicked engine sounds. And at the end of every straightaway, 4-piston Brembo calipers at each corner clamp 14-inch brake rotors, delivering strong deceleration free from fade, at least during our short 4-lap sessions. Enhancing the blindingly yellow Viper's traction was an optional Track Package that includes lightweight wheels and stickier Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires.
That's not to say the standard Pirelli P Zeros fitted to the blue Viper GTS we drove next were noticeably worse performers. In fact, far more noticeable than any change in grip was the performance of the GTS's 2-mode Bilstein adjustable shocks. At speeds over 100 miles per hour or when activated by the driver, the Bilstein shocks switch to race mode, delivering ultra-firm damping worthy of the race track. During our cool down laps we switched the system to the street setting and the noticeably smoother ride gave us hope for a true dual-nature car. Whether our experience translates to real-world comfort remains to be seen, but a successful street/track quick-change act could expand the Viper's appeal to a new breed of buyer.
In addition to 2-mode dampers and 4-mode stability control, the roughly $20,000 more expensive Viper GTS will feature an upscale interior treatment not found on the standard SRT Viper. But since we drove pre-production cars we can't rightly judge the interior fit or finish of either. What we can say about the inside of the new Viper is that the new car's lowered seating position makes it easier to fit inside wearing a helmet, and the gauge cluster looks cool, offers lots of useful information and is delightfully customizable.
Sadly we didn't have a chance to try the new launch control feature, which at present is still being fine-tuned, but what we know about it sounds promising. Unlike other, more complicated launch control systems, the Viper's will be a simple one-button affair. Simply press the clearly labeled "launch" button on the steering wheel, floor the throttle, dump the clutch and hang on.
Though not quite production-ready, the cars we drove were roughly 95% accurate to what buyers will experience when the 2013 SRT Viper goes on sale in December. Though still largely based on the preceding car, the new model has undergone a thorough renovation. Countless tweaks have upped power while lightening the engine. Structural enhancements including a substantial x-brace under the hood have increased torsional rigidity by 50 percent. Around 100 pounds have been shaved from the curb weight thanks in part to the use of carbon fiber in key areas. The net effect is more than abundant performance potential that truly talented drivers can exploit for blistering lap times...or for us mortals, seriously awesome fun.
Driving the old Viper always felt something like a tightrope knife fight - a visceral, high-stakes dance never more than one misstep from a crash. That sensation bred both love and fear among drivers. The new Viper feels largely the same but the addition of stability control changes the game. Hardcore types can shut it off and drive as radically as they please, while more cautious souls finally have the means to respectfully explore the Viper's limits. Either way, driving the 2013 SRT Viper still feels like a tightrope knife fight. At least now there's a safety net.