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Up close with the new SRT Viper

  1. There’s a storm brewing over Chrysler’s
    corporate HQ in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and this time, it’s not metaphorical. As we duck into the executive parking
    lot, three proto-tornadoes are circling menacingly overhead, the air heavy with
    atmospheric rage. Moments later, all three touch down with a vengeance, ripping
    through the countryside and leaving a trail of destruction 10 miles long.

    Strangely portentous, given that we’re here
    to see the rebirth of a specific brand of automotive rolling thunder. The
    latest iteration of Chrysler’s iconic Viper is lurking in this building, and TopGear
    will be the first people in the world apart from Chrysler top brass to see it.
    Turns out the high pressure round here isn’t just atmospheric. Security for
    this one-off reveal is presidentially tight.

    Son of Viper has been developed by
    a tiny team in a section of the Pentastar HQ known affectionately as Area 51,
    and this shoot is the first time it’s been allowed out. Chrysler itself is
    still obviously twitchy about unofficial leakage before its official debut at
    the 2012 New York show, and the evening is punctuated by security alerts as tired senior execs try to access their car park to go
     home.

    Words: Charlie Turner 

    Pics: Webb Bland 

    This article originally appeared in the May 2012 edition of Top Gear magazine 

  2. Somehow, my hurried shepherding past a
    slinky shape badly disguised under a light-blue car cover and insistence that
    there’s ‘nothing to see here’ increases their curiosity.  The recently deceased Viper hasn’t  been forgotten, and those close to the
    brand are obviously intrigued. Eventually, the last of the executive army
    tramps out to face the heavy weather, and we finally get to pull back the cover properly. My initial reaction to the styling is:

    “Yup, that’s a Viper.” All the key elements and proportions are present and correct:
    supertanker-length bonnet, check; cab-back driving position, check; slitted
    gills, check; even the famous side exit exhausts sitting proud just forward of
    the rear wheels. All pretty much Viper standard, bar a few extra swages and
    feature lines. Initially, there’s a shard of surprise the new car has so much of
    the old car about it, but spend more time in Viper’s presence, and there’s a
    refinement and a sophistication in the styling that simply didn’t exist before.
    Radical? Not really. But more different than it first appears. And, as Mark
    Tressel, head of SRT design and the man responsible for rejuvenating the icon,
    explains, there are some things you just don’t mess with in Viper land.

    “Initially,
    we did a lot of work that really changed the proportions of the vehicle, but
    what we started to talk about is that the Viper is iconic, and car companies
    struggle to create icons. The Jeep Wrangler is an iconic vehicle.

  3. The Porsche 911 is an iconic vehicle, and
    they’re icons because they’ve always looked that way. They’ve evolved their
    shape over the years. So we said, ‘We don’t want to reinvent Viper. We don’t
    need to take it somewhere that we haven’t been.’ So we started to look at how
    we could evolve the shapes and elements that the customers love.” So the new
    car gave up on shock-and-awe revolution in favour of something a little more
    Darwinian. And while it still looks like nothing but a Viper, it wears its
    bodywork and styling more lightly, with leaner musculature, more LEDs and a
    whole lot less visual weight.

    Less
    literal weight, too, given that the bonnet (one massive clamshell),
    double-bubble roof and bootlid are now all wrought from carbon fibre, with the
    doors made from superformed aluminium. Combine that with careful paring of
    other elements of the Viper’s anatomy (the drivetrain, for instance, weighs
    11kg less), and you have a car that shaves a decent 45kg from the relatively
    light 1,500kg frame of the Gen_IV Viper, despite wearing a fair few more creature comforts.

  4. But before we get to that, you’ll probably
    want to know what’s under the hood. Powered by an upgraded version of the
    all-aluminium, 8.4-litre V10, new Viper produces 640bhp and 600lb ft of torque,
    giving it the most torque of any normally aspirated sports car ever produced.
    The block itself – cast originally for the first-gen Viper by Lamborghini, then
    a subsidiary of Chrysler – has been reworked to increase strength and improve
    cooling, and now features a forged crank, rods and pistons for extra
    bombproofing.  

    A lighter intake
    manifold reduces weight at the top of the engine bay, the valve train has been
    reworked with sodium-filled exhaust valves and the transmission is a rejigged
    version of the Tremec six-speed that now features tighter ratios and an ally
    flywheel for faster blats to the 6,400rpm limiter.

    None of this is cutting-edge
    tech, but it represents a leap for the Viper, which was considered a bit of an
    engineering thug. And relatively light weight versus decent power do add up to
    one thing: the Viper still has bite, as 0–62mph in 3.7 seconds and a top speed
    of 208mph will testify. That’s faster than a Merc SLS AMG. Funny that, since
    the SLS and the Viper were a co-development in the early stages under
    DaimlerChrysler, before Chrysler’s financial meltdown.

  5. Once under the bonnet, you can’t help but
    notice the extra ironmongery webbing its merry way across the enormous engine
    bay. A piece Russ Ruedisueli – head of SRT Motorsports Engineering – is
    particularly proud of.

    “We learned a lot from Viper race cars we’ve built with
    crossbraces. That’s why that’s there, and I think it’s a beautiful piece. The
    combination of the clamshell hood, the exposed carbon underneath, and the
    crossbrace – it’s a big moment when you open up that hood and show it off to
     folks.”

    And not just for car-park bragging rights, either – the ‘Spidey’ (as
    the Viper team refer to it) contributes to a car that’s 50 per cent stiffer
    than the previous generation. Now, obviously 50 per cent stiffer than, say, a
    mattress, is still not particularly stiff and is just a very stiff mattress.

  6. But when the last-gen Viper ACR could lap
    the Nordschleife in under seven-and-a-half minutes, you get the feeling these
    guys know how to set up a fast car. And the solid base should give the new suspension a decent platform to push
    from: the regular car will get top-notch Bilstein shocks, and the GTS gets a
    two-stage adjustable ‘Damptronic’ system, allowing you to switch from Street to
    Track via a button in the cabin.

    “The Track setting is a big jump from the base
    car, so the Street setting is a little softer, following feedback from owners
    who want to be able to drive their significant other out to events,” says
    Ruedisueli, looking thoughtful. Possibly also people who come straight from
    driving that 911 or Audi R8 and aren’t quite prepared for the rudimentary
    characteristics of the old Viper, even if they liked the brawny all-American
    muscle-car attitude and very – how to put this? – ‘specific’ dynamic
    characteristics. Ah yes, the Viper ‘characteristics’. It’s fair to say the
    Viper has a bit of  a reputation,
    with precisely no cars rivalling its hit rate on the wall of shame that is
    wreckedexotics.com. Twenty-three pages of unintentional carnage (Ford GT, six
    pages; Ferrari 599, three pages) attest to the fact that the Viper only
    featured the rudimentary traction-control systems attached to your ankles.

    Any
    time you strapped yourself in, you were painfully aware that you were operating
    without a safety net. In the dry, it was a handful in the same way as, say,
    wrestling a bull is a handful. In the wet, show it anything but respect, and a
    Viper would have you sitting in a field, picking bits of plastic dashboard out
    of your teeth before you could say, “I’m pretty sure it won’t wheelspin in
     third…”

  7. But the game has moved on. Modern customers
    expect more sophisticated safety systems, and despite Viper’s resolve to ignore
    namby-pamby traction-control interference up to this point, the new car will
    feature just that. As Ruedisueli explains:

    “We started working on the traction
    control even before the programme was signed off, because the guys wanted the
    most sophisticated, quickest-responding stability system. It’s so subtle, we
    don’t even think we’ll show the traction-control light. It’s a system that’s
    going to make gods out of people without them even knowing it. It really is
    that fast.”

  8. So new Viper sounds like it will be just as
    exciting to drive, but a whole lot easier to manage and harder to crash. But
    the fact that the Viper is here at all is something of a miracle. In 2009, the
    US car industry all but imploded, with Chrysler filing for bankruptcy. Twelve
    months before, with the writing on the wall, a private equity team had looked at
    the possibility of selling the Viper brand. As Ralph Gilles (CEO of the SRT
    brand) put it:

    “Chrysler saw it as a nice juicy way to gain about $100–200
    million in the open market, not realising that the car was kind of a Last of
    the Mohicans, so to speak. But it didn’t have stability control or any of the aids
    you’d need in 2014; in fact, the car couldn’t even legally be sold in 2012,
    because it just wasn’t up to date. So when they did due diligence, they
    realised how expensive it was going to be to redo without the benefit of what
    we do here.” And so, in June 2009, Chrysler came blinking into the light from
    the semi-darkness of US creditor-protected Chapter 11 bankruptcy, finding
    itself owned by Fiat Group. It was then that the newly appointed CEO Sergio
    Marchionne finally got to drive Viper, and realise the scale of any potential
    reinvigoration.  

  9. “He disappeared and did some laps, came out
    of it, and said: ‘Wow, that’s a whole lot of work,”’ remembers Gilles with a
    smile. “So he loved it and hated it, like a lot of people do. They get the car.
    They appreciate it, but it has a lot of interesting characteristics. But now
    people have become basically two factions, the historic audience for the car
    and the supercar lover who loves what the car stands for but is intimidated by
     it.

    People who say; if you fix the interior, if you fix the ride, if you make
    the car more liveable and put some technology into it, then I might consider
    this car… Sergio had that reaction. And there was enough interest from him to
    say, “OK, let’s dig into this.”’

  10. And dig they did. Quietly and diligently,
    until they had a car that Marchionne was happy to sign off. No mean feat when
    the whole industry is obsessed with efficiency and rationality. For both of
    which the Viper… isn’t the best of representatives. As another tired exec tries
    to exit, I take advantage of the distraction and slip down into the Viper’s
    driving seat. And it’s a bit of a revelation. Lowering yourself into a Viper
    used to be a ticket to an interior closely resembling a high-speed accident
    between World of Leather and a Fisher-Price delivery lorry. Not any more. The
    level of quality and detail in here will worry Audi and Porsche.

    Gone are the
    cheap plastics and poor fit and finish. You’re wrapped in the same leather
    you’d find on the inside of a Bentley, and it feels like it. Our shoot car is clad in red and black leather with
    contrasting red stitching, and the detail and precision is pretty much bang-on.
    There are nice little gems of surprise’n’delight spread round the cabin, too:
    the cubby at the end of the transmission has a map of Laguna Seca – a famed
    hunting ground for previous Vipers – punched into it, and the passenger
    doorpull features the Nürburgring. James will be delighted. But there’s also a
    more basic change – the driving position.

  11. You sit lower in the new bespoke Sabelt
    seats, staring out over the generous bonnet. With the redesigned bubble roof,
    there’s an extra 40mm of headroom and 90mm of legroom, if you include the
    additional space offered by the adjustable pedal box. It feels bigger inside, but
    lower and more connected. It’s good – if you’re comfortable, you can go
    quicker. The hardware will give those medium-range sports and supercar buyers
    pause for thought, too. Harman Kardon provides the entertainment system.

  12. The dials and TFT displays will take you
    through a myriad of the usual settings, but with some nice grin-inducing stabs
    at humour. Turn the traction control off, and the screen shows a Viper burning
    off into the distance, leaving orange scorch marks.

  13. As you hit the beginning of the red line
    (6,200rpm), the centre of the rev counter glows red and the new Viper logo –
    which Chrysler has dubbed somewhat cheesily ‘Stryker’ – appears dead centre.
    “Yeah, we were worried about putting that feature in there in case people
    buzzed the engine from cold to show their mates,” says Gilles. Much as I’d like
    to stay in here finding new hiding places for snakes, I’m soon ushered out by a
    security guard. Outside, the storm has passed, and our exclusive time with the
    Viper is over.

  14. On go the covers, and off goes the car to
    the New York show. Our encounter with the Viper has made a big impression. It’s
    not a revolution. But there’s a joy in it that’s impossible to ignore. A car
    made for petrolheads by petrolheads, whose thin veneer of civility can’t disguise its undimmed and outrageous attitude.
    The King is dead. Long live the King.  

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