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  1. Staring down the business end of a handgun isn’t my idea of a great wake-up call. Particularly when it’s firing radar waves and I’m driving a bright orange Viper. Especially when there’s a trigger-happy officer of the law on the other end of the weapon who is variously, and wrongly, accusing me of being a criminal, a thief and a liar while fumbling for his phone to call a truck to tow away the Viper…

    Nope, that’s not how I like to start the day.

    Pictures: Webb Bland

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. My preference is to get up with the sun and drive a couple of proper sports cars - a new SRT Viper Time Attack and a Jaguar XKR-S GT would do nicely - over some of the best driving roads in the vicinity of Los Angeles.

    Ideally, that drive would end at one of California’s finest race tracks, such as Willow Springs, and, if the world was perfect, we’d have the track all to ourselves for several hours at least, so we could thrash both cars to their limits in relative safety.

  3. Having done that, a suitable ending would be to chase back to Los Angeles through the moonlit canyons before spending the evening debating, mostly without physical violence, which one was the best and why.

    Which is exactly what we had planned. We just hadn’t bargained on The Law getting in the way. But, as irritating as it was, especially as we hadn’t done anything wrong at that point, it also reminded us why we’d got these two cars together in the first place.

  4. These days, with roads clogging up, municipal budgets falling and spare time being something only the few have to burn, it doesn’t matter how long you spend planning a road trip, there’s every chance something other than the weather will appear and cock it up.

    That’s why more and more people in the US are turning to private race tracks to get their guaranteed thrills. Over the past few years, loads of these tarmac oases have sprung up, and there’s now more than 150 of them across the US - that’s an average of three per state.

  5. The tracks might cost a few bob to join, but if it means no traffic tickets, lawyers, impounded cars and wasted time, that’s often more than worth it if you like your speed thrills on a regular and/or reliable basis.

    And it’s not like the carmakers haven’t noticed. The SRT Viper TA you see here was specifically created to cater for this new private-track paradigm. Combining the club-track trend with the knowledge that 25 per cent of all Vipers find their way onto a racing circuit at some point, SRT saw that the time was right for the TA edition Viper we are driving today.

  6. Already a rare piece of exotica, the most exclusive bit of the Viper TA is its TA Orange paint. Ninety-three will be available in this colour, with 33 each in Venom Black or Bright White. All of the other bits that go into turning a regular SRT Viper into a TA are available in the configurator - you just need to know which ones to pick.

    So, for the record, these are the key items: Sidewinder II wheels - 14kg lighter a set than standard; 355mm-wide Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres - which generate the biggest contact patch of any production car on sale today; solid front and rear anti-roll bars - 30 per cent stiffer than standad; two-piece Brembo brakes - lighter and with a bigger braking surface; two-stage Bilstein dampers - with Race and Road modes; and also an aero package that increases downforce at 150mph by 700 per cent. (The V10 engine stays in standard 631bhp form.)
    Much simpler to just buy the TA, but if they’ve run out, those are the bits you need to add. Because they turn the Viper into the car it always wanted to be.

  7. There’s a crispness to the responses and a depth of feel into the car’s workings that has never been there before. This makes it a bit of a chore on the road, to be honest, as you feel and hear every lump, bump and crack in the road. But it’s still beyond doubt the best Viper ever.

    I’m not sure you could say the same about the Jaguar XKR-S GT, built to commemorate 25 years of its R line. While there’s a great deal to like here, there are also several reasons to put you off buying one of the 25 cars Jag is going to make for the US as your drive-to-the-track racer. None of which are due to any lack of trying by the engineers.

  8. Compared with the XKR-S, the GT, which shares the same 542bhp supercharged V8 drivetrain, has a completely fresh, F-Type inspired rear end, featuring all-new suspension and axle, which lowers the gearing and gives a 0.3-second advantage to 60mph; a set of vast and powerful carbon-ceramic brakes - 2.2kg lighter per corner; wider, 305-section 20-inch rear tyres; and an extensive aero package that includes dive planes, an aluminium undertray, a big front splitter and that jarringly huge rear wing.

    The net result, along with the bonnet louvres, stripes and stickers, is a car that looks like it’s been attacked by a team of aftermarket tuners, not the factory’s finest. The valet at our hotel, among others, was convinced we’d slammed the car ourselves and looked at us, shaking his head, like we should have known better. He didn’t say it, but you could see he was thinking it: “You don’t do THAT to a Jaaaag.”

  9. The good news is that you don’t have to look at all that stuff when you’re driving it. Which, now that the traffic cop has finally finished filling out reams of unnecessary paperwork, we can really get on with. And, on the road at least, the Jag has the Viper licked in pretty much every way.

    It’s comfortable, relaxed and quiet on all types of road surface. By comparison, the Viper feels like you are squashed inside a cement mixer being dragged over a rippled road - cramped, noisy and raw. It’s thrash metal to the smooth Mozart of the Jag. So that’s a clear win for the Jag on the road.

  10. But there’s no clear, instant signal to the driver that the Jaguar has the spurs to cut it on the track. The lighter-than-air steering of the original car is still there, there’s no real sense of extra urge over the RS and the suspension feels controlled but not in any way racy.

    There is no such perception problem in the Viper Time Attack. It feels like it was raised on a strict diet of tyre smoke and brake dust, as, even though it has all the latest Viper upgrades, it still feels like it was born to ride the red and white kerbs. The steering is sharper, bodyroll non-existent and the engine unburstable.

  11. Now it’s time to find out for real, as we’ve just arrived at one of the fastest race tracks anywhere in the world - Willow Springs International Raceway. This 61-year-old, 2.5-mile facility has hosted everything from Formula One cars - Nigel Mansell tested his Lotus here in 1983 before the Long Beach Grand Prix - to Superbikes and has a track record of one minute six seconds, an average speed of 136mph.

    I’ve already driven the TA on this circuit during its launch event. So today, to keep things fair, we are going to be using the adjacent Streets of Willow track instead. It’s shorter, narrower and more twisty than the big circuit, but it’ll help us dig into each car’s abilities more thoroughly and at more sane speeds. On the big circuit, you can hit Turn Eight - the fastest corner on any race track west of the Mississippi - at over 145mph in the Viper. So you’re mainly concerned with staying alive rather than how the car is behaving.

  12. We start in the Jag, Competition mode engaged, the tyres warmed and right foot planted against the firewall. There’s a flurry of wheelspin as we arrow up the hill to the first corner - a tight right - the exhaust crackling into life and the scrubby desert scenery going suitably blurry. All good so far.

    I get to the braking point and immediately know I’ve started too early, as the carbon-ceramics are phenomenally powerful and with tons of feel. Porsche-quality stoppers, these. I go to change down once, fine, then pull on the paddle again and… nothing. The six-speed ‘box hasn’t got a ratio to offer at this speed, so it’s making me wait until the car has slowed more before allowing another shift. That is not what we wanted.

  13. Turning in, the steering doesn’t feel like it’s loading up at all, making me wonder if the car is going to change direction enough. But as I brush the apex, or somewhere near it, I get hard on the gas, and I’m instantly concerned about the opposite happening. Like all recent Jags, the XKR-S GT has throttle oversteer aplenty. It’s fun for a while, but maybe a bit too much, as you are constantly having to feather the throttle and add steering to keep it moving in anything other than a curved line.

    I repeat the process through the next few bends and then do another couple of laps. But the feeling of light detachment from the proceedings outside is the overriding one. It’s fast and slidey and brakes like a demon, but you don’t feel properly connected to the track. If I spend $175k on a track car, I want broadband-quality feedback from the steering, seat, pedals, everywhere.

  14. Which is what you get from the $120k Viper TA. You might expect the SRT would be too big for such a knotted shoelace of a track, but this is one of the common misconceptions of this and all Vipers before it. The car has a shorter wheelbase than you think, so it’s far more agile than its looks would suggest.

    The other fallacy is that you just short-shift it because it’s all about low-down torque. It does have stacks of low-rev torque, but the engine doesn’t really come alive until it’s in the last 20 per cent of its rev range. Think of it as a supersized Mazda MX-5, and you won’t be far wrong.

  15. The pure mechanical grip is like nothing else this side of a race car. Once you have it in the corner, you can move it around on the throttle, and now, thanks to the stability control, it won’t spit you off if you get too greedy. The system inexplicably died on our car in the middle of the test, but I’ve used it enough on previous occasions to know that it is a proper lifesaver without being a fun-killer.

    Likewise, with a manual ‘box, launch control and those stiffer anti-roll bars, you just end up going a lot faster and having a lot more fun while doing so in the Viper. There’s no standout feature, the whole car just gels into an addictive entity that you want to keep lapping and lapping until the tyres wear out. And for a track car, that’s what you want.

  16. Heading back into LA, there’s no question the Jag is the best compromise between road and track. But it’s also the most compromised. Putting all that extra bodywork and decals on it just feels wrong. And despite all the great mechanical updates, the six-speed gearbox just can’t cut it when you get to the track.

    As for the TA, there is no question that this is the Viper to have. It beats you up on the road and demands your constant attention like a wayward child, but it’s such a satisfying challenge, it’s worth it. The cops will pull you over, give you tickets for imaginary speeds and suggest you are less than honest, but 30 seconds after arriving at your track, you (like me) won’t care.

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