The SRT Viper is unveiled at the New York International Auto Show earlier this week.
At a recent Manhattan party with faithful Viper owners, Ralph Gilles, the man responsible for the return of Chrysler’s iconic sports car, described how it earned the reprieve that led to its resurrection at the New York International Auto Show this week.
It was all CEO Sergio Marchionne’s fault. After a test drive of the Viper, he winked and said, “It’s not too easy to drive, is it?” That wink was the clue for the team that was hoping to resurrect the company’s discontinued Viper. The project had a chance — if the team made some significant improvements.
To start, they had to shed the Viper’s kit-car image among the Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche faithful, reported Ralph Gilles, president and CEO of Chrysler’s Street and Racing Technology (SRT) brand, which is responsible for the Viper. “They were very frank with us,” he said of those competitors’ customers. “They said it was too crude, too brutal.”
This week, as the Viper roared onstage with its engine revving, the refreshed car was the hit of the show — at least for people who weren’t more focused on the debut of Nissan’s new New York taxicab design.
All the familiar parts are still there: the front-mounted V10 engine, a minimal two seats way back behind a long hood, and massive wheels. But underneath, Gilles’ team toiled to tame the beast. That’s because, as Marchionne observed somewhat understatedly, the old Viper did not suffer fools gladly. It would toss them into the nearest ditch at the slightest provocation.
The 2013 Viper hasn’t been emasculated, however. Power has been boosted to 640 horsepower and the frame is 50 percent stiffer than before. But the suspension has been upgraded to make the car more forgiving and easier to toss around casually on the track. Viper owners love to take their cars to the racetrack, but its unforgiving character required laser focus.
So behind its even-fiercer visage, the new Viper is more friendly, letting drivers play but with less fear of catastrophe. And there is a new, unseen backup: electronic stability control, which was never a part of the Viper’s recipe before, but which is required by the government now.
The Viper team added the required stability software, but rolled it into a suite of applications that let the Viper mirror the kind of driver-adjustability common on many top racing cars. Even though there is now a computer watching over the driver’s shoulder (unless you want to turn it off), the driver can feel even more like a racing hero by making adjustments to the car’s systems using the computer.
In the past, acceleration runs at the drag strip were challenging. The car had so much power that it took just the right touch (and maybe a bit of luck) to match the engine speed and clutch release to launch the car as quickly as possible without accidentally vaporizing the rear tires into a cloud of rubber smoke.
Smoky burnouts may look dramatic, but while a car is spinning its tires that way, the car in the other lane is accelerating away to win the race. The new Viper has a computerized launch control system that promises a perfect match of revs and clutch every time, avoiding any embarrassing drag strip defeats at the hands of some kid in a clapped-out Mustang.
The voluptuous bodywork is a clear return to the original car’s organic shape rather than the second-generation’s crisper, but less-distinctive lines. Underneath, previous Vipers suffered from less-than-premium cabin appointments, in the bare-bones tradition of the Shelby Cobra, which was the Viper’s inspiration.
Today’s customers demand more, so the Viper team turned to partners, such as the same company that provides seats for Ferraris, to give Viper buyers the luxurious cockpit they can find in competitive models. “The Viper has the finest interior we’ve ever put into a car,” Gilles said.
Does returning the Viper to showrooms mean that Chrysler will rake in the dough now? No, that’s for models like the new Dodge Dart. The Viper has another purpose. “This is not a car that is going to make a lot of money for us,” Gilles conceded. “It shows we still have a soul.”