The word “brutal” is frequently used to describe cars that are sometimes uncomfortable, but it was particularly deserved by the early Viper, a machine that provided a shot of animalistic adrenaline to Chrysler when it appeared in 1989. The original concept featured cartoonish lines and anachronistic technology, but against odds and expectations, it transitioned to showrooms in 1992.
However crude or polarizing, the original model inspired the designer credited with the ‘13 car to join up. “It is the reason I am at Chrysler,” Scott Krugger, senior manager for exterior design, shared with BBC Autos.
In the Viper’s 2004-10 midlife, critics complained the car was drained of its outrageous style, a view confirmed by the occasional, “Is that the new Corvette?” gas-pump interrogation. No one ever mistook the original Viper for a ‘Vette, and for good reason.
The Corvette’s engine had eight cylinders. The Viper's had 10. The Corvette had dual exhaust pipes under its rear bumper. The Viper just dumped noise, heat and exhaust fumes out of abbreviated side pipes, mounted beneath the doors. Like the Shelby Cobra 427 that inspired it, the Viper was a minimal car with maximal charisma.
People willing to part with good money who were also willing to accept low-slung seats, a hot cockpit, relentless noise and the ride of a Radio Flyer wagon were a self-selecting lot, indeed.
And then there was the Viper’s short temper. No car since the Cobra, with the possible exception of the old original air-cooled Porsche Turbo, suffered fools less gladly, or punished them more severely. It is one thing to perish in one’s midlife-crisis-mobile while doing something foolish, quite another to risk that outcome for a minor mistake . The Viper did not make such distinctions. Too much gas could easily snap the car sideways, especially on cold tires, sending man and machine toward the nearest tree or other immoveable object.
Now, the Viper is a less bloodthirsty breed of monster. The pinched-in waist and flared hips over the rear wheels have returned. Up front, some of the sharp leading edges seen on the 2004-10 model have been shaved down into pleasing arcs.
Naturally, the new car’s numbers are even more ridiculous than those for the previous generations: 640 horsepower, 600 pound-feet of torque, a manufacturer-estimated top speed of 206 miles per hour, a zero-to-60 sprint in the low 3-second range and a quarter-mile run in about 11.5 seconds. The Viper effortlessly summons Mel Brooks’ “ludicrous speed”.
The difference here is that ludicrous speed is survivable by mere mortals. “We wanted to make the car lighter, we wanted to make it faster and we wanted to make it more fun to drive for a wider variety of drivers,” Russ Ruedisueli, vehicle line executive for the Viper, said.
More fun. Yes, not crashing is more fun, and the 2013 Viper is much easier to not crash than before. This may seem unremarkable to Toyota Camry owners, but anyone who has driven a Viper will understand, and appreciate, the changes.
Thrashed around Sonoma Raceway in Northern California, the new Viper demonstrated a newfound crisp response to steering input, with pinpoint placement at the turn's apex – at least until hours of relentless shredding roasted the left-front tire. There is new mid-corner balance, and though the Viper is still no one's scythe, nor is it anyone’s blunt axe.
The launch out of turns is catapultic as ever, but the driver need not point the snout arrow-straight before applying the loud pedal. Whereas premature application once invited a snap 180-degree spin, the car now applies the power to the ground, where it belongs, provided the pilot is not too aggressive. If imprudent throttle application is applied, it is duly countered by the improved electronic stability control system.
Through it all, the 8.4-litre V10 bellows and barks through the side exhaust pipes, always reminding the driver of the violence straining for release. At full throttle the true extent of that violence, in terms of acceleration, noise and sheer chaos, is truly astonishing. With gas pedal pinned to the floor, a driver does not so much accelerate the Viper as enrage it.
Perhaps the only dynamic miss for the new car is a lack of a connector pipe to match the noise pulses coming from each of the V10’s banks of five cylinders. Five-cylinder engines are unmelodic, and the Viper has two very loud ones. The engines of handbuilt Italian V8s and V12s are positively symphonic. The Corvette’s V8 and Porsche’s flat-six each provide audible enticement to felonious behavior. The Viper’s exhaust note, in contrast, is just a belligerent, aimless caterwaul.
It was this kind of bluster, combined with the car’s exaggerated styling, that historically tended to chase away prospective customers. If those did not turn them away, the iffy finish of the plastic bodywork and the Spartan interior appointments did the trick. Even the monstrous 6-speed shifter seemed truck-like and graceless.
No more. Meticulously finished carbon fibre and aluminum bodywork are complemented by a lavish leather-wrapped cabin that is pleasantly free of the model-glue epoxy smell that permeated previous editions. Even the shifter exhibits the light, short throws expected of a proper sports car. And the Viper does not just feel lighter; engineers trimmed 100 pounds of excess mass over the previous iteration.
Thankfully, the leaner Viper still self-selects only engaged drivers with some demonstrable degree of competence, as no automatic transmission is available. The Viper’s fans pray it remains ever thus, and that their dreams and fantasies of wrestling a snake around a turn never fade. Thankfully, those dreams now have just the right touch of nightmare to them.
The 8.4-litre V10 bellows and barks through the side exhaust pipes, always reminding the driver of the violence straining for release.