If there's one thing the SRT engineering team wants you to know it's that the 2013 SRT Viper — like all Vipers before it — is still capable of brutally ripping off your face and pummeling you into little bits. This, no doubt, it could do with ease.
With 640 horsepower strapped to 3,297 pounds of steel and carbon fiber, the Viper has the potential to turn into a coffin of fiery death faster than you can say "federally mandated stability control." But this matters little.
The new 2013 SRT Viper is both controllable and communicative and is finally a car we enjoy driving on a racetrack.
Welcome to 2013, Viper
Driving an old Viper in anger was a task best practiced with the same caution one might use handling depleted uranium. Or a Ziploc bag full of the Ebola virus.
Its ruthless character made it a machine to be reckoned with, an Everest of the automotive world, a meaningless measure of manhood. But that car's dirty little secret — one overshadowed by the hubris of nearly everyone who drove it — was that plenty of Viper owners feared it.
SRT aimed to fix this problem in the 2013 model. And fix it it has.
So much better is the 2013 SRT Viper at the task of going comfortably fast that we found ourselves choosing to exceed its limits rather than fearfully avoiding them. This is a car that has been refined to the extent that dancing over its grip limit is an almost welcome endeavor. As Ralph Gilles, president and CEO of SRT Brand, eloquently put it: "I wanted a 640-horsepower Miata."
Not a Toy
The idea that the Viper's limits could ever be as approachable as a Miata's is funny but not an altogether bad one. The reward, consequences and gravity of driving a Viper are a level of magnitude beyond most anything else on the road. Still, Gilles is on to something with this strategy.
We established this clearly on Gingerman Raceway near South Haven, Michigan, last week when SRT gave us the opportunity to drive both Vipers — old and new — back to back. According to Manager of SRT Dynamics Engineering Erich Heuschele, the new car is 1.0 second per mile quicker around a road course — at least when driven by product development engineers. That gap widens considerably when driven by mortals, however.
Trustworthy communication goes a long way in building confidence in this car. And when it's backed by a solid safety net of technology there's no reason to not explore the limits. Every interface of the new Viper offers improvement over the old car. Steering feel and feedback are better. Midcorner bumps are handled more confidently. Body motions are better controlled. As a result, every bit of feedback from car to driver sends a message of trust that was previously absent.
Rear-drive supercars, like toddlers and home remodeling, will drive you if you're not driving them. And when they're unrefined and unbridled by safety nets all hope is lost. The old Viper, too often, drove you. The new Viper you drive.
Perhaps the most profound philosophical change for 2013 — and the one that provides the safety net — is the addition of properly executed traction and stability control. Heuschele knew that the Viper's reputation as a device capable of producing abject terror needed to remain intact. Accordingly, he's preserved that character by calibrating the system to allow significant slip angles in its default setting. In other words, the net is there when you need it and largely absent when you don't.
Base trim level Vipers have two modes — on and dead off. GTS models offer two additional intermediate modes: Sport and Track. Sport mode allows increased slip and yaw while Track mode disables traction control altogether during yaw. Call it powerslide mode.
GTS models also get two-mode adjustable Bilstein dampers, which add critical compression damping in Race mode that makes the car both controllable at triple digits and unbearable any other time.
Possibly more significant is the loss of about 100 pounds of power-robbing weight, achieved mostly through a new chassis and carbon-fiber body panels. Optimization of materials and design shed roughly 30 pounds from the chassis, while the addition of a bolt-on underhood cross brace contributes to a 50 percent increase in torsional rigidity. The hood, roof and rear hatch are carbon fiber and the aluminum door shells are feathery, too.
Forty-horsepower increases don't come easy from normally aspirated engines, yet Dick Wilkes, chief engineer of SRT Viper Powertrain, who's worked on the Viper engine since 1989, knew where to find more twist in the big pushrod mill.
A composite intake manifold improves flow and cuts 7 pounds from the top of the engine. Lighter forged pistons reduce weight and improve durability, as does an 11-pound-lighter aluminum flywheel. A revised catalyst manufacturing process coupled with new resonators yields a 20 percent reduction in exhaust backpressure. Peak power now arrives 200 rpm higher at 6,200 rpm while torque, at 600 pound-feet, peaks at 5,000 rpm.
Snap through the Viper's Tremec TR6060 six-speed manual — the only transmission available — and you'll notice sharper shift feel coupled with shorter throws. It's an improvement that matters — even on a road course. Despite a shorter 3.55:1 final drive (up from 3.07), the 2013 Viper will still hit 60 mph in 1st gear — a trait useful to both car testers and unfaithful husbands everywhere. The car's viscous-actuated clutch-type limited-slip differential remains unchanged.
Standard on all 2013 SRT Vipers is launch control, triggered by a steering wheel button and available in any stability control mode, including the default setting. Development isn't yet finalized on this feature, but it appears both easy to use and deadly effective since it utilizes front-wheel speed data to determine how much power to meter rearward.
Also, an optional Track Pack includes R-compound Pirelli P Zero Corsa rubber (P Zeros are standard), lighter wheels and two-piece Stoptech brake rotors.
Curiously, carbon-ceramic brakes remain absent from the options list. Graham Henkle, Viper's chief engineer, tells us this is because carbon brakes create a snowball effect of both cost and weight that doesn't align with the car's performance focus. Put simply, the required rotor size would demand 19-inch front wheels (up from 18-inchers), which would negate the weight savings from the rotor material. Plus, the standard steel brakes didn't fade even after repeated pounding around Gingerman, so it's not exactly aching for an upgrade.
Interior space is improved in all Vipers thanks to a rear bulkhead moved 3.5 inches rearward. New shell-type seats also gain 3.5 inches of fore/aft travel and sit 0.8 inch lower. The result, in combination with 1.6 inches of vertical seat adjustment and adjustable pedals, is a Viper that fits just about anyone. Navigation is optional, but a reconfigurable instrument cluster and iPod integration via USB or Bluetooth streaming audio are standard.
GTS models come with additional sound-deadening material and Napa leather — both of which matter little when the car is operated at wide-open throttle with its windows down while you're wearing a helmet. As this was our only means of evaluation and because the cars we drove were engineering mules, we will withhold comment on interior details until we drive it again in November.
Base model SRT Vipers will start at $99,390 and should arrive at dealers by December. GTS trim levels cost about $23,000 more.
The only question that remains is this: Will a friendlier, less deadly 2013 SRT Viper compete with the superb supercars that already offer accessible performance? Or will it rip your face off just because it can?
We think it'll be the former.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.