• Pinterest

It was raining, one of the world’s toughest road courses was pretty wet and all the cars had 640 hp. What could possibly go wrong?

“Um, er, uh…” said various SRT execs when confronted with the potential of a 2013 Viper or six wadded up in a pile on the outside of Sonoma’s Turn 1.

“How about a slalom in the parking lot?”

No one argued. The idea was to get everyone a feel for the powerful car on the autocross before setting everyone loose on the high-speed road course. And within about four minutes there the road course was, all coned off and as innocuous as an autocross course could ever be: decreasing radii, increasing radii, short straights, lane-changey things and best of all, nothing to hit. In fact, the only way to bend a fender of the shapely new Viper on this layout would be to set out intentionally and psychotically for a parked transporter, throttle down. We didn’t do that.

Instead we floored it around the increasingly drier autocross course, all 640 horses pushing the snake through the turns. It was a delight. As big as this thing is it turns out it is a remarkable autocrosser.

While the original Viper from almost 20 years ago was purposely set up to be a brutal, traction control-free beast, sort of a mixing of the DNA of Carroll Shelby, Bob Lutz and Atilla the Hun, the new Viper now has myriad stability programs keeping it in line: electronic multistage stability control, traction control, new four-channel ABS and a driver-selectable two-mode suspension system for street or track use. We tried them all on and off. With stability on the Viper still slides out a little on turns but then somewhat quickly stops you from spinning out and in the process slows you down. If you turn off everything but ABS you can have even more fun, just watch out for those parked transporters over there. Regardless, it was still fun. How can 640 rear-drive hp be anything but?

The 2013 Viper represents an attempt to broaden the buyership of this iconic brand. As we recall, that first Viper was an unstable, leg-roasting Neanderthal. As crude but effective as a large rock wielded by your garden-variety cave man. This one is different.

For instance, it has an interior not made of plastic. You can now line the interior of your snake with more leather than a ’70s TV commercial for men’s cologne. The one on the upper scale GTS model is called Laguna Leather, fer goodness sake. There’s an 8.4-inch display with UConnect. There’s a seven-inch display in the gauge cluster featuring “tons of displays.” Any of these would have been an insult to those early Viper owners, who wanted raw, uncooked power.

You also get power. The 8.4-liter V10 has a variable exhaust cam, carbon fiber intake manifold, forged pistons, redesigned rods, strengthened main bearing caps and an aluminum flywheel.

It’s mated to a T6060 six-speed manual with new, numerically-lower ratios. Top speed of 206 mph(!) is now achieved in sixth gear instead of the old fifth.

The body is lightened everywhere possible. The space frame has been thoroughly re-engineered to make it stiffer and lighter. The hood, roof and deck lid are all carbon fiber, which alone saves 68 pounds. The seats are thinner, even.

The suspension is tuned for more precision than the old car. Tuned bushings increase compliance and stability. A Track Pack option gives you new rotors, wheels and tires.

It all sounds perfect… for the track. But before we went on the track, we took it on the street.

It is survivable on the street but the ride is harsh in either suspension setting. You can do one of those things where you ride along saying “AhhhhhhHHHHHhhhhhhhAhhhhHHHHhhhHHH” to demonstrate to your seatmate how bumpy it is. You might not want to use this car as a daily commuter. But who would? The GTS is softer in the street mode than the SRT and harder in race mode. Visibility is limited compared to your generic “car.” The windshield header comes down into your view and your rear-three-quarter vision is limited by those stylishly wide roof pillars. People liked it, though, offering thumbs up to us like we were in some kind of parade.

Then came the track. Or first, the autocross. Here we were able to induce understeer and oversteer at will and using only the throttle, but not without concerted effort to do so. A big, powerful car like this is not as tossable or inherently unstable as a smaller, sporty car. If Chrysler had made the Copperhead concept, for instance, that would have been a more tossable car. But it is still tossable in its own, gorilla way. It was terrific fun on an autocross, which will surely surprise many.

On the rainy race track? It was even more fun. When you have 640 hp the world is your oyster. Driving along with instructor “Tony” in the passenger seat we found ourselves having a ball. At first we had to follow the track’s “wet line” which is counterintuitive. But as things dried out a little we were back on the racing line. The Viper is surprisingly stable — surprising for anyone who remembers the original model, which was stable to a point but became less so the harder you pushed. Since it was wet enough that we didn’t want to live in infamy among our peers, we left the traction and stability on while negotiating Sonoma’s 11 turns. If you drive just right TC doesn’t engage, anyway. By the end of the day we were powering through the somewhat scary Turn 1 faster than we might have ever done it. The turns on the first half of the track have always been our favorites and the Viper played along with them all. Even the more difficult left-right-left of Turns 8 and 9 were fun once we modulated the throttle just right. They didn’t let us in the carousel.

The new Viper was a joy on the track and comes with enough comfort and convenience features on it that you can enjoy it like a regular car – albeit a very firmly sprung regular car – on the rest of your drive.