Almost Twenty Years Later… An Iron Glove with Cashmere Lining
It’s been almost twenty years since Dodge released the second-gen Viper (1996), the iconic blue-with-white-stripes GTS that paced the ’96 Indy 500. Three generations later and the car isn’t even a Dodge anymore, it’s an SRT. But as a Mopar enthusiast, my only concern is whether the car lost its manic edge. Has it become a domesticated kitten that “can be driven everyday,” as magazines like to say, or is it still a mountain lion that will rip your head off when you least expect it?
SRT invited us out to decide for ourselves. We headed to Angels Stadium in Orange County, CA to meet with the SRT guys and there sat a line of gleaming Vipers just baking in the warm, SoCal winter sun waiting for us. The first thing that strikes you about the new SRT Viper is the styling (obviously). Now, I prefer the second gen to the third and fourth by a large margin, but the fifth-gen is so derivative of the second that I can’t help thinking that it’s nothing but retro. And I don’t like retro. This is Chrysler’s flagship model– it should be forward looking and futuristic.
All stylistic nitpicking aside, I was excited to drive. We wouldn’t be getting any track time, only street driving. I opened the door and was immediately struck by how expensive the interior looks. The materials are immeasurably better than those used in previous Vipers. It’s like comparing a tent to the Sistine Chapel. Additionally, all of the touch points in the 2014 feel so good! There is no cheapness in the new Viper (actually the interiors are sourced from an Italian yacht and aircraft interior supplier, thanks Fiat!). The Viper’s price point is incredibly high, but if you’re wondering where the money goes, just look inside the cockpit.
And under the hood. You see, most of the panels are made of carbon fiber and SRT has left their undersides unpainted so that you’re aware of their construction. That’s a pretty cool feature, it seems honest. And holy cow! the aluminum doors are so light compared to older Vipers. But we came to drive…
The seat, pedals and steering wheel are still adjustable and the shifter’s action is now very tight and smooth. Immediately upon firing up the car, which settles into a nice low rumble, you’re aware that it’s much more quiet than previous generations. In fact, throughout the drive I was awed that I was able to speak at a normal level with my passenger. The 1996 requires yelling even when cruising around town.
I stuck the clutch in, put the car in first gear and released the clutch. The operation is lighter than the previous gens, but the friction point is much, much higher. I didn’t care for the fact that it felt less linear than older Vipers. We got on the road, and yes, it still has the 1-4 lockout, but this shouldn’t be an issue if you drive the car normally. Only grandmas will ever experience the lockout. The steering feels marginally sharper than on the ’96, but where it really shines is braking. The 1996 Viper GTS does have brakes in that it is theoretically possible to stop the car, more or less. Frankly, a Yugo would probably outbrake the Gen 2 Viper, so calling the 2014 Viper’s brakes an improvement isn’t saying much. But the 2014’s are actually very, very good. They stop confidently, without drama, in a short distance and don’t fade (at least not on the road).
But what about the powerrrrrr? Ok, Ok… The new Viper is a bit rev-happier than the old one and hence doesn’t feel like it has the gobs of tire-melting torque that the second gen has. But make no mistake, the car is faster. Additionally, it has stability and traction control that actually help to make you quicker around the track (according to SRT’s reps). Driving it around Orange County, none of the nannies ever kicked in, which is good because I wasn’t driving it near the limit. The acceleration is unreal, by the way. It feels impossibly fast. Cutting through traffic feels like everyone else is on a riding mower and you’re strapped to a Sidewinder missile.
So the question still remains– is this Viper trying to kill you? The answer is yes. Not only does it want to kill you but you’ll probably be going much faster, than in an older Viper, when it happens. Electronic management and safety aside, physics is still physics: if you drive beyond your ability and turn or stop too quickly, you will get hurt. The new Viper only feels like it cares about you. It doesn’t though. No, the main difference is that because of interior refinements and improved sound insulation you’ll just be much more comfortable when you wreck.