x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

New Dodge Viper is much improved but still deadly

The new Dodge Viper's venom is totally addictive and there's no known antidote.

Classic styling cues remain - long bonnet and big wheels. Courtesy of Chrysler
Classic styling cues remain - long bonnet and big wheels. Courtesy of Chrysler

It was quite appropriate that when The National was given the chance to do battle with Dodge's SRT Viper, it was at the famous Road Atlanta track in Georgia, US, the Petit Le Mans venue that has seen some of the planet's most punishing 1,000-mile (1,609km) racing events. Indeed, Dodge will be back in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) competition this year, after dropping out when all things financial got tight. The factory-backed Street and Racing Technology (SRT) Motorsports team is ultra-keen on a full-time return to the series where the Viper boasts a storied history.

The rolling hills that nestle the 750-acre Road Atlanta facility were the scene of some of the Civil War's most brutal battles in 1864, when the Confederates lost the city to the Union forces. Atlanta was razed to the ground; only churches and hospitals were left standing.

It's against such history that you kit out on a chilly Georgian morning to see if you can withstand at least some of the best the new Viper can dish out. Taking on this car, on such historically significant turf (OK, asphalt), is not for the faint-hearted and it's a battle mere mortals can't win. But you'll have enormous fun trying.

The Americans don't do understatement all that well, which is precisely why the V10-powered two-seater supercar is such a treat. Take a look at the new Viper and it couldn't be anything else. It's frightening but incredibly cool. And there are a number of changes to the outrageous car's skin.

The bonnet goes back to the front-hinged design seen on the first generation Viper. But the new offering is constructed entirely of carbon fibre, as are the roof and boot lid. Strategic airflow - managed by a combination of bonnet openings, brake ducts and rear air exhausters - provides cooling for the awesome V10 engine and braking system.

The new Viper is clearly the fastest and sleekest yet, partly thanks to the new lightweight body and the carbon fibre helping to reduce the overall weight by 45kg over the last version. The aluminium V10 - 13kg lighter than the V10 used previously in the Viper - produces a massive 640hp and 813Nm of twist, which are astonishing figures for a naturally aspirated engine. Dodge claims that the car's torque figure is the highest of any non-blown car in the world.

Classic styling cues remain - the prominent bonnet scoop, long bonnet, bulbous rear-set cabin and big wheels - but the latest Viper is more modern, thanks to neater flowing lines. Owners demanded a clamshell bonnet and it's there. The composite intake manifold flows better and the ballistic torque comes in earlier than before.

The Viper maintains its front mid-engine layout that has the engine set back fully behind the centre-line of the front wheels. The engine is also offset 40mm to the right, so there's more room in the driver's footwell for improved placement of the throttle, brake and clutch pedals. Track performance is enhanced by better weight distribution for the driver.

New LED daytime running lights, turn signals and brake lights give a techy vibe, along with the flush-mounted, touch-operated door handles. Familiar Viper-isms like the "double-bubble" roofline, dramatic wing "gills" and side-mounted exhaust outlets, maintain the car's haunting road presence.

Some Viper purists might shake their heads, but the new car features standard launch control plus traction and stability control and electronically adjustable shock absorbers. They weren't part of the package previously but this shouldn't be confused with the snake going soft.

I'm what you'd politely refer to as "well-nourished" and have to be fed into the cabin, where there's a dearth of headroom with a helmet on, despite the designers saying there was plenty of space above. But that's a minor quibble. Once you're in and belted up you're taken aback by the stunning interior. No cheap plasticky dross like we see so much of from some others.

The new Viper was designed in Auburn Hills by Americans and is built in Detroit, but they consulted "our friends in Ferrari and Maserati", mainly for their skills with interiors and advice on suppliers.

Ok, you've put up with my meandering preamble, so here we go. You push the red start button, the 10 cylinders come out of hibernation and you're greeted by the throatiest gargle since Janis Joplin sang Piece of My Heart. Push the accelerator and the roar keeps on coming like the bombardment of Atlanta in 1864.

You have to know your limits with this brute. The careless or cocky driver will be just a bloody slab of roadkill if he doesn't adhere to his capabilities. And as ride and handling have been improved so much, the new Viper can coax you into believing that's not an 8.4L all-aluminium V10 poised to strike.

A Tremec TR6060 six-speed manual connects those 640 horses to the rear wheels. Shift quality is outstanding and it needed to be, as the previous model required too much "wristy" changing. Engineers agreed with customers on that one, and the closer ratios give so much more versatility on the track.

But here's a problem, leastwise for the Middle East. The Viper will only have manual transmission. So, while it will become a much-admired vehicle in the desert world, manuals resonate with only a few punters. Pity, because they'll miss out on lot of fun, although they'll probably save money because on the Dubai-Abu Dhabi highway the Viper is likely to set more cameras flashing than Brad and Angelina when they're off somewhere adopting a child.

The force of the engine (it began life powering trucks) smacks your head back into the headrest as you put the foot down, coming out of one of the wonderful, tight bends here in Atlanta as the 19-inch rear tyres have the horrendous task of sorting out the traction. I'm now wishing I opted for a softer option today - like cage fighting.

The car isn't actually that quick. The zero-to-100kph sprint takes roughly 3.5 seconds but there are plenty of performance models elsewhere that easily best that. No, it's all about the surge in higher gears, the ability to gather daunting pace, which seems never-ending but apparently does end at 331kph. All of this being conveyed by a tacho with - what else - a snake's head logo.

The car stays mainly flat to the ground on corners; the bit of roll lets you know whether you're stretching the friendship. The Viper SRT will never have the finesse of a Porsche but they're poles apart in dosh, dash and deed. We're talking Jonah Lomu here, not Carl Lewis. Coming out of tight corners with the big throttle is a joy, and clutch feedback is excellent.

Ralph Gilles, president and CEO for Chrysler's SRT brand, says the Viper nearly didn't make it. In times of austerity and the push for greater fuel efficiency (that issue isn't on the lips of many hacks here in Atlanta), there didn't seem to be a place for the Viper and its poison. Like the old cowboys of the West, it seemed the Viper might have to roar off into the sunset or sell out and become a hybrid or EV.

Chrysler's people have every figure concerning the Viper on tap, but they don't seem up to speed with how much fuel it drinks. Funny that. However, the company knows where its customers are, as you're hardly likely to unchain yourself from a tree to drive home in a Viper.

But the main thing is, the Viper shows there's still a place for good ol' boy muscle. Gilles says the Viper diehards in the company wouldn't give up on a car often called "the soul of Chrysler".

"Beyond being the flagship for the new SRT brand, the launch of the 2013 Viper proves that we simply would not let the performance icon of the Chrysler Group die. The car shows that we still have a soul at Chrysler.

"Willed to live on by a very special group of performance enthusiasts inside the company and across Viper Nation, this SRT team, under our new leadership, was challenged to not just continue the legendary Viper, but to create the fifth generation of our world-class supercar that would showcase the very best we have to offer."

A tad misty-eyed, maybe, but it's a joy to see a new snake hatched.

There's a range of Harman Kardon surround-sound systems available across the SRT Viper line-up that feature the latest in audio system technology. I'm sure they're superb and I'd love to tell you what they are like, but the Viper-Joplin sound is too good to miss.

If you don't fancy the Viper, that phone call is for you - it's the village and they want their idiot back. We don't have a launch date or price for the Viper in the Gulf yet, but word is it'll probably be on the roads here near the end of the coming summer. You'll know if this snake is around anyway - if you don't see it, you'll definitely hear it.