x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The snake is charmed

Previous Dodge Vipers have been unwieldy, manly beasts. But, as David Booth discovers, the rebadged and majorly revitalised SRT Viper GTS Coupe somewhat tames that coiled, hissing menace.

The SRT Viper GTS is now a supercar worthy of the world stage, thanks to its improved ride and various other refinements – although it still retains the macho raw power that made the original Dodge Viper popular. Courtesy of David Booth
The SRT Viper GTS is now a supercar worthy of the world stage, thanks to its improved ride and various other refinements – although it still retains the macho raw power that made the original Dodge Viper popular. Courtesy of David Booth

Dodge’s Viper has always been a manly man’s car, its humungous, pushrod-operated V10 representing a throwback to a time when American muscle was king, cheap petrol plentiful and a crumple zone was someplace where you threw your used sweet wrappers. Indeed, in testing the Viper, it’s always important to remember that Americans, manly men all (including some of the women), actually rebelled against modernities like the seat belt, preferring, as if real-life car accidents were John Wayne vignettes, to be “thrown clear” of the wreckage.

Lest you find this metaphorical look into the American psyche a trifle simple or dated, understand that, when Dodge introduced the original RT/10 in 1992, the company deliberately didn’t include anti-lock brakes or traction control in the product mix – both electronic safety nannies seen as impediments to attracting its core audience.

As incredible as it may seem, the RT/10’s very crudity became its calling card. For the hard-core, its toupee-like top that blew off at speed was not a design flaw, but proof, in some misguided, I-need-constant-reassurance-of-my-manhood alternate universe, of devotion to the original 1989 roadster concept. Even the idiocy of not allowing enough room to properly insulate those uber-stylish side pipes wasn’t a mistake, enduring the pain of permanently scalded calves becoming a rite of passage to true-blue Viperdom. Anyone noting that the RT may have lacked a little sophistication – and, yes, as you may have guessed, that included “pretentious” motoring journalists – was roundly denigrated as a sissy.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that the news that some semblance of civility had been brought to the all-new-for-2013 Viper – now badged Street & Racing Technology (SRT) rather than Dodge – has not been met with universal praise. Although faster than ever (the new Viper boasts a whopping 240 more horsepower than the original) and possessed of more rubber than anything this side of a 1970s Can-Am car, the Viper has been accused, in certain circles, of being, well, too European.

Now to myself – and, I suspect, most sports car buffs – calling an American sports car “European”, especially if the continentals that you’re referring to are Italian, would seem a huge compliment. To note that the new Viper has a hint of Alfa Romeo in its front end and an almost sensuous curve to its rear roofline is something that I would have thought flattering. Should the handling also be deemed European, I would have thought that speaks to a new-found sophistication of suspension and steering. And if the interior accoutrements be a little more ... well, you get the idea.

But that seeming compliment is also being construed, in certain milieux, as effete or something even more derogatory. Hard-core Viper owners (from whom I expect to hear from once they read, lips moving, this article) will no doubt find the new GTS’s flowing lines not nearly cartoonish enough for their four-wheeled testosterone patch. And if I am gathering the gist of their emails correctly, hard-core RT/10 fans would have preferred that the new Viper look a little more like Tim Burton’s Batmobile and have the starter motor removed, allowing them to further showcase their studliness by hand-cranking the big V10.

Despite its outward pretence to civility, however, those needing constant reassurance of their manhood needn’t have worried, because the new SRT is still very much a bad boy. Kids still scream when one drives by, car alarms still go off when that big V10 barks to life and, yes, perhaps as a concession to those needing to be constantly reminded of their chromosomal orientation, you can still burn your lower legs on the door sills (though no longer to the second degree).

More importantly, this new refinement sees no emasculation of the Viper’s enormous, now 8.4L, V10. This year saw an injection of 40 more horsepower and an equal increase in torque and, making those extra ponies just a little more intimidating, most of that increased power is high in the upper reaches of the Viper’s power band. There’s nothing quite like punching a Viper through its familiar, torquey-as-ever mid-range only to find there’s another 8.4L of shove lurking above 5,000rpm. Some may find the addition of a sophisticated five-position traction control system (on the upscale GTS, a lesser on/off/rain system on the standard trim) an insult to their manhood, but the rest of us will be plenty happy to have an electronic nanny along to help us tame its tyre-shredding 814Nm of torque. That last statistic, again countering the arguments that the new Viper has gone all middle-of-the-road, is the most available from any naturally aspirated supercar. Think zero to 100kph in significantly less than four seconds and a top speed on the scary side of 320kph, all accompanied by the sound of 10 very angry pistons barking just below your window sill (the Viper’s exhaust system still exits right beneath your seat). Matting the loud pedal on a Viper is not for the faint of heart or the short of skill.

Nor is there anything mushy about the Viper’s handling. Thanks to a 50 per cent increase in chassis rigidity (including engine bay cross braces the size of bridge girders) and some judicious weight saving and redistribution, the new Viper’s steering is transformed. Unlike the original, the SRT version of the Viper now inspires confidence in its steering, the front 295/30ZR18 Pirelli P Zeros sticking like glue, no doubt aided by the Viper’s near-perfect front-to-rear weight distribution. This new-found front-end grip allows all manner of throttle-on oversteering tomfoolery, something that was not always safely accomplished on previous Vipers.

Thankfully, for the overcompensating crowd at least, some of the Viper’s caveman DNA still remains, mostly in the form of suspension that is anything but accommodating. GTS versions get dual-stage Bilstein DampTronic shock absorbers offering a choice between “Street” and “Race”. They might be better labelled “Rock” and “Hard Place” so demonically stiff is the compression damping. Street has the Viper riding as if dental fillings are expendable and lower lumbars the only suspension that passengers should ever need. As for the Race setting, I suspect that it was calibrated to satisfy Viper loyalists, for whom suspension compliance is the work of the Devil. On even the fastest Californian canyon roads that I raced through, it was way too bobbly. Actually, I suspect that the Race mode would also be too harsh for most racetracks, requiring completely unruffled tarmac to exploit its stiffness. The optional “Track” package may actually help salve the backache; the combination of “Sidewinder” alloy rims and Corsa Pirellis reduce unsprung weight by an amazing 2.5 kilograms per wheel, helping both handling and ride. Both the wheels and the stickier Pirellis are standard equipment on the new-for-2014 Time Attack (TA) Special Edition that also includes upgraded two-piece Brembo floating discs.

But, as much as the new Viper is very much improved in its comportment, it’s inside the cabin that one finds the greatest revelations. Once one has folded (making sure to avoid the aforementioned hot sills) into the driver’s seat, you’ll find high-quality leather, comfortable seats (made by the same supplier as Ferrari’s) and a dashboard that is the envy of any. There’s a Harman Kardon audio system on offer with 18 speakers, whose class-D amplifier will, should you ever tire of the V10’s staccato drumbeat, drown out all the pushrod clatter, even at maximum revs.

The GTS’s Uconnect infotainment, complete with its 8.4-inch LCD screen and special SRT Performance apps – including some g-force monitors and an amusing gauge that displays instantaneous horsepower output – is the best in the segment. Even the air-conditioning system, well, conditions the air and, I swear this is true, the new Viper has the most accommodating boot (I managed to squeeze in two airline-sized rollaways, two computer satchels, one humungous gym bag and a full-faced racing helmet) in all of supercardom. There’s even a power adjustable pedal system, suggesting that manly men are presumably not all wearing size 12s.

The Viper cabin’s remaining foibles are few. Surprisingly, there are no side airbags, their omission questionable no matter what the increased cost or compromise to design. More of a daily pain, however, is the extremely low front roofline that severely limits visibility, to the point that it’s often difficult to see traffic lights turn from red to green if you’re at the front of the line. Expect to be honked at.

Nonetheless, the most amazing thing about the new Viper is that it makes a passable long-distance tourer. Save for the way-too-stiff suspension and its Bunsen burner door sills, it’s entirely civilised. That may not make everyone happy, especially those for whom its previous faults were a rite of passage, but it does mean that, for the first time in its 20-year history, the Viper is a supercar worthy of the world stage.

Dealerships are now taking orders for the new Viper here; exact prices have not yet been set but it will be around Dh600,000.

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