What if your boss told you your next job was to take a spanking new SRT Viper GTS on a test run from LA to Las Vegas with a charge through Death Valley – is that something you might just be interested in?
Well that was the offer, and as you’d probably expect, we duly accepted with a shameless amount of enthusiasm.
In the world of modern day American muscle cars there are few that come with a reputation or a sticker price as big as the SRT Viper.
Everything about SRT’s flagship $134,000 (US$125,000) street racer is supersize, not least of which is its handcrafted 8.4-litre V10 engine.
It actually started life as an 8.0-litre steel block unit bound for the Dodge truck line, but was recast in aluminium and earmarked for the Viper project.
There are no turbochargers, superchargers or forced induction of any kind, but that doesn’t stop this old-school powertrain (it still features two valves per cylinder) developing an eye-popping 477kW of power and 814Nm of torque – the most torque of any naturally aspirated sports car engine in the world.
By comparison, the hardcore Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 $77,648 (US$72,500) , which uses the 7.0-litre LS7 engine from the outgoing Corvette Z06, manages 'just' 377kW and 651Nm.
While the Viper’s outputs alone are impressive enough, its difficult to describe just how physically humongous the Viper engine really is. Open the bonnet and it’s a truly jaw-dropping site. ‘Shoehorned’ comes to mind, as there isn’t a spare millimetre of space remaining inside this engine bay.
Also lurking under the Viper’s stretched bonnet bulge is a visually imposing aluminium exoskeleton-style cross-brace, which along with a few other chassis enhancements, contributes to a useful 50 per cent increase in the car’s torsional stiffness.
Although it’s an all-new model, the latest Viper still shares the old version’s steel chassis, but SRT has made a host of other upgrades, including a wider front track, revised suspension geometry and ultra lightweight carbonfibre for the bonnet, roof and rear hatch.
The doors and sills are aluminium and the bulkhead is magnesium, adding up to a kerb weight of just 1543 kilograms, or about 45 kilos less the pervious version.
Despite a detailed styling makeover that clearly brings it up to contemporary status, the Viper is still very much a Viper, and no one will mistake it for anything else. There are functional curves and vents all over the car that move air, but its most notable signature features are the headlamps and tail-lights that feature 21 and 50 LEDs respectively. It’s a dead-set giveaway at night, if it happens to pull up behind you.
Previous Vipers were ordinary inside (comfort clearly wasn’t a priority), but this one gets a whole new look and feel that includes hand-stitched leather wrapping on almost every visible surface in our up-spec GTS model – a skill borrowed from Ferrari in Maranello.
The shell-style leather sports seats are sourced from Italian racing gear specialist Sabelt and are simply superb, offering long-distance back comfort and high-G cornering bolster in equal measure. Look carefully and you’ll also spot the snakeskin pattern inserts.
On the tech side, the Viper gets the same 8.4-inch touchscreen with satellite navigation and reversing camera that you’ll find across many Chrysler Group models, along with a decent 12-speaker Harman Kardon sound system as standard.
The 7-inch instrument cluster is dominated by a centrally mounted tachometer that features an animated readout that glows red and shows off the latest “Stryker” logo when the engine rpm approaches redline – meaning it’s time to upshift.
Viper’s Uconnect Access in-vehicle connectivity system is outstanding. It features cloud-based voice recognition, access to search engine Bing, as well as an embedded connection for direct contact with emergency 9-1-1 dispatchers in the US. There’s also a second button under the rear-vision mirror that connects the driver with Uconnect Help – a feature we inadvertently activated and can attest to a seriously rapid response by the operator.
Strapping yourself in behind the wheel of the Viper for the first time is like a lesson in managed confinement. There’s still no reach adjustment for the steering wheel, so even with the electrically adjustable pedal box (brilliant as that is), shorter folks like me tend to sit hard up against the wheel – NASCAR style. It’s still relatively comfortable, but let’s just say it’s snug.
There’s also a distinct lack of storage space inside the Viper’s cabin. Nowhere to hold your phone and wallet in the centre console except for an awkwardly placed rear cubby hole that also doubles as a rather useless twin cupholder – the cause of several spillages throughout the journey, as the cup and cup holder refused to part company.
Time to fire up the V10. With key fob in pocket, you’ll need to hold the red start/stop down longer than the norm, as all 8.4-litres bark to life through the Viper’s signature side pipes (take extra care if you’re wearing shorts). It’s not a particularly thrilling engine note on start up, but neither was the previous V10-powered BMW M5.
There’s still no automatic or dual-clutch transmission option for the Viper, though the Tremec six-speed manual has been improved with closer gear ratios and shorter throws. While the clutch is heavy you soon get used to it, and each shift has a wonderfully mechanical feel to it.
After two days driving around Los Angeles, we’ve already seen countless exotics, but not one other Viper. With a build rate of just six a day (Ferrari turns out 30 cars per day) these things are as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth.
While some great driving roads can be found just outside LA, namely the Malibu Canyons and even the Pacific Coast Hwy, there is no better place to experience a car like the Viper than California’s Death Valley. Situated within the Mojave Desert, it’s the lowest and driest area in North America.
Death Valley’s Furnace Creek holds the record for the highest reported air temperature in the world: 56.7 degrees on 10 July 2013. This place is hot all the time. Even in mid-April at 7:30pm we faced 37.0 degrees with no breeze – it was like someone left the outdoor heater on.
It’s also the home to some epic straight-line stretches of tarmac as well as some spectacular scenery.
To get there, it’s about a 460km drive, and most of that on freeways, so it’s a good opportunity to test the Viper’s GT talents.
Standard on our GTS model is a new, driver-selectable two-mode suspension system, featuring Bilstein shock absorbers with both Street and Track settings – though even in the more compliant mode the ride quality is decidedly firm and mostly unyielding to even the smallest bumps.
The Track setting can be absolutely punishing and makes the car feel nervous and twitchy over anything but freshly laid tarmac. Save this setting exclusively for track days, would be our recommendation. Still, even in the Street mode, the Viper resists even fractional amounts of body roll under the most aggressive conditions.
The power-assisted steering has a decent weight to it, but it’s not particularly quick and there’s too much play either side of the straight-ahead for absolute composure at speed.
Despite a substantial upgrade in sound-suppressing material, the Viper GTS is still frightfully noisy, even at cruising speeds. Travelling in top gear and at a relatively mild 2500rpm, there’s an uncomfortable thrum to this engine that seems bent on attacking the auditory senses as well as silencing my favourite blues track.
On the plus side, there’s little if any need to shift down to pass anyone on the freeway (you’ll be doing a lot of that in the Viper). Just edge the throttle forward and let all 814 Newton-metres do their thing. That’s what 8.4 litres of American muscle can do for you. There’s still not much of an engine note, though; it’s all a bit too gruff and agricultural for my liking.
Now, we’re in Death Valley proper, and there isn’t another vehicle in sight for as far as the eye can see. No California State Police, either.
This thing is rocket ship fast. Flatten the throttle from a standing start and the Viper will literally pin your torso to the seatback. Blast-off will see you hit 100km/h in less than 3.5 seconds – the quarter mile in the mid-11-second range and top speed is a ballistic 331km/h. The Viper redlines at 6400rpm, but the fuel cut-off is 2000rpm above that, and it doesn’t mind being wound out.
There’s a fair bit of muscle required to speed-shift the manual shifter through the gates under hard acceleration, but at least the short throw makes it a tad easier.
SRT has so far resisted the move to an optional automatic transmission with paddleshifters, but haven’t ruled it out for future editions of the Viper. Such a move would almost guarantee a wider appeal for the car beyond the hardcore enthusiast buyer.
Any notion that American muscle cars don’t do corners is put to rest from the moment we tuck the Viper into a series of tight canyon bends on our way down to the Death Valley floor. Never mind the grip levels, with massive 355/30 section Pirelli P Zeros Pirellis down back and 295’s up front – this thing feels properly planted.
I’m pushing pretty hard, but our Canyon-climbing video guy is demanding more pace – though I doubt he realises there’s a 300-metre sheer drop off on my right if it all goes wrong.
Still, I shovel in more power and the Viper refuses to budge off its line. You can feel all that rubber biting into the tarmac. It feels utterly composed, too, regardless of how hard we push, though less power assistance and more steering feedback would be a bonus at this point.
That said, we’ve yet to test the Viper in the wet, but with 814Nm driving the rear wheels, we’re thrilled this is the first iteration of the American-built supercar to get stability control (four-stage). Previous Vipers without such a system must have been scary in slippery conditions.
With this much grunt on tap, powerful stoppers are mandatory and the Viper gets the full monty. Each corner features four-piston Brembo brakes with forged aluminium calipers and vented rotors measuring 355mm. Braking power is as good as any of the European exotics and there’s absolutely no brake fade even after repeated canyon runs.
Petrol consumption, as you might have guessed isn't one of the Viper's strong points. The best we could manage over the 600-plus kilometres was about 14.7 litres per 100 kilometres, though this wasn't the most pressing issue on our minds.
It’s 8:00pm and we’ve still got another 197km eastbound drive before we reach Vegas and our $87/night hotel room at New York, New York.
I’ve cranked up the Harman Kardon to max distortion-free volume for some window-down driving while the air is still warm, but that doesn’t last too long, as the engine noise is such that it’s drowning out the Viper’s DAB radio.
Arriving in Vegas and cruising down the main strip, the Viper assumes its role as a bona fide head-turner, not to mention the scuffle by the hotel’s valet guys for the right to the keys.
The Viper might not be the world’s best sports car, not by a long shot. It’s loud, raw and still a bit unrefined.
But all that doesn’t seem to matter when you’re behind the wheel. This is undoubtedly an American icon with bags of character, muscle car looks, and puts the driver as close as possible to heart and soul of the machine itself.
And if you can ever convince the top brass at your office to give you the go ahead to test drive one, then we’d strongly suggest you hit this stretch of the Californian desert without delay.
Photography by Mitchell Oke.