When thinking of an automotive CEO, one expects a suit topped with a lot of gray hair, moved along with the help of a tidy personal chauffeur in the brand’s finest flagship sedan. Not so with Ralph Gilles of SRT. The man wears a baseball cap and jeans, is remarkably affable, and helms his own supercar creations at the track. He’s passionate and proud of his vehicles, and his latest, the new SRT Viper Time Attack ($123,080) is more deserving of those dotings than any other. This is no “base” version — it’s an impressive track edition of a true American sports car that’s no longer the unhinged, unrefined, chopped-top V10 monster that took to the streets and scared respectable citizens way back in 1999 in the form of the SRT10.
The new generation of Viper is better than its predecessor in every way, and it still conveys the raw beastliness that makes the Viper so unique in the automotive market today. It’s no surprise that Gilles wants the world to know what the new Viper is all about, and an opportunity to let out the track toy (can you really call a Viper a “toy”?) at Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, CA gave us the full experience at the wheel.
American supercars are a rare breed. The ‘Vette and the Viper stand alone on the homegrown supercar tarmac despite impressive performances by the special edition pony cars (Mustang GT500, Camaro ZL1). There’ve been five generations of the fanged wonder over the past twenty years, but we wouldn’t quite call it a classic just yet; if SRT (Street & Racing Technology) has their way and the car continues on in its easily recognizable shape, though, that will likely change. The first four generations of the Viper could easily kill you if you (1) had no clue what you were doing; (2) wrote driving skills checks you couldn’t possibly cash; or (3) thought you were behind the wheel of a tameable car. In the Viper’s fifth generation, sophistication has been
upped actually included. Of course, the car continues to instill a healthy amount of sweaty fear.
Even the base new Viper manages to look far more aggressive than the last car, bringing back much missed lines from the original GTS that the fourth-gen car had lost. The TA, meanwhile, has been built for the Viper owner who wants to race. (Okay, so it’s no Viper ACR, but it’s still spectacular.) In Time Attack Orange the TA is a stunner. The blackish carbon fiber bits, including the tall rear lip spoiler and front splitter along with the massive matte black wheels, make for a perfect contrast against the bright orange hue. The Viper is still big and boisterous, but that’s not to say the whole exterior isn’t tasteful. Between the wide-mouthed grille, the simple LED headlights, the hood scoop and vents, the twin-bubble roof, and the deeply scalloped doors, it’s an unequivocally sexy car that’s just as much show as it is go.
The interior of the new Viper, just like the new ‘Vette’s, is no longer a source of shame. Though we would never call it bespoke, the layout is simple and well designed. Seating is snug, but the position is excellent; contort your way past the deep door sills and you’re ready to move. The clutch and six-speed manual transmission are properly firm but not overly so, and you can shift hard, fast and with confidence. The ability to rope through your own gears with a proper stick and clutch is a godsend. We love that kind of thinking, which proves that the enthusiast’s voice still resonates within the halls of SRT.
The TA is based on the stock Viper and houses the same 640-hp, 8.4-liter V-10, though there’s nothing unimpressive about that. Still, there’s much to this car than meets the eye. SRT knows its customers, and though a stock Viper or a GTS would fare pretty well on a track, there’s always room for improvement. Take, for example, the TA’s beefed-up aero work, like its big rear spoiler and front end splitter that increase downforce and glue it to the track. SRT also knows you can’t build a track car without adding torsional rigidity, so solid front and rear sway bars have been added, and a beautiful, functional and lighter carbon fiber X-brace replaces the stock aluminum version that spans the engine bay. On the stopping side, you can go with the stock TA 14-inch Brembos or opt for lighter StopTech ones that dissipate heat better for those long track days. The TA is just barely (12 pounds) heavier than the stock Viper, but it also has disproportionately better handling and performance than that slight weight gain implies.
Among a smorgasbord of less capable, more palatable American cars, the Viper is an intense and overwhelming meal all its own.
When we took the Viper TA out on a small autocross course mid-morning, one look at the tight turns and the small layout made us wonder if this V10 monster would be all over the place, whacking cones like an out of control fire hose. After selecting Sport mode to tighten things up a bit we were ready to go. Getting it out of the starting blocks was remarkably easy and the car surged forward with gusto, which we fully expected given its power. But what we didn’t expect was the excellent steering feel and impressive balance, such that the car felt entirely at home on the autocross track. Point and shoot, turn and scoot — for a car so big, it was a nearly balletic performance. When, on our fourth run, we got a bit sideways through the slalom, bringing things back under control proved an easy task.
The TA proved to be just as impressive on Big Willow, a 2.5-mile track that’s both fast and appropriately challenging. The tighter turns at the top of the hill revealed the TA’s handling and balance strengths; huge grip came via the fattest tire contact patches in the industry, with monster Pirelli PZero 295s at the front and airstrip-wide 355s at the rear. We mashed the gas coming out of the long, sweeping turn nine and the TA sprang forward like an Olympian sprinter. The car felt like it wanted to break the sound barrier, and the earthshaking, guttural yowl from the V10 filled our ears.
Both the autocross and the track experiences made us realize what SRT had achieved. Rather than some muscled, imprecise beast, the Viper TA showed itself a rip-roaring scalpel. But make no mistake. SRT has not built a car for the everyman, nor for the everyday. Among a smorgasbord of less capable, more palatable American cars, the Viper is an intense and overwhelming meal all its own. It’s far more intense and capable than previous versions of the Viper (except the ACR), but it still has a hint of murderous intent. What you get for $123k is a car that prods you to be a better driver. There’s a reason why only 165 will be made — 99 in Time Attack Orange, 33 in black and 33 in white. If you happen to be one of the fortunate few to own one, and you actually track it, you’ll know in your heart of hearts that regardless of how good you are behind the wheel, you’ll never quite be able to tame it.