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Living the dream: 2013 SRT Viper GTS on the test track

by Patrick Rall in July 2013 (5)

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I had a chance to attend a media event at Chrysler's Chelsea Proving Ground, and among the many vehicles there to be test driven was the 2013 SRT Viper. I thought it was only for ride-alongs, but as soon as I got out of the shuttle, I learned that we would indeed be allowed to test drive the 2013 SRT Viper GTS. I was about the open up the most powerful naturally aspirated car sold in the world.

To say the least, I was elated. I was about to embark on an experience that I had dreamed about since I was a kid - I was going to drive the Dodge (SRT- but still) Viper in a closed circuit environment with very few rules shy of "don't hurt the Viper or yourself."

I have driven Dodge Vipers in the past, but those were privately owned vehicles on public roads where I really wasn't allowed to get crazy. While my job as an automotive journalist has allowed me the chance to drive a great many high performance vehicles, this was all different. This was the Viper.

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When other kids of the early '90s were showing up at school with notebooks bearing of the various Ferraris and Lamborghinis, I was sporting notebooks featuring the radical new Mopar supercar packing a V10 engine. Now, here I was at the huge Chrysler Proving Grounds, preparing to ring out the newest - and most advanced - version of the legendary American supercar on the massive 3 mile oval and along a nice sized autocross course.

As a teenager, I couldn't imagine ever coming true, but here I was, patiently waiting in line to drive the new Viper in a closed circuit environment. No police…no morons talking on the cell phones while driving…just a Chrysler employee riding shotgun to let me know when I was pushing the Mopar monster a little too far for the situation.

My first experience was with a 2013 SRT Viper GTS in GTS Blue Pearl, one of my favorite Viper colors of all time. When I opened the driver's door, I was greeted by the race-inspired Viper seats that put you practically on the ground, with the deep bolsters wrapping around your back and hips while the sharply sloping roofline gives you the feeling of being tucked into the cockpit of a fighter jet. Power controls for both the seat and pedals allow for the highest level of adjustment for high performance driving comfort.

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I pulled the door shut and buckled myself in as the guy assigned to ride along gave me a quick rundown of the ins and outs of the new Viper. After that, he instructed me to go ahead when I was ready. I pushed the clutch in and took a deep breath before turning the ignition key - shivering as the 640 horsepower V10 roared to life. In addition to hearing the beautiful tone of the Viper V10 through the side exit exhaust, you can almost feel the potential power of the Viper through the car. You can feel the Viper come to life around you.

I pushed the short throw shifter of the 2013 Viper GTS into first gear and gave the engine a quick rev - pausing once again to reflect on the awesomeness of this moment. The shifter's location is ideal - immediately to the right of the steering wheel in a location that caters to quick movements of your right hand from the wheel to the satin silver shift knob. There is really no "reaching" for the shifter in the 2013 Viper so during high performance driving situations, there is very little time where you find yourself without both hands directing the sleek supercar and with the orientation of the shifter relative to the steering wheel, you are reaching over more than down and away.

After pulling out of the parking space, I eased the Viper GTS into the line of cars headed for the 3 mile oval with a Fiat 500 Abarth directly in front of me. As we sat there nose to tail, the Abarth and I went back and forth revving the engines - each rev of the Viper V10 giving me a quick shot of adrenaline as I patiently waited to hit the track. Finally, the Fiat was the only car preventing me from tearing into the 2013 Viper GTS and with a rev of the turbocharged Fiat engine and a quick spin of the tires, it was my turn to go. The track official waited a few seconds and then gave me the thumbs up. The gentleman riding along confirmed the thumbs up by quietly saying "hit it." It was time.

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I pulled the 2013 SRT Viper GTS out onto the big oval in first gear, and waited until the car was pointed straight ahead before climbing into the throttle and shifting into second gear as the speedometer climbed quickly - even under light throttle. As I popped the Viper into third gear and gave it a little more throttle input, the V10 came alive and before I knew it, we had caught and blown past the Fiat that had pulled out ahead of me.

I was pleasantly surprised at how user friendly the clutch of the new supercar is, especially in comparison to a great many performance cars I've driven in the past few years. While the clutch is very positive, there is plenty of slip so you don't need to be a professional driver to get the Viper away from a stoplight without stalling or smoking the tires.

Ralph Gilles said during the early stages of development for this Viper that he wanted it to be a car that someone could just get in and drive without having to learn how to drive it and it only takes a few seconds to see how well that goal has been achieved. Not only is the clutch very easy to learn (most importantly without killing the race inspired nature of the clutch) but the gears are very easy to find. Even under hard acceleration and quick shifting, the Viper's shift pattern is beautifully fluid and tight enough to allow for lightning quick gear changes.

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The 3 mile oval is big enough that even the turns don't require much turning from the 2013 SRT Viper GTS so this exercise didn't offer much along the lines of handling excellence, but it did give me a chance to flip back and forth between the two different suspension modes. In the normal cruising mode, the Viper offers the kind of ride stiffness that you would expect from one of the most powerful cars in the world, but as opposed to older Vipers, the ride quality is noticeably smoother…more civilized feeling. This Viper rides a little less like an American muscle car and more like a proper supercar so whether you are going 50 or 120 - the SRT Viper offers a pleasant ride with very little road noise or wind noise making into the cockpit.

In the long, sweeping turns, the Viper sticks to the road and as you accelerate through the turns, there is no hint of overtsteer or understeer. Even when traveling at speeds nearing 100 miles per hour, the Viper zips through the turns as smoothly as mere mortal cars when going 25mph.

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As we entered the back straightaway, I had gotten enough of a feel for the new Viper that I was confident enough to really let it rip. I geared down into second and slowed down quite a bit…running along at 25 miles per hour for a few seconds before hammering the throttle. Instantly, the Viper shoved me back into my seat with a little chirp of the back tires and a wiggle from the rear end. I accelerated wide open through second gear and as the V10 engine soared through the RPMs, you could feel the forces pushing me into the seat gradually increasing. A quick shift into third and I continued my wide open assault of the pavement and unlike any car I've ever driven - the Viper just seemed to keep pulling harder and harder.

Many cars put you back into the seat and you can feel that point at which the torque curve has leveled out, but with the Viper, the power seems endless, with only the occasional need to shift gears (barely) hindering the acceleration. In addition to forcing me back into my seat more and more, as the 2013 Viper GTS rocketed down the long straightaway, you could actually feel the aerodynamic forces as work as, at higher speeds, the Viper feels much more glued to the road. Many performance cars can get bouncy at higher speeds but the new Viper almost felt more planted to the road at the much higher speeds than it did at normal speeds.

At speeds well beyond the suggested limit of the testing facility, the gentleman riding along motioned for me to back her down as we neared turn 3 and I did so…at which point I took a deep breath and exhaled with the only word that I could think of… Wow. The acceleration forces and the raw supercar feel of the Viper was unlike anything that I had ever experienced in all of my driving days.

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I completed a couple more laps around the oval in the 2013 SRT Viper GTS before turning back into the pits to hand the car over to the next person in line. Soaring around that huge track was everything that I had expected and much, much more but the fun wasn't over just yet - it was time to hit the autocross area. After a short ride in a new Dodge Grand Caravan shuttle, I was staring at a 2013 SRT Viper GTS in Adrenaline Red with the matte black Sidewinder II wheels of the Track Pack and a big open area filled with orange cones and endless potential fun.

My testing session on the tarmac began with a ride along with a professional driver in a right hand drive 2013 Chrysler 300C SRT8, where I was offered quick tips of how to best handle the track. The course was laid out in a way that allowed you to launch the new Viper and quickly shift into second gear, but that was the only shift needed. The straightaways were short enough that we never needed to go into third gear and the Viper handles well enough that even the sharpest turns didn't require a shift down into first. This allowed me to focus completely on the handling of the new Viper GTS while also working with the throttle a bit to get traction as I came out of the turns.

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Before taking the new Viper through the autocross course, I got some seat time in a Dodge Challenger SRT8, a Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, and a pair of Fiat 500 Abarth models (coupe and convertible). I drove these same vehicles on this same course last year and I found that the Challenger was the most exciting to take through the cones in terms of all out speed and cornering, but in the long run, it still handles like a big muscle car. The Viper, on the other hand, provides a clear explanation of the difference between a muscle car and an American supercar.

The course started from a dig, followed by a short slalom through a few gates before hitting a wide 90 degree corner that opens up to the first of the short straights, which let you quickly climb up near the century mark on the speedo before hitting a series of "lane change maneuver" areas that allow you to really feel how tight the suspension of the 2013 Viper GTS is as you tear through the sequence of gates. There was no wiggle from the rear end and no need to consider the brakes. As soon as you have gotten into that area, you are roaring back out into another short straight at which point you reach your highest straight line speeds of the course before running into a series of tighter right hand turns.

Even at fairly high speeds, the Viper didn't push at all through these turns even if you got into the throttle a touch before the apex of the turns. Coming out of this area, too much throttle would get the back tires spinning a bit but a quick pump of the throttle and the power was being put to the road proper as you entered another series of wide slaloms.

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Next came the biggest, longest turn of the course and this huge, wide open left hand turn allowed me to open up the Viper on this turn and even as the speeds soared, the Viper stuck to the surface and effortlessly climbed through the curve, followed by the first need to really slow down in a hurry for a hard right turn. At this point, I was able to appreciate the full force of the two piece StopTech slotted rotors of the Track Pack and in slamming on the brakes for this hard turn, the car slowed much more quickly than I expected. On later laps, I was able to brake much, much later and easily make the turn so I can certainly see how the Track Pack brakes go a long way in making the Viper GTS a track monster.

After another sequence of lower speed right hand turns, I pointed the 2013 Viper GTS at a long slalom area and I climbed into the throttle. When you take most cars through a slalom like this one - even a high performance car - you will find that the back end gets to sliding out when you are cutting in too hard with too much speed. With the Viper GTS, I was able to cut through the cones effortlessly and when I built too much speed, it was more an issue of me running into the next cone more than it was an issue of the back end sliding or the front end pushing through. It was like swerving back and forth in a go kart…with 640 horsepower. Again, unlike nothing that I have ever experienced in the automotive world and once again, I was able to experience the ease of use that Ralph Gilles envisioned for the new Viper.

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What is more impressive than the Viper's ability to go very, very fast in a straight line and through the turns is that the car is so easy to handle when doing so. Where the previous Dodge Viper was often accused of being too much for the average driver, the 2013 SRT Viper GTS does every single thing so well that it makes the car remarkably easy and unforgettably fun to drive.

I was able to make a handful of runs with the 2013 SRT Viper GTS on the autocross course, honing my skills in the Viper with the extra seat time, before the technicians took it away for a period of required service (including a new set of tires) but my fleeting time in the new Viper was truly like a lifelong dream come true. Racing around the Chelsea Proving Grounds in the new Viper was every bit as incredible as I had dreamed as a kid, watching the Viper GTS-R race cars dominate the world of endurance racing. Driving the 2013 SRT Viper GTS was more impressive than I had expected and it was most certainly an experience that I will never forget.

The 2013 SRT Viper GTS is everything that a modern supercar should be. It is easy to civilized under "normal" driving circumstances and comfortable enough to serve as a regularly driven car but when you crack into the throttle and push the boundaries of the Viper - the spirit of a supercar quickly shines through. It is truly a marvel of modern automotive engineering and it is courtesy of Ma Mopar.

The Viper is back and it is truly better than ever.

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