To say the fifth generation Viper has had a tumultuous existence would probably be an understatement. After the Mopar supercar sat out the 2012 model year, it returned to the fold as an SRT product rather than a Dodge, as FCA had expectations of launching a performance focused sub-brand similar to AMG and BMW M.
Just two years later that plan was scrapped and the Viper returned to Dodge territory. A lot happened over the course of those two years though, including an embarrassing second place finish in a head to head comparison between the Viper GTS and the C6 Corvette ZR1, which reportedly prompted FCA to fast-track the launch of the track-focused Viper T/A, which successfully retook the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca production car lap record from the Corvette (though both fast lap times would later be obliterated by a pair of hybrid hypercars, the Porsche 918 and McLaren P1).
Despite that victory, sales of the Viper have been undeniably below expectations – so much so that last year FCA idled the Conner Avenue Assembly plant where the Viper is built two times in the span of six months, and later slashed the price of all models by $15,000. Though the latter did provide an initial shot in the arm in terms of moving Vipers off showroom floors, 2015 has proved to be another difficult year for the bare-knuckled coupe.
More recently there’s been writing on the wall that doesn’t bode well for the future of the Viper. According to sources at Allpar, a proposed deal between the United Auto Workers and the FCA would include closing the Conner Avenue Assembly plant in 2017, which would in turn leave Viper production homeless.
But if Viper production were to end, it would mean more than the end of an iconic Mopar – it would spell the end of the last true American super-sports car. The new C7 Corvette Z06 has shown signs of not being up to the task of hardcore track duty, and Ford’s new mid-engined GT sports car will be ditching its V8 power plant in favor a of a turbocharged V6 and losing the third pedal for a dual-clutch box, which is to say nothing of the fact that it’s also going to be an extremely limited production model and cost nearly half a million dollars. So that leaves the Viper as the only naturally aspirated, 640+ horsepower American sports car with a manual gearbox – if and when it leaves, that classic formula heads off into the sunset with it.
But how did we get to this point – and what can FCA do about it? First, we have to understand why Chrysler decided to build the Viper in the first place and what its original purpose was.
In late 1980s the automotive landscape was fairly dismal, with Fox-body Mustangs, Camaros and Corvettes – none of which made more than 250 horsepower in production form – were considered the pinnacle of modern domestic performance. Eager to join the fray in grand fashion, Chrysler leveraged its ownership of Lamborghini and at the insistence of then-president Bob Lutz, began developing what Lutz described as a modern-day Cobra. By late 1991, the Viper got into the hands of journalists, boosting an 8.0-liter naturally aspirated V10 dishing out an unheard of 400 horsepower and 465 pound-feet of torque, attached to a sleek, light weight sports car chassis that routed power to the rear wheels exclusively through a six speed manual gearbox.
Despite some rough edges, the performance of the Viper garnered near-universal praise, and it ignited a decades-long battle for performance supremacy between the top-spec Corvettes of the day and Dodge’s supercar, a car which proved time and again to be a world-class performer, with the ACR models capturing production car lap records the world over – including the famed Nurburgring course in Germany, which has since become a standard metric for overall sports car performance in recent years.
But the performance landscape has changed substantially in two and a half decades, and despite the Viper’s noble principle of staying true to its no-compromise sports car design, as technology continues to make sports cars easier to drive and live with on a daily basis, the available audience for the Viper continues to shrink.
Clearly, if the car is going to survive to see 2017 and beyond, some comprehensive revisions to the Viper’s strategy are required. And as much as it pains me to make this assertion, I think the main issue is the drivetrain.
Don’t get me wrong, the current snake’s 8.4-liter lump is an absolute monster in terms of performance, dishing out 645 horsepower and 600 pound-feet of torque. And since it’s naturally aspirated horsepower, it means that the Viper can be ran hard lap after lap on a race track without the heat soak power loss that plagues supercharged engines and the power delivery lag that is typically a trait of turbocharged motors.
Back in 1989, Lamborghini took a Chrysler 360ci V8 – at the time the biggest motor in the Pentastar arsenal – and festooned two additional cylinders onto it, along with a healthy dollop of Lamborghini engineering prowess. From a performance standpoint their efforts were hugely successful – the mill was and continues to be an absolute freight train, offering incredible power across the rev range. But part of their engineering strategy included an unusual firing order for this new V10, which is why the Viper doesn’t sound like most other sonorous, wailing V10s like those found in the Lamborghini Huracan and Lexus LFA. And therein lies the problem.
In the realm of sports cars, there’s more to the equation than lustful design and formidable performance – we are auditory beings as well, and this V10, while distinctive, just doesn’t emit the kinds of exhaust notes that most of us dream about. To put it more bluntly – this motor has never sounded particularly good. At best, most consider its sound to be serviceable, and at worst, it’s flat-out displeasing.
Now, I’m not going to join the confused hordes of enthusiasts who insist that the 6.2-liter supercharged V8 should grace the engine bay of the next Viper – but a V8 of some kind should. Ultimately, the Hellcat motor isn’t really an ideal fit – it’s physically too large, heavy, and because it’s supercharged, it’s not ideal for prolonged track work. But it’s clear that enthusiasts love the sound of a built V8, and with the new variable-valve exhaust systems found on the Challenger and Charger Hellcat models now available from the FCA parts bin, something could potentially be done to address the Viper’s inclination for exhaust drone during long highway stints.
The second part of that equation is the gearbox. Again – don’t get me wrong here – the Viper’s six speed manual gearbox and beefy clutch (along with the Viper’s perfectly placed pedals for heel-toe downshifting) is one of the best combinations in the business, but because the Viper is not offered with an optional paddle-shifted automatic or dual-clutch gearbox, not only is a massive contingent of buyers being left out in the cold, if it were paired with the right transmission the Viper could potentially be a lot faster than it already is, not only in a straight line but on a road course as well. And again, while I’m not saying it’s an ideal fit for the job, FCA does already have a high output, fast shifting, paddle-shifted 8-speed automatic laying around that’s currently in use in the aforementioned Hellcat models – gearboxes which have repeatedly proven to yield faster times than their row-your-own counterparts in the Challenger.
But to some, making these alterations is tantamount to sacrilege – the Viper’s stubbornness to adapt to the times is part of its charm. And in its defense, that V10’s sound is unlike any other production engine today, further bolstering the Viper’s sense of bespoke engineering while competitive offerings see near-identical engines and other components shared in everything from muscle cars to pickup trucks.
Yet the ledgers seem to be speaking the loudest – the Viper in its current iteration, as good as it is, is just not capturing the hearts and minds of the car-buying public. Civility and accessibility may not have been part of the Viper’s playbook back when Lutz told his team to deliver a world-beater, but the whole concept of competition requires adaptation in order to maintain parity when your opponents innovate. The Viper’s formula may be a sacred cow in some circles, but clearly their wallets are not speaking loud enough to keep this ship steered in the right direction.
When Ralph Gilles unveiled the 2013 SRT Viper GTS at the 2012 New York Auto Show, he promised a more “mature” snake than Vipers of years past. While that’s true from many respects, there were many that felt the make-over didn’t go far enough. If Chrysler’s supercar is going to survive into the next decade and beyond, FCA is going to have to make some tough choices about whether staying loyal to the original formula still makes sense, or if it’s time to make some truly sweeping changes to this performance icon.