V10 Viper not for the faint-hearted

TOBY HAGON
Last updated 09:06 21/12/2012
Fairfax Australia

With the biggest engine of any new car the SRT Viper isn't for the faint-hearted.

The V10 Dodge SRT Viper.
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The V10 Dodge SRT Viper.

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Steaming out of a tight bend, the 19-inch rear tyres scrabble for traction against an almighty V10 force. My head flicks back against the headrest as I stomp the accelerator to be greeted by a hard hitting forward surge that makes me feel like I'm in the middle of a just-kicked giant football.


Click photo at left for more views of the V10 SRT Viper.


It'd be impressive enough from a standstill, except that the SRT Viper is in third gear and already travelling upwards of 100 kmh when I unleash its full 813Nm of torque, or pulling power.

Subtlety is not the American way. Certainly not when you're talking about a V10-powered, two-seater supercar.

The Viper's big trick is its sledgehammer acceleration, which it reinforces in just about any gear by lurching with intent at any speed.

It's also a reminder of just what can be achieved by making everything bigger. In an era of smaller, more efficient engines – many of them with turbochargers or superchargers to boost performance – the Viper is old school in its thinking. Big engine, small car, sexy looks.

Its 8.4-litre V10 began life as a truck engine for a Dodge capable of carrying many tonnes. But over the generations it's evolved into a high-revving performance engine with such fancy features as sodium-filled valves and race car-like forged pistons.

Even with the technology injection, though, the Viper is more about good ol' American muscle than anything likely to get the Ferrari engineers peering over the fence of the company's Michigan test track.

It could also be the last of the breed, with executives admitting turbocharged or supercharged engines could be on the way in the quest for fuel efficiency.

SRT boss Ralph Gilles even sounds like he's preparing for the day.

"It's not a Viper if it's not a V10. If the V10 goes away then we'll change the name," he says, clearly hoping the planets will align – and the arctic ice stop melting.

While Chrysler estimates acceleration and braking times and can quote exact power and torque figures down to the kilowatt and Newton-metre, it hasn't yet established how much fuel it uses. Or, perhaps more accurately, it's not too keen to share it just yet for a new car basking in the sort of high-performance attention it craves.

Off-the-mark acceleration isn't the Viper's drawcard. The sprint from 0 to 100 kmh takes about 3.5 seconds - quick, yes, but outblasted by four-wheel-drive performance models from various brands. It's hindered only by the manual gearbox (modern performance cars are quicker as automatics) and so much stonk going to two (admittedly huge) rear tyres that simply can't contain the ferocity.

Effortless accessibility across the rev range is where the Viper is super strong. Snatch third or fourth gear at 80 or 100 kmh and there's a ferocious blast of propulsion. Not that gear changes are something you have to be constantly thinking about, such is the immense flexibility of the engine.

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Even in third gear at 25 kmh with revs hovering just above idle the Viper delivers a G-force slug few cars can muster.

That's perhaps no great surprise given the engine displaces 8.4 litres – double that of some V8s and the equivalent capacity of almost five Toyota Corollas.

The 477kW peak kicks in at 6200rpm. That swell of torque doesn't arrive until 5000rpm, although below that there are still mountains of the stuff that make it a brilliantly driveable beast.

But it's the sort of engine that does its best at higher revs. It really starts to punch with Tyson-like vigour beyond 5000rpm, as I learn with my right foot to the floor out of a brisk left-hander. The tail wiggles as the 19-inch rear Pirellis fight for traction.

At no point does the big V10 feel like it's running out of puff, or struggling to shift the aluminium and carbon-fibre-bodied two-door towards its 331 kmh top speed. Only when the tacho - complete with snake's head logo - starts to glow red do you know the fun will soon run out.

While I only touched a little more than 200 kmh, I got the impression the journey to 300 would be almost as quick. For that reason it's the sort of car that 100 kmh speed limits won't do it justice.

Yes, it's quick at lower gears, but it's the never ending surge in higher gears that best highlights its abilities – and willingness to build pace.

Not that the Viper is all brawn, no brains.

On first acquaintance the SRT Viper almost feels un-American. Small, supercar dimensions are cramped for my 188cm frame, something made even less accommodating with a helmet on. Hardly the sort of thing for donut-loving, T-bone-stuffing good ol' boys who would lust after a Viper.

The two seats are surprisingly close and the colourful central screen and semi-digital instrument cluster out of keeping with the cheap plasticky cabins that in the past have adorned so many cars from General Motors, Ford or Chrysler.

Snuggled inside, though, and the Viper's personality quickly trickles through.

The offset pedals, which force you to sit with your legs pointing left, are the first inkling that what lies beneath is bigger than the sleek, slender, almost melting exterior design.

Then you push the red start button and there's a throaty burble as all 10 cylinders fire to life, thrumming the car to idle.

Since it arrived on the American scene in 1992 the Viper has been known as part-machine, part-beast - the latter shining through with more intensity.

Snip first gear and it's a notchy but direct action. Second is not far away, again with some confidence-inspiring notchiness that demands you direct it appropriately.

Squeeze the accelerator and it elicits a wale of mechanical noise and a hulking, throaty exhaust roar.

SRT vehicle line executive Russ Ruedisueli says much effort was put into ensuring the V10-powered Viper sounded like just that - a V10.

"It had to be distinctive and it had to stay V10 ... we didn't want a high pitched scream. It's not a small displacement [engine]."

Being real is also core to the Viper's character. Unlike many modern performance cars the Viper's body work and air ducting is all the Real McCoy.

"The vents all work. It's not about having something that's fake ... it's real. That's part of our DNA."

There's nothing smooth or remotely sophisticated about the way the V10 snatches at the driveline and punches your head into the head rests - once it's grazed the low-slung roof.

On arrival at the first corner I quickly find myself having to wind off some steering, such is the directness of the tiller. It's courtesy of more metal under the forward-hinged bonnet; the only thing obstructing the view to the red-highlighted V10 snuffed beneath is an aluminium strut brace said to completely transform the way the Viper drives.

Still, there's always the feeling you'd do best to have two hands on the wheel.

Electronics quickly step in to temper any slide or over-exuberance, but everything's happening so quickly that it pays to be ready to respond.

My fun only lasts four laps. Short, but enough to respect what some good old fashioned engineering can create.

Stepping out of the Viper also makes me wonder whether this may be the last of a very fun breed.

There's every chance. Which is a shame.

 

-Fairfax News Australia

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