When Chrysler hit the skids in 2009, its most bombastic product became a sacrificial lamb. With taxpayers propping up the company, a 17-mpg two-seater with a six-figure price tag attracted serious post-crash stinkeye, and so production ended in 2010.
But Chrysler has bounced back, and it brought the Viper back with it. We should all be glad that Chrysler didn't sell the name to the highest Chinese bidder when it was hurting for cash. After all, this is America's only bona fide supercar, a vehicle that lives in the rare air of 200 mph and 600 horsepower. It's also a uniquely brutal, challenging machine, a rough-hewn cudgel of a car that snorts and coughs and tries to burn you with its signature side pipes. It's rough around the edges and proud of it.
And yet the Viper still holds the record for the fastest production-car lap around the famed Nürburgring racetrack, an achievement subtly referenced in the 2013 model by a small map of the 'Ring molded into a rubber coin holder on the passenger-side door. And with that, we conclude the list of things about the Viper that are subtle.
The motor certainly isn't. At 8.4 liters, the Viper's raucous V-10 is as big as six Dodge Dart engines. Those giant pistons sling out 640 horsepower, good for a 206-mph top speed. No longer a Dodge, the car is now called the SRT Viper, named for Chrysler's high-performance Street & Racing Technology division. Whatever. The Viper is really a one-name act, like Elvis or Ludacris.
The Viper is also famously hard to control when pushed to its limit, a machine that's a leading candidate to find wrapped around a telephone pole directly across from the dealership. So when I get a chance to drive a 2014 Viper on a track for the first time, at the North Carolina Center for Automotive Research, I'm acutely aware that I need to mind my manners. Respect the Viper, or you're gonna get burned. (Maybe literally. Damn side pipes.)
I take a few laps to warm the tires and get a feel for the track. First gear takes you all the way to 60 mph, so at first the Viper doesn't feel that fast. But once you're at 3,000 rpm, you know why they included a sturdy holy-shit bar for whoever's riding shotgun. The revs build fast, the exhaust unleashing an off-kilter racket while the massive rear tires struggle for grip. The long carbon-fiber hood stretched out before me seems to ask when I plan to grow a pair.
Soon I'm lapping with the stability control off and hitting 140 mph on the straightaway. Somehow, nothing horrible is happening. Did Chrysler tame this thing, or am I just not driving hard enough? I resolve to find out on my last lap, deliberately yanking the wheel and goosing the throttle in the middle of a 70-mph second-gear sweeper.
Sometimes as soon as you start doing something, you wish you hadn't. I now know that deliberately putting a Viper into a 70-mph slide on a narrow track definitely falls into that category. I also know that the Viper's behavior is not, in fact, sanitized for the general public. Fortunately there's lots of grass runoff room on the outside of the corner. No harm done, except to my ego.