Motoramic

A 2013 SRT Viper and dirt roads equal big, dusty fun

When it comes to high performance vehicles, the term “livable” gets tossed around more readily than a contestant on Wipeout. And for 2013, the SRT Viper has been lavished in praise for being just that. While the term remains relative, especially when comparing to the fiery-natured Vipers of old, I wondered how these claims could be proven. Can a group of journalists take an hour drive through the California hills to a racetrack where they’ll pound around lap after lap, and really declare the Viper “livable?” I didn’t think so either, so I decided to put the question to bed by utilizing a Viper GTS as my daily driver for two weeks — and taking it where few Vipers ever tread, namely off road.

Off-road? Yes, although we clearly aren’t talking about a Moab trip. But, if you’re claiming a car is more livable, then it needs to be able to handle things like gravel roads, or single tracks, especially when a buyer who can afford a $120,000 Viper may well have a place out in the country.

Simply, I wanted to discover if this new Viper can handle everything you might find on a summer adventure, and do so in relative comfort and with dignity. I also, just for my own amusement, wanted to know how the Viper does at rallying.

If you know anything about the old Viper, you’ll be forgiven for thinking I’ve gone mad. After all, Vipers are traditionally found wrapped around trees, where even the most competent of drivers have misunderestimated what more than 600 hp in a light, rear-wheel-drive car is capable of. How is this going to work, again?

For 2013, the Viper arrives with leather, comfier seats, a USB port and even a snazzy infotainment system. But perhaps the most sensible addition is the inclusion of traction control and, in the GTS model, a four-mode stability control system (the base SRT comes with either on or off).

The upgraded interior remains handsome and needed; the old Viper felt all performance with zero thought given to its occupants. The seating position boasts solid comfort, and the Sabelt seats – now upgraded from when we first drove the car last November – fit snuggly and keep backache to a minimum. While the cabin doesn’t exude German luxury, it also ditches the workman’s shed appearance of old.

When first stepping behind the wheel, the huge bulbous hood intimidates, but it doesn’t take long to feel at ease. The rear-view camera makes backing up a picnic, and steering lock is plenty sufficient to maneuver crowded areas with ease. And, if you keep the revs below 4,000 rpm, the Viper grumbles along, spluttering and moaning like a teenage boy en route to detention, but obediently follows orders to behave amicably. It’s only when you utilize the last 30 percent of throttle does the Viper truly come alive. And when it does, boy is it fast.

I mean, hold you dentures, grip your toupee, the 2013 Viper remains pure savagery. Like downing a whole bottle of Glenlivet, it’s intoxicating and highly deadly. If you read my performance review of the 2013 Viper, you’ll see it’s still as wild as ever.

And so it should be. But it makes you wonder whether the nicer interior is merely garnishing of thyme sprinkled on a spicy bowl of gravel. As the days went on, however, I began to see that it wasn’t.

I used the Viper to take my daughter to her ballet recital, temporarily becoming the coolest dad in history. I bought 12 balloons for her birthday party and, although they didn’t fit in the trunk, drove home with them dangling out of the window, like an idiot. I did my grocery shopping. I went to the park. I got a drive-thru McDonalds. I had my hair cut.

But it’s when I took the Viper off-road that its magic truly shone. Frankly, you’d think off-roading a 640-hp Viper isn’t possible. You’d think drifting a Viper with 600 lb-ft of torque on gravel roads would be suicidal. But it’s not. I did both. With comfort. And with dignity.

I was like Petter Solberg, only cooler. I was like Christopher Columbus, only braver. The looks I garnered from spectating farmers as I roared by in a cloud of dust were priceless. I was driving a Viper off-road. And I wasn’t dead. Not even slightly.

I hate to say the Viper’s a puppy dog, because it isn’t. But at low revs, it potters along in relative calm and order. With the suspension in street mode, the shock traveling through the suspension doesn’t require spinal surgery. In fact, it doesn’t require surgery at all. I was comfortable. Amazingly.

This got me wondering: Could this potentially take market share from future Corvette ZR1 buyers who once deemed the Viper too unruly? I think it could, although 'Vette buyers are a loyal lot. And, as previously discovered, it doesn’t alienate core Viper fanboys, of which there are many, as the snake conquers the racetrack with the same brutish force as before. It now simply sports a safety net. And it possesses creature comforts that aren’t merely superficial makeup.

If you own a cabin by the lake, the Viper will get you there. If you want to travel across America, it’ll do that as well. It’ll even go rallying. And it won’t kill you in the process. Or break your bones. Or even burn your legs. It’s a muscular American supercar you can actually use. And get dirty. Who doesn’t want that?