The Web is abuzz with Chrysler’s announcement that it will suspend production of the Viper and withdraw the car from racing. Here’s an explanation why:
The Chrysler Street and Racing Technology (SRT) group remodeled the Viper for 2013 after a three-year hiatus. Ralph Gilles, the young president of the SRT group, intended the ‘13 model to be a forgiving and elaborate evolution of the Viper, which hit the market in the 1992 model year. The $100,000 starting price showed the cost of that evolution, but SRT’s expectation was kept low: The group expected to produce between fifteen hundred and two thousand units per year.
The ‘13 Viper failed to break six hundred.
By comparison, the outgoing sixth generation of Chevrolet Corvette averaged annual production of nearly twenty-four thousand units over nine model years.
SRT added hype by sponsoring its own team of Vipers to compete in racing after more than a decade of absence. The group competed over two seasons, starting with two entries at Mid-Ohio in August 2012. The press overlooked the team’s dismal beginning, but SRT went on to struggle in two dozen events. Sixth place was its best finish.
The SRT Viper entered a more competitive field than any previous iteration of Viper. There are more two-seaters sporting 600+ HP and hitting 200+ MPH than at any other time in automotive history, all while maintaining stunning levels of comfort and driveability. Audi, Cadillac, Nissan, and Lexus didn’t compete in hi-po motoring two decades ago. Now they do, and they do it well. Aston-Martin, BMW, Ferrari, Jaguar, Lamborghini, and Porsche revamped their lineups and set new standards. Chevrolet and Ford offered bargain speed and power on a scale unseen since the early 1970s, best evidenced by the $54,000 Mustang GT500.
The Viper was already sliding before its three-year hiatus. Demand peaked in 1994 with production at just under thirty-one hundred units, with roughly a quarter of them going to foreign buyers. By the 2000s, foreign demand dried up. Price hikes didn’t help: The Viper debuted at a cost of $50,000 back in 1992. That rose to $60,000 by ‘96 and $80,000 by 2003. Current base price in a hundred grand.
The best argument against the SRT is the C6 ZR1, the top-of-the-line variant of the Corvette. The ZR1 hit the market for ‘09, offering a supercharged V-8, adaptive suspension, a 3 sec. zero-to-sixty sprint, and a 205 MPH top speed. SRT’s Viper came in as the C6 ‘Vette was going out, but a well-publicized comparison test by Motor Trend had the retiring ZR1 (priced $126,000) outperforming the new Viper GTS ($142,000) at Laguna Seca.
Reviewer Jonny Lieberman, though cautious in his critique, stated that he “just didn’t have the confidence in the SRT,” an opinion that his colleagues, Frank Markus and Scott Mortara, shared. The ‘Vette edged out a quicker lap time by 2 sec., with Lieberman concluding his review by proclaiming “the Corvette ZR1 is the King of the Hill.” Gilles sniped back, blaming the Viper’s loss on the Motor Trend drivers’ “difficulty” operating the SRT.
Car and Driver added more fuel to the fire in its comparison test when it also chose the ZR1 over the Viper GTS. Aaron Robinson summed up the staff’s opinion: “Hey, we’re not pro racers, but we can tell you when a supercar speaks to us, and the ZR1 does more clearly than the Viper and in terms more people can understand and enjoy.”
The problem wasn’t that a Corvette outperformed a Viper, the problem was that an outgoing model of Corvette outperformed an incoming model of Viper. SRT and the press knew as much as anyone that the next generation of Corvette would only make things harder. SRT has nothing to fall back on, given the consenus that the phased-out C6 ZR1 is the more comfortable, more driveable, and faster of the two.
What makes this all the worse is that Fiat-Chrysler is in a precarious state. Fiat has failed to breakthrough in North America, and its domestic (European) operations are ailing due to the continent’s economic stagnation. Chrysler is, despite the stong sales of its large vehicles, vulnerable due to weak demand for its compact and midsize offerings. Low revenue equals low investment in niche offerings: Namely, the Viper.
With nothing to show so far, the Viper has a short road ahead of it.