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First drive: 2016 Dodge Viper ACR

Burn out, or fade away? Dodge takes the smoky route with the Viper ACR

Using a time-tested formula for high performance, SRT engineers have created a car which outperforms everything else while remaining analogue.

In the song Hey Hey, My My (Out of the Blue), Neil Young sings the lyric, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”, a line that later gained a level of infamy when it was found in the suicide note of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. It’s a poignant sentiment regardless of its connection to rock ‘n roll history, and one I can’t help but be reminded of when considering the circumstances surrounding the new Viper ACR.

Without putting too fine a point on it, Dodge has recently been struggling to move Vipers out of the showroom. Looming federal airbag safety regulations, which would require a significant reworking of the car’s current platform to maintain compliance, will likely result in the end of the Viper production next year.

The SRT engineers decided the Viper would not go gently into that good night.

Some pundits would point to horsepower figures as a possible rationale for the sports car’s low sales figures, as the Viper comes up short versus the current generation Corvette Z06 as well as Dodge’s own Challenger and Charger Hellcat models, although those claims don’t take into consideration seemingly trivial notions like “power-to-weight ratios”.

I would propose another factor is at play here: Stubbornness. In 1988 when Bob Lutz – Chrysler’s president at the time – commissioned his design team to create a new sports car, he envisioned a modern day big-block AC Cobra: A pure, mechanically engaging driving experience that provided an unfiltered connection between the car, the driver, and the road.

Since then, the upper echelons of high performance have seen all-wheel-drive, forced induction, elaborate traction management algorithms and dual-clutch automatic gearboxes become the norm, but the Viper has dragged its heels all along the way, strictly offering drivers a six-speed manual gearbox, rear wheel drive, and a massive, naturally-aspirated, Lamborghini-developed V10 engine – just the way Bob intended.

2016 Dodge Viper ACR

While it’s certainly admirable from an enthusiast’s perspective, the general car-buying public have been less receptive to the approach, and the writing on the wall for the Viper’s demise has been visible for some time. But rather than fade away into history, the SRT engineers decided the Viper would not go gently into that good night.

Instead, they’ve created the 2016 Dodge Viper ACR. The new variant will likely end up being the Viper’s swan song and it’s the most track-capable production street car you can buy at any price. In case you’re skeptical of that lofty claim, SRT has collected no less than thirteen production car lap records at various tracks across the country since announcing the ACR to prove it.

American club racer

When SRT engineers set about making the most track-focused Viper road car ever built, they chose to leave its drivetrain alone. An 8.4-liter V10 sits unmolested beneath the hood, cranking out 645 horsepower and 600 pound-feet of torque to the rear wheels by way of a six-speed manual. From there, focus was on the fundamentals of race car design – light weight, functional aerodynamics, braking ability and mechanical grip.

If the question is whether or not it’s the most outstanding street-legal production car I’ve ever driven on track – that I can answer in the affirmative.

The ACR attacks these elements with vigor. Its wild aero package creates nearly one ton of downforce at speed – more than any production car ever built. Its Bilstein-sourced coilover suspension offer 10 levels of rebound and compression adjustability along with three inches of height adjustment to fine tune the handling for the varying surfaces found at different race tracks. Its carbon ceramic brakes provide a larger swept braking surface than has ever been offered on a Viper before. The Kumho Ecsta V720 rubber it wears, designed specifically for the Viper ACR, might be the best DOT-legal performance tires you can get right now. And in the pursuit of weight reduction, the Viper ACR ditches hi-fi audio, sound deadening and other unnecessary luxuries that do not equate to faster lap times.

Is it uncivilized as a street car? With spring rates twice that of the Viper TA, a massive front splitter and rear diffuser, and an exhaust that’s loud enough to rattle your helmet visor at certain RPMs, it’s certainly not a Range Rover. But if the question is whether or not it’s the most outstanding street-legal production car I’ve ever driven on track – that I can answer in the affirmative without hesitation.

On the track

I headed out to Chuckwalla Valley Raceway just outside of Palm Springs, California to put the ACR through its paces. Chuckwalla is a technical 2.7 mile, 17-turn course that features a fairly varied range of road course characteristics, including a banked high-speed bowl that allows the ACR to generate well over 1.5G of lateral grip. That’s enough to make it feel like your face is starting to be pulled off sideways, and each time I went through that section I pushed a little harder, finding the limits of my own courage long before reaching any plateaus in the car’s capability.

In terms of sports car prowess, the ACR improves upon the standard Viper in nearly every way measurable – it’s quicker in a straight line (although its top speed is lower than a standard Viper due to the additional downforce), it stops harder, and corners with even more confidence.

2016 Dodge Viper ACR -back

But what’s truly remarkable about the ACR is how approachable it is, even for relative novices. A significant amount of credit should go to Kumho for making a truly incredible street compound, as the grip these tires offer is simply relentless. Every single lap around the course I found places to shave time off – braking later here and getting on the power earlier there – and at no point did the ACR even flinch at my ham-fisted inputs.

Perhaps most crucially, the ACR’s performance is accessible, begging you to find the limits of your capability and improve upon them. Unless your day job is behind the wheel of a Formula One car, the Viper ACR will always have more to give when you’re ready for it. Even former SCCA champion Randy Pobst needed half a day of track time to get the most out of the ACR when he broke the production car lap record at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, beating the $850,000 Porsche 918 Spyder by over a second and the 1.3 million-dollar McLaren P1 by more than two. These are lap times Pobst himself set from behind the wheel of both hypercars.

Bookending an era

Although there’s some speculation that the Viper could return down the road, fuel economy standards and manufacturing costs dictate that the V10-powered sports car that we currently know – which is hand-built in Michigan and rides on a bespoke platform that isn’t shared with anything else in the FCA portfolio – likely won’t make a comeback even if the nameplate resurfaces a few years from now.

Instead, its successor will likely share a modular platform with numerous other models, use a smaller, more efficient turbocharged engine, and offer a paddle-shifted automatic gearbox. And it will probably sell in much higher numbers than the current car, while boasting higher profit margins.

That might be promising news for the bean counters, but I think the world already has plenty of disconnected, cookie-cutter high performance machines to go around. If you’re one of the few enthusiasts among us who still seeks a truly visceral and honest driving experience, I have a word of advice for you: Get it while you still can.

Highs

  • Incredible track capability
  • Accessible performance
  • Wide range of adjustability for different conditions
  • Wall poster looks

Lows

  • Lack of sound deadening equates to loud exhaust
  • Low front splitter and rear diffuser won’t fare particularly well on public roads
  • Forty percent more expensive than the base Viper model