ALTON, VA – By taking the ’08 Dodge Viper SRT10 up to 600 hp, the folks at Chrysler LLC haven’t just swiped the power crown in American sports cars from the venerable Chevrolet Corvette, they’ve stomped on it, given it a swift kick to the curb and finished with a chin flick to their Detroit rivals.

Of course, engineers at General Motors Corp. have made it known since Dodge first announced specifications on the new Viper in January that they’re at work on a revolution of sorts themselves – a not-so-top-secret, 650-hp Corvette, reportedly called the ZR1. The word on the street is GM is readying the ZR1 for the ’09 model year.

But given the Corvette’s recent interior upgrades and reputation for well-heeled road manners, it would seem logical to assume the Viper’s reign might go the way of Edward V if the revamped version weren’t such a ridiculous joy to drive.

Back to those numbers, though. In addition to 600 hp, the new Viper delivers 560 lb.-ft. (759 Nm) of torque, enough to send the car to 60 mph (97 km/h) in less than 4 seconds. The vehicle is capable of 200 mph (322 km/h), Dodge says.

Engineers trace the performance boost back to displacement gains and a more efficient breathing system, evidenced by Viper’s dramatically enlarged hood louvers and redesigned hood scoop.

Although the ’08 Viper retains the deep-skirted aluminum V-10 engine block from the ’02 model, engineers increased the bore 0.04 ins. (1 mm) to raise displacement to 8.4L from 8.3L. They also added a swinging pickup package – a throwback to 1960s-era NASCAR racers – to improve oil pressure at high rpm ranges and during extreme cornering.

But anywhere between 50 and 60 additional horsepower comes directly via new cylinder heads from Linamar Corp. that feature CNC-milled combustion chambers, larger valves and variable-valve-timing. Tubular air-gap headers improve exhaust flow and accelerate exhaust light-off for more efficient catalyst performance.

To help put the added power to the pavement, engineers added a new, smaller-diameter, twin-disc clutch that reduces rotation inertia 18% and improves clutch feel. The Tremec T56 6-speed transmission also adds 10% wider gears to handle the extra torque, and keeps the shift-skip between first and fourth gears to maximize fuel economy. Throws are noticeably shorter for ’08, as well.

All that and the new Viper still meets federal Tier 2, Bin 5 and California Low Emission Vehicle 2 regulations.

“Pretty damn awesome,” grins Kipp Owen, director of Chrysler’s Street Racing & Technology Engineering operation, during a press event here for the fourth-generation Viper.

Awesome, that is, if you’re an engineer or you get paid to drive fast in circles on Sundays. Because to the modestly initiated, the Viper’s extra 90 hp stays mostly in the paddock. Sure, there’s seemingly endless amounts of power to carry the Viper around the Virginia International Raceway, but little need to exit third gear save for several brief seconds down the track’s two straightaways.

Then again, that’s also what historically has separated the Viper from the Corvette. Since its debut in 1991, the Viper has catered to a more discriminating skill set, or at least the monied few unafraid to drop $85,000 on a car and then push it to their limit on rented track time.

The ’08 version retains its raw connection to the track by continuing to eschew traction and stability control. And since the suspension communicates so closely with the roadway, the Viper’s ride ranks from exhausting during long commutes to superb during more aggressive driving at the raceway or on winding countryside roads along the way to nearby Durham, NC.

The Viper’s handling rates among the best American manufacturers can provide, thanks to a nearly perfect 50/50 weight distribution and a fully independent 4-wheel suspension with lightweight, high-performance aluminum control arms, dampened by lightweight coils over shock absorbers.

The car retains its M44-4 rear axle from Dana Corp. but sports a new GKN Visco-Lok speed-sensing limited-slip differential for better grip.

Wheels are 18 ins. in front and 19 ins. in the rear, with 10-spoke forged discs optional for the first time. Also new for ’08 are Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 non-run-flat tires with a 4-groove tread design. Stopping power comes via 14-in. (36-cm) brake rotors that use Brembo dual opposing calipers.

Taken together, the powertrain upgrades and taught suspension setup make for spectacular fun on the track. The added horsepower and torque are particularly discernable in and out of VIR’s tight turns, while the beefed-up rear axle, massive rear tires and big brakes boost confidence through the corners.

The new Viper best displays that combination on the raceway’s northern most section, where the course demands drivers jump on the brake pedal into a sweeping downhill turn and then exit heavy on the throttle into an uphill straightaway. Gathering speed to the straightaway’s apex alongside pit row, the Viper’s smooth clutch, short throws and enormously wide power band easily make up for any driver inadequacies.

From there it’s fast through the start/finish and downhill again, where in a split second you’re back on those wonderfully oversized brakes and downshifting confidently into a horseshoe turn. That leads to a set of twisties, where the Viper’s nose simply refuses to take a bad line, and then into another high-speed run along the track’s southern straightaway.

’08 Dodge Viper SRT10
Vehicle type Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive 2-door coupe/convertible
Engine 8.4L (510 cu. in.) OHV V-10 aluminum block/aluminum head
Power (SAE net) 600 hp (450 KW) @ 6,100 rpm
Torque 560 lb.-ft. (760 Nm) @ 5,000 rpm
Compression ratio 10.2:1
Bore x stroke (inches) 4.055 x 3.96
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 98.8 ins. (251 cm)
Overall length 175.6 ins. (446 cm)
Overall width 75.2 ins. (191 cm)
Overall height 47.6 ins. (120.9 cm)
Curb weight coupe, 3,450 lbs. (1,564.9 kg); convertible 3,440 lbs. (1560.4 kg)
Base price $84,745 (coupe); $83.995 (convertible)
U.S. fuel economy city/highway (mpg) 13/22 (18.1/10.7 L/100 km)
Market competition Chevrolet Corvette Z06, Porsche GT3

But out on the freeway, the Viper won’t be confused with more touring-minded sports cars. Dodge has never apologized for the vehicle’s utter rawness, and every peck in the road that thumps the backside serves as a reminder of its barely legal setup.

The car still presents a pleasant surprise or two, however. During the return drive south to Durham, an afternoon cloudburst soaked the roadway, reducing visibility to a matter of feet for most of the route and even closing some sections of Highway 501. A white-knuckle ride, for sure, with thoughts of becoming the latest addition to, but the Viper splashed through without incident.

Overall, the ’08 Viper retains its classic styling. There’s still no power top on the convertible model, another example the no-frills approach that could frustrate some. The owner’s manual proves little help in figuring out the do-it-yourself top’s perplexing design. It took a Dodge product expert to finally button up the car’s to ward off the tobacco-country heat during our test drive.

The ’08 Viper retains a pleasantly Spartan interior that leaves little to get in the way of aggressive driving. Adjustable pedals, which help the car accommodate drivers of all sizes, and over-the-top seat bolsters provide an extra degree of control on and off the track.

But it is an overstatement to say Dodge has cast a wider net with the ’08 Viper. It might be a more forgiving Viper, but kinder and gentler it is not. There’s plenty of opportunity to go from zero to a pile of twisted metal in seconds.

As a result, longtime Viper enthusiasts will find the same back-to-basics template, and those lucky few newbies writing the check for the first time will find it surprisingly patient.

The competition, meanwhile, just finds itself playing catch-up.