Chrysler brings back ‘cool stuff’ with Viper
Bobby Cerchione’s motivation for spending $95,000 four years ago on his second Dodge Viper was simple. He was worried about how much longer the car and company that built it, Chrysler LLC, might be around.
“It looked like that might be the end of it,” said Cerchione, the executive vicepresident of a New Jersey trucking company. “If it was the last chance to own one, I wanted to have it.”
Cerchione was among 500 Viper enthusiasts in New York this week to see the car they call “the Snake” re-emerge from two years of hibernation.
The car’s return, after Chrysler explored a sale of the Viper business during its tumble into bankruptcy, will show the extent of the carmaker’s resurgence following its own brush with extinction.
“When this car comes out, it’s really going to scream that Chrysler’s back,” Dave Sullivan, an analyst at Autopacific Inc.
Chrysler’s SRT Viper joins the likes of Honda Motor Co.’s NSX and Nissan Motor Co.’s GT-R as “halo” performance cars that draw buyers who make followup purchases of other models in the company’s lineup.
The new SRT Viper has a more powerful engine and weighs 100 pounds less than the previous model, said Ralph Gilles, president of the SRT brand.
Viper’s engine will achieve 640 horsepower, 40 more than the previous model. Production will start late in the fourth quarter.
The Michigan-based automaker is betting Viper will help sustain momentum in the United States, where sales climbed 26 per cent in 2011 and increased by 34 per cent in March, Chrysler’s fifth consecutive monthly gain of more than 30 per cent.
The draw to the car for some purists, said Chris Marshall, who has owned three Vipers, is that it lacked “gizmos” like cruise control, offering drivers a pure connection to the 10-cylinder engine.
“It was just a big bruiser of a motor that made lots of noise and scared the crap out of Grandma when you took her for a ride,” he said.
Viper production stopped in July 2010, a year after Chrysler Group LLC emerged from bankruptcy thanks to a $12.4 billion government bailout and a rescue by Italian automaker Fiat SPA.
The plant, which Chrysler said in a bankruptcy court filing didn’t get an offer at its $10 mil- lion asking price, was cited by the company as evidence of the lack of bidders for its assets during the 2009 recession.
The alternative to the government’s rescue was Chrysler’s failure and messy liquidation, said Van Conway, chief executive of the restructuring firm Conway Mackenzie.
“If the government doesn’t do a bailout, simple math — Chrysler shuts down,” Conway, who owns two Vipers, said.
Led by Sergio Marchionne, who is also the chief executive of Fiat, Chrysler shelved the Viper as it focused efforts on churning out 16 new or refreshed vehicles in the 19 months following its bankruptcy. Chrysler expects profit to more than double this year to about $1.5 billion from the $734 million earned in 2011, excluding costs associated with paying back U.S. and Canadian government loans.
“Chrysler building the Viper again is their way of saying ‘We’ve got enough extra bandwidth that now that we’re going to bring out the cool stuff,’” said Janni Cone, who along with her husband, Henry, have owned four Vipers since 1997.
The Cones, who live in Raleigh, N.C., are members of Viper Club of America. Chrysler started the group in 1995, three years after the company’s thenpresident Robert Lutz led the car into its first year of production. The club has interacted with celebrity owners including Tonight Show host Jay Leno and wrestler Hulk Hogan.
Chrysler offered an early peek at a prototype of the new Viper to club members last year and encouraged fans to weigh in on naming Viper’s new snakeface logo, try out different seats and select from a palette of colour choices.
“Let’s just say sexy is back,” Cerchione, who attended the invitational, said of the Viper’s new look.
“It’s elegant and meanlooking at the same time. It’s got the curves in all the right spots.”
Viper probably will remain the most expensive model in Chrysler’s lineup. The previous model sold for starting prices of more than $90,000.
Viper’s reputation still was “a little bit blue-collar” for a halo car, Janni Cone said, in part because of its bare-bones interior.
“It was a pretty crude car inside before,” product analyst at Autopacific Sullivan said.
“For some people, that’s what they wanted.”
With Viper’s sleek new design and upgrades inside the cabin, the car will bring in “a whole new group of buyers,” Cerchione said.