DETROIT -- The Viper sports coupe, Chrysler Group's exotic halo car, has an identity crisis.
The automaker's most expensive vehicle will remain badged as an SRT, at least for now, even though Chrysler has folded the SRT brand into Dodge.
Since the Viper went back on sale in 2013, it has worn the SRT badge. But the car's vehicle identification number has retained the designations that make it technically and legally a Dodge. And if Dodge brand head Tim Kuniskis wants to return Viper to his brand, with the badge it wore from 1991 to 2010, he can do so anytime.
For now, at least, that means that the only dealers able to sell the Viper are the nearly 500 who earlier paid $25,000 for the right.
SRT became a brand in 2011, responsible for its profits and losses as it sold performance versions of Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles. It remained separate as it revealed the re-engineered Viper at the 2012 New York auto show.
In the fall of 2012, Chrysler offered its dealerships two levels of SRT participation:
- For $5,000, they could buy a base agreement for tools, equipment, training, signs and, perhaps most important, preferential ordering and additional allocation of such vehicles as the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8.
- For an additional $20,000, they could buy an agreement permitting them to sell the Viper, which was to be badged as an SRT.
The 2013 Viper got off to a rocky start last year. U.S. dealers sold only 591 in 2013, and sales never topped more than 97 units a month.
So far in 2014, Viper sales have been better, with dealers selling 255 through April. The brand dispatched marketing teams to dealers in warmer climates this winter with a test drive fleet to allow potential customers to drive a Viper. That program has expanded north now that colder weather has abated.
Chuck Eddy, chairman of the Chrysler National Dealer Council, said it's "a fair question to ask" about what will become of the $25,000 fee that dealers paid to sell an SRT Viper.
However, he said he has no complaints about the car's sales per- formance. On Jan. 1, he had nine Vipers in stock at Bob & Chuck Eddy Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram outside Youngstown, Ohio. Five months later, seven of them have been sold.
"Viper business always picks up in the spring, and you have to take your shots on that car on the high-water marks," Eddy said. "How do you get people excited about it? You let them get out and drive it."
Chrysler Group revealed it would fold SRT into Dodge during this month's presentation of Fiat Chry-sler Automobiles' five-year business plan. CEO Sergio Marchionne, speaking later at the dedication of Chrysler's new transmission plant in Tipton, Ind., said SRT belongs with a reconstituted Dodge brand focused on performance.
"I think the SRT brand is a natural extension of Dodge as we currently frame Dodge. Dodge is a performance brand; it needs to have SRT," Marchionne told reporters. "We just want to be absolutely coherent with the management of Dodge."
As for the Viper's badge, Marchionne said it is unimportant.
"It will be a Viper," he said. "The fangs will always be there."