The new Dodge Hornet is out of place. In a showroom of burly muscle cars (and one SUV) all offering that satisfying power and attitude of a cast-iron, pushrod Hemi V8 engine, the Italian-built Hornet stands to offer half the cylinder count, and is the shape of an angry jelly bean in contrast to its broad-shouldered full-sized stablemates, also angry. It’s a salad at a Texas BBQ food truck. But, as is the purpose of the humble salad, every brand needs a good palette cleanser to go with the savory brisket. And there’s been pent up demand for one, too.
When the new Dodge Hornet was officially revealed in August 2022, it put dealers in a frenzy. Overnight, the Hornet racked up over 14,000 orders from Dodge franchisees. A demonstration of just how customer critical this product is. In fact, it’s Dodge’s first all-new product since the Journey, which ended production in 2020. That midsize SUV first came out in 2009. The current-generation Charger, Challenger and Durango have all evolved from something born even earlier. Speaking of critical: if you recall the serious words of Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares from 2021, each brand has 10 years to demonstrate viability to the automotive conglomerate, or be cut from the team. And the clock is ticking.
With a sense of urgency, the new Hornet is the Dodge brand diving into the deepest water it could find: the compact SUV segment. And with far more gusto than the bygone Dart, Caliber and Avenger. All examples of entry products gone wrong. With the Hornet, we actually find class-leading performance specs, and a far-from-basic interior.
“This segment is so large. There are so many shoppers that are in the compact (SUV) space, so for us to go in and take a fair share of that was a huge opportunity for Dodge,” said Chris Wincek, Senior Manager, Dodge UV Product to MC&T during the Hornet drive program in Asheville, North Carolina. “We’re going after the heart of the market. For $30-grand, you’re getting best-in-class performance. Not only horsepower/torque and 0-60, but also a driving element that frankly isn’t currently in the segment.”
Why Consider The Dodge Hornet?
Above all: what does the Dodge Hornet have to offer in this large, fickle market space? Simply put: Performance. Distilled down to simply that, it’s a Dodge through and through. In the case of the 2023 Dodge Hornet R/T, you get 288 horsepower and a Hemi-rivaling 383 lb-ft of torque courtesy of a 1.3L turbocharged engine, combined with a 15.5-kWh battery pack that is also expected to deliver more than 30 miles of all-electric range on a full charge. 0-60 of the Hornet R/T is just 5.6 seconds.
Again, it doesn’t have a Hemi. It doesn’t even have a V6. And that’s likely going to give The Brotherhood of Muscle – the cult following of current Dodge muscle car enthusiasts at the core of the brand’s identity – an allergic reaction. But the Hornet isn’t necessarily for the Scat Pack customer. But maybe somebody who is used to, say, a Volkswagen Golf GTi, Honda Civic Si, or the bygone Focus ST, or a Hyundai Veloster N, would find its deluxe hot hatch proportions and performance as something worth a test drive.
The big risk? It’s basically an Alfa Romeo. And if you look at the quality studies, it’s not exactly the golden standard in reliability. And reliability (along with a screamin’ deal) remains paramount in this ocean of compact utility vehicles. Moreover, because it’s got premium Italian genes (remember: it’s even made in Italy), the Dodge Hornet isn’t exactly the cheapest date. In fact, the Hornet R/T hybrid we tested starts at $44,995 USD. That’s for a small SUV. This comes at a time where customers need an affordable option more than ever.
That said, Dodge is known for favorable value. At least when it comes to performance. Delivering more horsepower for the money than anybody else out there, in just about any shape or form, is how the brand captured one of the youngest buyer demographics in the industry. In this sense, Dodge still delivers. The Hornet R/T is the quickest and most powerful SUV for the money.
Moreover, Dodge will lean into the personalization and performance tuning trends that are popular among hot hatch customers with its Direct Connection program. We saw it first with the Hornet GLH concept, and a followup with the Hornet R/T GLH concept, which is an upgraded take on the hybrid version. DC support is a unique offering that’s going to be above and beyond what everybody else is doing, and shows that Dodge will continue to lean into performance, no matter the shape, segment, or cylinder count.
What’s The Dodge Hornet Like To Drive?
During our time with the Dodge Hornet, it was largely behind the wheel of the go-faster R/T hybrid model. It’s the range topper, with the most power and most fuel economy of the lineup. And there are hot-hatch echoes in the way this busy bee is willing to bob and weave through pristine Appalachian mountain roads, largely thanks to the tire choice. The Michelin Pilot Sport All Season 4 (available with the optional Track Pack) is totally overkill if you’re comparing the Hornet to the new Chevy Trax (which wears the much less athletic Goodyear Assurance), or the Ford Escape (the blasé Bridgestone Ecopia). Even the Mazda CX-5, the bullseye for the Dodge Hornet, wears the not-so-enviable Bridestone Turanza EL440. All of this might sound esoteric, but tires are the biggest way to make a quick difference on how a vehicle rides and handles. So much so that automakers engineer entire vehicles around them. And Dodge choosing a more performance-oriented tire to get the most noticeable handling edge above the competition is the most effective way to do so.
Just talking up the tires wouldn’t tell the whole story, though. The new Dodge Hornet also offers what they’re calling Dual-Stage Valve Suspension. Depending on the drive setting, the dampers will stiffen to minimize body roll (Sport Mode), or keep things nice and supple in Normal Mode. The steering is also beyond expectation. It’s hot-hatch levels of sharp, and not so much the numb, disengaged feel that’s otherwise rife in the compact SUV space.
The only thing that really trips me up is the gimmicky “PowerShot” feature in the 2023 Dodge Hornet R/T. You have to pull back on both paddle shifters to activate it, and in doing so sends stored energy in the battery for an extra shot of power to (all of) the wheels when under acceleration. 25 horsepower for 15 seconds, to be exact. I’d rather just have all of that power available when I put my foot to the floorpan, but engineers on the media drive program mentioned that PowerShot helps alleviate stress on the Hornet’s battery hybrid system, rather than constantly dispersing its stored energy at such a rapid rate in perpetuity.
Ultimately, what are you paying for? You’re paying to have the best-handling SUV south of an Alfa Romeo Stevlio. Which, hey, is also a Stellantis product (but not the one the Hornet is based off of, that’s the Alfa Tonale).
However, if you seek the athleticism and (still not official) hybrid fuel economy of the new Dodge Hornet R/T, you’ll have to wait until summer 2023. In showrooms currently is just the base model, the Hornet GT. It’s plenty of performance for the money, but the R/T is the more impressive of the two.
A Performance Parlay
It doesn’t take much to understand that Dodge is in a weird place right now. The brand just revealed the most powerful, quickest, fastest mass-produced car in the world in the shape of the Challenger SRT Demon 170. And after this year, it’s gone. In its place will be a production version of the all-electric Dodge Charger SRT Daytona Banshee Concept. An electron-powered replacement to what’s arguably the greatest muscle car duo the world has ever seen, and the rabid following that they’ve created. To parlay the branding and ethos created by the LX Charger and Challenger into a C-segment SUV and an electric coupe seems impossible. And because of this, a new-to-Dodge buyer is the primary objective of the Hornet.
“This is an all new section for us in the market,” said Wincek. “This is a new gateway for us that will bring in a new customer, a younger customer, that we’re very excited to get involved with Dodge… we’re all about ‘how can we get the Dodge muscle car experience into the hands of more customers?’ And with the compact UV space being the largest, fastest growing segment, it just makes total sense.”
The Hornet could also make for a great garage mate. A more agile and everyday companion relative to a shouty Scat Pack or a bulky Durango that would be parked in the stable next to it.
“We know we have Dodge fans, and they’re very loyal to us… we’re now expanding to a new audience.”
Just don’t call it a Dart.