2023 Dodge Hornet

  • August 24, 2023

Dodge got handed a bag of lemons – with lots of brown spots – in the form of government regulations that have effectively outlawed the kinds of cars that only Dodge offered, that sold really well for just that reason. And also because they were passionate cars – which is why people wanted to buy them.

They were the Charger and Challenger, soon-to-be past tense. 

Cars that didn’t make apologies for the big V8s – and the big personalities – they offered. They reveled in them. And so did those who bought them. But such cars are reviled by the people who run the government, who are using it to push such cars off the market (using regulations such cars cannot comply with) in order to make room for the kinds of cars the government wants people to drive.

That being cars with very little under the hood – and not much personality.

Where does this leave Dodge?

Trying to make some lemon aide.

What It Is

The Hornet is a compact-sized crossover (sigh) that Dodge has tried hard to infuse with some personality, in order to differentiate it from all of the other compact-sized crossover SUVs literally everyone else is trying to sell.

The main sell here is what Dodge has spent the past 15-plus years selling – that being performance. It does not come from a V8, however.

The standard engine in the $29,995 GT is a turbocharged four cylinder engine that boasts 268 horsepower, paired with a standard all-wheel-drive system. It is the strongest small crossover you can get for the price – the latter (i.e., value) being the other thing Dodge sells.

You can order more performance, too – in the form of the R/T (this nomenclature has up to now been reserved for V8-powered versions of Dodge performance cars like Challenger and Charger) which is a performance-oriented plug-in hybrid. It also has a turbocharged four cylinder engine but augmented by a plug-in hybrid system that amps up the output to 288 horsepower and reduces the fuel consumption by enabling this version of the Hornet to power itself using electricity part of the time.

It lists for $39,995.

A top-of-the-line R/T Plus (which gets additional features and amenities) lists for $44,995.

What’s New for 2023

The Hornet is a new addition to the Dodge lineup and represents the new direction Dodge is being forced (effectively) to take.

What’s Good

Less boring to drive than most small crossovers.

Costs less to start than a V8 Charger or Challenger.

More practical than a V8 Charger or Challenger

What’s Not So Good

It’s (sigh)  another small crossover.

Not as practical as other small crossovers in the class.

It’s not a Charger or a Challenger.

Under The Hood

There’s not much more engine – in terms of size – under the hood of the Hornet vs. other crossovers.

But there is a lot more standard power. – vs. what’s under the hood of most other small crossovers.

The GT’s standard 2.0 liter turbocharged four – paired with a standard nine speed automatic – is the same size as a multitude of other 2.0 liter fours powering what seems to be almost everything – not just small crossovers, either. Two-point-0 fours power mid-sized luxury sedans such as the current BMW 5 and the Mercedes E-Class.

But its output is a cut above the rest.

The standard version in the GT makes 268 horsepower – substantially more than 184 horsepower emanating from the VW Tiguan’s 2.0 liter four and also the BMW X1’s 241 horsepower 2.0 four. There’s no supercharger whine – that’s now a memory of better times – but there is a lot of boost. About 22 psi at full tilt and – if you dial up the Performance Pages app on the LCD touchscreen – you can watch the boost ebb and flow as you drive.

Floor it and the Hornet GT can get to 60 in a little over six seconds, which is very quick for the class. As a counterpoint, the Subaru Crosstrek I reviewed last week needs about nine seconds to get to 60 with its standard 2.0 liter engine  – there you go, again! – and even with its optional 2.5 liter engine, it’s still a solid 2 seconds behind the Dodge.

The plug-in hybrid version with 288 horsepower that ought to be available later this fall or by early 2024 ought to be a little quicker and (according to preliminary reports) will be capable of going about 30 miles entirely on battery power – which can be recharged by plugging in rather than gassing up (in a conventional hybrid, the running engine recharges the battery). No data is yet available as far as the gas mileage this version of the Hornet – the R/T – will be but it ought to be significantly higher than the non-hybrid GT’s 24 city, 29 highway.

Which is the price you pay for being able to get to 60 in a little over six seconds.

One of the rather shocking stats about this little Dodge is how much it weighs – which is 3,750 lbs. for the GT. That is almost exactly as heavy as this writer’s 1976 Pontiac Trans-Am, which is a V8-powered muscle car that was considered heavy in its day. But given that it is a V8-powered muscle car (and a much larger car; it is nearly two feet longer) it is a lightweight car relative to this Hornet.

The latter ought to weigh far less than it does, because it isn’t a V8 muscle car – and it doesn’t have a cast iron engine or a truck-like bolt-on steel girder front subframe like my old Pontiac does. Much of the Dodge’s exterior is draped in plastic and very thin-gauge metal, too.

And yet it is almost a two-tonner as it sits – before anyone sits down.

Government regs – having to comply with them, that is – certainly play a role in this heaviness, but they do not explain all of it. The Crosstrek – which is only slightly smaller than the Hornet (by about two inches overall) has to comply with the same federal ukase but it manages to weigh-in at 3,117 lbs. A Honda CR-V (which is larger than the Dodge) weighs 3,472 lbs.

So, the Hornet is a heavy hitter, like the dearly departing Challenger and Charger (the latter only weighs 3,947 lbs. by the way) that makes up for its bulk with power. But if the Hornet weighed 300 pounds less – or about as much as a Honda CR-V – how much more powerful would it feel?

On The Road

How to make another crossover drive differently than all the other crossovers? More finely, how to make a crossover that will appeal – to the extent feasible – to people who will soon no longer be able to buy the Charger or Challenger they’d probably rather have?

Well, you try to make a crossover that’s less like all the others.

It’s not an easy job, given the parameters. Kind of like trying to make alcohol-free beer appealing. Not that there’s anything wrong with crossovers – as such. Obviously, many people like them. But there are also many of them already available.

Anyhow, Dodge tries to make the Hornet different by making it more powerful, which gives it a more forceful feel when you floor it. This will appeal to people who like crossovers for their practicality but miss having more than a passing ability to pass anything. The Soobie Crosstrek reviewed here last week, for instance, is to passing what Joe Biden is to cognition.

Both take awhile.

The Hornet doesn’t. You can flex your Go muscle here, whenever the need arises. It does not go like a V8 Charger or Challenger – but then, what does? The point is it goes better than vehicles of its type and that is what Dodge is hoping will keep people who bought Chargers and Challengers from buying some other brand’s crossover.

It’s more than just Go, too.

The Hornet is more agile than the usual in this class, probably because it is based on the also-new Alfa Romeo Tonale (Alfa is part of the Stellantis family, which encompasses Dodge, Chrysler, Ram and Jeep). Which – being an Alfa – was designed to be something more than just another small crossover.

Regardless, both versions of the same basic thing share the same basic suspension and steering tuning as well as an available upgraded Brembo brake package that includes red powder-coated front calipers (another echo of Challenger/Charger R/Ts past).

The result is a more responsive crossover and – maybe – that will be enough to counter the fact that it’s still another crossover  . . . and isn’t a Charger or a Challenger. When you’re used to steak, getting a bologna sandwich doesn’t quite hit the spot.

There is one area, though, where the Hornet is a lot like the forced-off-the-market Challenger and Charger.

It is a thirsty thing.

The advertised 20 city is only 1 MPG better than the V6-powered Charger’s 19 city rating – and  only 4 MPG higher than the V8-powered Charger R/T’s 16 MPG, city. In real-world driving, there is almost no difference at all – because to get the Hornet to Go, you’ll be on boost most of the time. Even if you drive it hyper-mile style, like a Prius, it’ll still use not much less gas than a V8 powered Charger or Challenger.

Without being a Charger or Challenger.

But – here’s the trick. Or rather, the scam.

On paper, the Hornet “emits” less gas. That is to say, less carbon dioxide – the inert, non-reactive gas that plays no role (as in zero) in causing or worsening air pollution. But it is advertised as a “pollutant” – and more to the point, regulated as such. A V8 – being a large-displacement engine – processes a lot of air. It therefore “emits” a lot of C02, though almost no actual pollution. A small turbocharged four “emits” less C02 because it inhales less – and so exhales less.

Except when it is under boost.

Then it exhales a great deal more. But it gets credit for “emitting” less when it is not under boost, so everyone can pretend its “emissions” are less. Of course, less is never enough for the zealots who are pushing for zero – which is why the Tonale has an even smaller (1.3 liter) engine and will have none at all (according to Alfa) by 2025.

Expect the same here, by then.

At which point, the Hornet will be just another crossover. Or rather, just another battery powered appliance.

At The Curb

There are remembrances of the Challenger and Charger when the Hornet is viewed from head-on (and in the attitude that Dodge tries to resuscitate via the stylized Hornet “stinger” badges on the front fenders). But – sigh – viewed from the side – it looks a lot like other crossovers.

Not – again – that there’s anything  wrong with that. Per se. If there weren’t already so many others out there (including the Tonale) the Hornet would look like something different. That was how the original Lexus RX300 looked when it appeared back in 1998. Now that look is a lot like the tattoos one sees on just about everyone’s calves and forearms.

But it does have the same – or similar – virtues as others of its kind. The chief one being how much room there is inside in spite of its small size, outside. It is only 178 inches long – vs. 198.4 for a Charger sedan. That is a difference in length of nearly two feet. But the much-longer Charger only has 16.5 cubic feet of space in its trunk – vs. 22.9 cubic feet behind the Hornet’s back seats. Fold those down and you open up 50.5 total cubic feet of cargo-carrying capacity.

The Hornet has that going for it.

The problem – insofar as Dodge selling the Hornet – is that so do all the others. While the Charger and Challenger were less practical, there was nothing else like them. If you wanted something like that, you bought a Dodge – because no one else had anything like them.

Dodge tries (again) to make the case that this is something unlike what everyone else is selling, by echoing things like the Performance Pages app you can use to toggle through various displays that include a readout of torque (but not horsepower) the engine is making in real-time, as you drive. Plus boost – and so on.

More echoes are apparently forthcoming in the form of a Tech Pack (echoing Track Pack) for the pending plug-in hybrid version that focuses on electronic “assistance” such as an “enhanced” version of the standard adaptive cruise control system (which operates like a semi-self-driving feature that can semi-steer the car as well as maintain and adjust speed in relation to the flow of traffic).

And there will be a Track Pack – that includes some performance-upgrade hardware such as a 20-inch wheel/tire package and an adaptive suspension with driver-selectable settings.

But the sound of the echoes – of the past – that linger in one’s mind are harsh reminders of the present.

And the future.

The Rest

It is likely you will be able to haggle yourself a deal on a new Hornet – if you’re interested – precisely because Dodge will need to deal to get people interested. There is a lot of competition out there already – as there never was for the Charger and Challenger.

To persuade you, Dodge dealers are going to have sell you.

It’ll be interesting to see whether they can.

The Bottom Line

This new Hornet is a prequel of Dodge’s New Direction.

Do you like what you see?

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