Dodge Ready with a Sting for the Compact-SUV Market

The 2023 Hornet blends European underpinnings with American attitude.

The 2023 Dodge Hornet GT injects a svelte shape into a compact-SUV segment that generally favors blockier bodywork. (Stellantis)

If you accept that the oddball and odd-sized Journey never was a legit rival for the likes of the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape — and it wasn’t — Stellantis’ Dodge brand hasn’t played in the compact SUV segment, one of the largest and most competitive in the U.S. That strategic gap is set to be filled by the 2023 Hornet, Dodge’s performance-slanted attempt at peeling out some sales volume from a segment that, for all its muscle-bound revenue-generating ability, is typified by mundane and marshmallow-y top-sellers.

The 2024 Hornet R/T is a plug-in hybrid that couples a 1.3L 4-cyl. with a starter-generator motor and a rear e-axle; Hornet GT, here, has turbocharged 2.0L 4-cyl. with conventional AWD to channel torque to the rear axle. (Stellantis)

The Hornet’s not just about having a little more engine power, either. Its platform, shared with the Alfa Romeo Tonale that, like the Hornet, is slated to be in showrooms sometime in spring 2023 and incorporates chassis finery such as standard Koni-supplied Frequency Selective Damping (FSD) dampers, specifically tuned, genuine by-wire braking (for the R/T trim) that also cuts 9 lb. (4 kg) of curb weight and a focus on steering feel via direct-action ratios from the electronic power steering; Stellantis claimed the Hornet GT’s ratio, at 13.6:1 (shared with the Tonale) is the most direct in the segment.

Brian Del Pup, vehicle synthesis senior engineer, also emphasized to SAE Media that the Hornet’s platform with standard all-wheel drive delivers a near-ideally balanced 52% front/48% rear weight distribution for the plug-in hybrid R/T trim, a rare attribute in a class dominated by inherently front-heavy architectures. Even with an added 276 lb (125 kg) coming from its 15.5-kWh lithium-ion battery pack, the R/T’s 4,140-lb (1878-kg) curb weight is 160 lb (73 kg) lighter the than the top trim of Toyota’s RAV4 Prime, the segment’s most comparable model to the Hornet R/T.

Horses still count

The Hornet GT cabin is highlighted by crisp digital displays and reasonably rich material choices. (Stellantis)

To inject the brand’s style of verve into the segment, Dodge hasn’t neglected propulsion’s role, however. With a turbocharged 2L “Hurricane” aluminum-block I-4 generating 268 hp and 295 lb-ft (400 Nm), the brand boasts the base Hornet GT trim delivers the most standard power in the segment. Working through the ZF-supplied 9-speed automatic transmission, the Hurricane 4-cyl. gets the job done to the tune of 6.5 s from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) and can romp the Hornet GT on to 140 mph (225 km/h). In real-road situations, however, the engine rarely feels more than adequate and any “hurricane” here demonstrates to be comparatively brief: despite an electronic wastegate, there’s not much turbo boost below 3000 rpm and the redline lives at disappointingly low 5500 rpm.

Underhood of the 2024 Hornet R/T plug-in hybrid, with space occupied mostly by the 1.3L 4-cyl. engine. (SAE Media/Bill Visnic)

More interesting and more propulsive is the Hornet R/T’s PHEV setup: its turbocharged 1.3L 4-cyl., apparently develops 123 hp, but when combined with 44 hp from a belt-starter generator in the driveline’s P1 position and the rear axle motor’s 121 hp, total system power is a maximum 288 hp. Dodge claims torque from the ICE part of the equation is 199 lb-ft (270 Nm) channeled to the front wheels through a 6-speed automatic transmission, with another maximum of 184 lb-ft (249 Nm) available from the electric rear axle, for a total of 383 lb-ft (519 Nm).

If that’s not enough drivetrain circumlocution, the “PowerShot” feature — activated when the driver pulls and holds the steering-column-mounted shift paddles — can temporarily summon an additional 30 hp from the battery and rear axle for as long as 15 sec. The feature is easy to use and Dodge said it’s good for cutting a hefty 1.5 sec from the 0-60 time, pulling it down to 5.6 sec. PowerShot may be particularly useful when accelerating from a standstill, but the effect seems less pronounced when on the move, although it might offer some added confidence in certain maneuvers.

In addition to a “sport” driving mode for both Hornet trims, the R/T has the options of hybrid, electric and “E-Save” modes to blend electrification; E-Save prioritizes battery charging. Dodge said the Hornet R/T’s electric-only driving range is approximately 30 miles (48 km).

Driver focus

Dodge said the Hornet RT’s 15.5-kWh battery is good for approximately 30 miles of electric-only driving range. (Stellantis)
The Hornet GT GLH Concept is a platform for planned Hornet aftermarket performance and appearance upgrades. (Stellantis)

The Hornet’s standard AWD incorporates “dynamic” torque vectoring for both GT and R/T trims. If the Sport driving mode is selected, the system also provides an electronically controlled limited-slip differential function. Either Hornet trim has a firmer ride than some customers in the compact segment might expect, but the standard Koni FSD dampers and the optional driver-selectable 2-stage dampers supplied by Marelli brilliantly blend control with reasonable comfort. The Hornet’s base braking system, as well as the Brembo-calipered upgrade setup, both seemed stronger and more confident than the braking capability typical of the segment.

“I got a lot of push from senior leadership outside the brand — I'm talking about within [Stellantis North America] engineering — to make sure that it had the correct sporty characteristics for a Dodge. Not only I would say ‘direction,’ but ‘support,’” Del Pup stressed. “Support to make sure that we did very unique things with this vehicle to make sure it was true to the Dodge name.

“You want tight steering, you want good performance, you want a 0-to-60 [attributes],” he added. “We don't want an appliance.”

With a 103.8-in (2636-mm) wheelbase and overall length of 178 in (4528 mm), the Hornet is a couple of inches shorter in both dimensions than Toyota’s RAV4 Prime and the Hornet R/T’s 6.1 in (155 mm) of ground clearance means offroad excursions probably should be well-planned. But the Hornet’s slightly tighter dimensions make themselves when driving briskly – or when packing, where its sculpted and low roofline take a toll on cargo space when compared to blockier competitors.

Interior trim and materials for even the Hornet GT have appearance and feel appropriate to the SUV’s just-less-than-$30,000 starting price. Particularly impressive is the crispness and clarity of the standard 12.3-in digital display for the gauge cluster and the accompanying 10.25-inch center display that features the fifth generation of the company’s excellent Uconnect user interface.

Other cabin standouts included the grippy material covering the perfectly-shaped steering wheel and exceptionally supportive seats, even in the base GT trim. Typical for the segment, however, are rear seats without much shape and merely adequate legroom that also might by a symptom of the Hornet’s tighter exterior dimensions.

The Hornet’s assembly plant is in Pomigliano d’Arco, Naples, Italy. Perhaps owing to distance considerations, initial GTs on sale in early spring are designated as 2023 model-year vehicles, while the R/Ts said to be available in showrooms in late spring are 2024 models.