Driven: 2023 Dodge Hornet GT Is Way More Fun Than Any Crossover Should Be

Test Drive / Comments

In a sea of mundane family crossovers, the Hornet is actually fun to drive.

Dodge is in the business of making muscle cars, and by the end of this year, it won't have much more to sell until the next batch of Hurricane inline-six models starts rolling in. For now, it has to rely on the Dodge Hornet to keep sales going smoothly, and luckily, things got off to a good start. Shortly after it was unveiled, Dodge already had thousands of orders.

We thought it was particularly brave of people to order a Hornet as it competes in a segment Dodge is known for getting incredibly wrong. For proof, look at the old Dodge Caliber. It was such a depressing car that Dodge had to dub a V8 soundtrack over the four-pot noise in the marketing material.

Luckily, Dodge is part of the Stellantis group now, so it has a vast network of cars it can borrow from. The people at Dodge looked around, saw the Alfa Romeo Tonale, and decided that it was just what they needed. Cue some badge engineering, and the result is the car you see here. Let's get into it and see whether you should go Italian or American.

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Exterior: Dodge Did Enough

We've seen this kind of badge engineering before. In some cases, manufacturers don't even bother giving a car its own unique identity; they remove one badge and stick another in its place (we're looking at you, Renault/Nissan/Mitsubishi Alliance).

But at least Dodge restyled the front of the Hornet to differentiate it from the Alfa Romeo Tonale. The side profile and glasshouse are the same, but if you're not a gearhead, you probably won't notice. The Dodge has a mail-slot grille, additional air intakes in the lower bumper, and a hood with two cheeky heat vents. The rear is a less successful attempt at differentiation, as both cars have the same full-width light bar. It likely would have been too expensive to redesign this prominent feature, but we're not too bothered by it.

The model we had on test is the GT Plus you see here with the optional Blacktop Package added. The package adds blacked-out exterior trim and 18-inch black Abyss wheels. Standard features across the range include automatic LED headlights, LED taillight, rear privacy glass, and a body-colored spoiler. The GT Plus trim also gains a sunroof and a hands-free power liftgate.

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Powertrain: Hurricane Power

The Dodge Hornet GT models are equipped with the brand's Hurricane inline-four, producing 268 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. The plug-in hybrid R/T models are more potent with 288 hp, but the automaker made a big deal of the GT being the quickest and most powerful vehicle in the segment at the time of its launch - a big selling point for Dodge.

Independent tests have shown that it can sprint to 60 mph in roughly 6.5 seconds. This is primarily thanks to a decent launch control system and the grip provided by the standard all-wheel-drive. A nine-speed automatic sends the power to the AWD system. Stellantis has messed up the tuning on this automatic transmission before, most notably in the Jeep Cherokee. In that car, there was more hunting between shifts than you'll find in an Alien Vs. Predator movie.

It has been a few years since the nine-speed was first used, and the Stellantis group now has a near-perfect combination to work with. When using the car in the default driving mode, it's still caught out by some driving scenarios, like getting off the freeway and merging right with no traffic coming from the left. The car assumes you're coming to a halt, so when you accelerate, there's nothing there as the gearbox goes through a quick existential crisis. In the Cherokee, you measured the gearbox's self-esteem problem in lunar months; in the Hornet, we're talking about a second or two before it catches up. It's not a dealbreaker, though, and you adapt to it swiftly enough.

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Driving Impression: Making The Most Of The Power

The suspension is firm but compliant, which is the way most enthusiastic drivers prefer it. You want to feel connected to the road but don't want harsh vibrations to shiver up your spine every time you run over a pebble. Dodge nailed it perfectly, and the Hornet and the Tonale are the most fun cars in this segment as a result.

Although it has eight inches of ground clearance, the body roll never feels excessive. If anything, it feels like a Golf GTI on stilts, and that's the Alfa Romeo DNA shining through.

The guillotine-like steering was one Alfa Romeo element that did not make the cut on the Hornet and Tonale. Both the Stelvio and Giulia have supercar-like steering that acts immediately. If you look down at your phone briefly, the car changes lanes. It feels disconcerting at first, but you grow to love it after a while. The Hornet doesn't have the same sharp steering, but it is accurate, and the steering weight is spot on. We can understand why Dodge went in this direction, as the Hornet will be more of a mass-market product, and most casual drivers would be unable to cope with a steering ratio Alfa essentially borrowed from Ferrari.

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The all-wheel-drive system is a standard FWD system that feeds torque to the rear when it detects slippage. This is also different from Alfa's bigger SUV, the Stelvio. In the Stelvio, the rear wheels receive all the torque, sending power to the front wheels when you get in trouble. We prefer the latter, purely because it's more fun. The Hornet will be easier to handle in the hands of a casual driver. With the power going to the front wheels, it tends to understeer, which is much safer.

Driving on fresh snow, the AWD system provided adequate grip. When you get too aggressive with the brakes, the rear comes out slowly until the AWD system catches it and pulls the car back in line. It makes you feel heroic, having to dial in some opposite lock, though the car doesn't need it to take care of the problem.

Overall, the Hornet is more fun than it actually needs to be. Most shoppers in this segment want something that gets them from A to B, but in the Hornet, you'll have loads of fun doing it.

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Practicality: Par For The Course

General comfort is good, and there's more space than you think in the Hornet. The dark interior doesn't do the car any favors, but the figures for roominess are good. Front passengers get 38.8 inches of headroom and 41.7 inches of legroom. In the rear, it's a bit tighter. There's only space for two passengers, and they get 38.2 inches of headroom and 38 inches of legroom.

It's large enough not to be uncomfortable on longer trips, though it must be said that there are more spacious rivals out there. The Hornet beats the Mazda CX-30, which is the closest in size and ethos, but a Honda CR-V is way more practical than both. Think of the Hornet as a sort of in-betweener car. It has a useful 27 cubic feet trunk with a nifty passthrough for skis or whatever long object you want to carry. Max cargo space is just under 55 cubes.

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Pricing And Verdict: An Emotional Purchase

There are certainly better SUVs out there. For the same price as a base Hornet, you could also have a Honda CR-V, a Toyota RAV4, a Subaru Forester (the latest model has just been revealed), or a Mazda CX-5. If you're buying with your head, all of these cars make more sense.

But the Hornet has that X-Factor that makes it unique. It feels like a car that was built by enthusiasts, which is something the Italians do really well. Unfortunately, buying Italian is challenging because dealers are few and far between. Nothing went wrong with the Hornet during the week I had it, but it was nice to know that the nearest Dodge dealer was less than 10 miles away. And, we must point out that Dodge keeps doing well in reliability studies.

The Hornet is a bit more expensive than the SUVs mentioned earlier. The base model no longer retails for less than $30k, so Dodge's claim about the most power for under $30k no longer stands.

If you don't live in a cold weather state, we'd go for the base GT - 2023 models have an MSRP of $30,735 excluding destination (2024 models start at $31,400). If you live in the snow, it's best to pay a bit more for the GT Plus and have Dodge fit all the goodies you need for the cold weather, plus a few additional luxuries.

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