ASHEVILLE, North Carolina — You know it as soon as you grip the steering wheel on the Dodge Hornet. This SUV wants to play.
Direct, weighted and rooted to the road, Hornet’s steering was a carving tool in my hands as I rushed the twisties up the Blue Ridge Parkway southeast of Asheville. The scenery was stunning, but the compact SUV offered no time to drink it in as I surged from corner to corner with 295-pound-feet of torque on offer to my lead right foot. Oh joy, another affordable hot hatch has joined the SUV segment.
As readers of this column know, the Mazda CX-5/CX-50 Turbo is my favorite mainstream compact SUV with its standard all-wheel drive, sharp handling, terrific torque and attainable pricing. It’s been a segment of one. Until now.
For just $31,590 — a whopping $6,500 less than the CX-5 Turbo — the AWD 295-torque, 2.0-liter turbo-4-powered Hornet GT (yes, GT is the entry-level model) nearly matches the Mazda’s 310-pound feet of torque while besting it in horsepower, 268 to 253. I’m not making this up.
Hornet marks the return of a storied badge that dates to the beloved 1951 Hudson Hornet — and of Dodge to the compact SUV segment for the first time since the unloved 2012 Caliber. But this is a different Dodge. Where Caliber was a cheap version of the Jeep Compass, Hornet shares a platform with the Alfa Romeo Tonale, for goodness’ sake. The new ute’s playfulness took some of the sadness away from the death-by-government-regulation this week of the Challenger — the Hornet’s performance godfather — as Dodge announced the V-8 era’s end with a 1,025-horsepower SRT Demon 170.
The Hornet GT and CX-5 Turbo play in the huge, multi-million-sales volume, compact-SUV segment, but what makes them special is they boast luxury-level performance at mainstream prices.
And if it’s luxury-level prices you want, the Hornet offers a top-trim 288-horse, 386-torque R/T monster for a BMW X1-like $41,590 sticker. Load the blood-red Hornet R/T I also tested with Blacktop, Tech and Track packages and it’ll cost you $52,405. That is (ahem) $9,000 more than a V8-powered Dodge Charger R/T, and over three grand more than the most expensive $49,195 BMW X1 offered. I’m still not making this up.
Welcome to the electrified era and its shocking price inflation.
And its cool new features. The 15.5-kWh battery under the rear seat is largely responsible for the R/T’s 10 grand premium over the standard GT. And largely responsible for the R/T’s expanded tool kit. Expect similar goodies from the Alfa Tonale, which comes out of the same Naples, Italy plant and will cost Lord knows what.
Buzzing through the spaghetti curves of Route 276 behind traffic, I get a brief dotted line along a straight stretch. Alert PowerShot, an over-boost feature like Grin Shift found on Hyundai N hellions. I armed the system with SPORT mode, pulled back on the steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles, then floored the throttle.
Accessing an extra 30 horsepower (for a total of 288), the Hornet R/T jumped into the left lane and obliterated the two cars in front of me. Impressive as that horsepower figure may sound, the R/T’s torque — 383, just 7 shy of the 5.7-liter hemi V-8 in big brother Durango — is the real story here. The 1.3-liter inline-4’s turbo provides the high-rpm horsepower, while the battery fills in low-end torque. The result is instant, electric vehicle-like grunt courtesy of the rear electric motor.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because I first experienced this front-engine/rear-motor arrangement in the 2020 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid, itself derived from the Acura NSX supercar. Dodge’s elves are having fun.
All this muscle is wrapped in a surprisingly stealthy package. Unlike the wicked-looking V-8 powered Charger R/T that you can hear coming from a mile away, Hornet R/T makes only muffled, four-cylinder sounds when I give it the whip. Part of “the bridge to electrification,” no doubt, as government nannies force everything to be the same. But how does that square with Dodge’s rebel brand?
That rebel spirit is on display in the Hornet’s exterior styling: domed hood, twin-functional heat extractors, raccoon grille. Though it softens with a profile that could be any SUV (what, no Charger-like boomerang body stamping?) and a generic rear horizontal taillight, you’ll know the R/T by the dual tailpipes out the back, but otherwise R/T is little different from GT.
If you’ve got $52K burning a hole in your pocket, you might opt for the more visually distinctive Alfa. But oooooh, I like the affordable GT.
It’s not as elegant looking as the Mazda CX-5, but dress it in the Blacktop package ($1,995) and Acapulco Gold ($500) and it’s a bargain at $34,085. Especially since Dodge’s electronics leapfrog Mazda. In addition to standard adaptive cruise control, blind-spot-assist, auto headlights, auto braking and a partridge in a pear tree, the GT offers a big 12.3-inch configurable display behind the steering wheel. The console is anchored by a 10-inch touchscreen powered by the best-in-class Uconnect system.
We motorheads like to headline performance numbers, but a new generation of smartphone-raised buyers demand easy-to-use electronics. Tech ‘n’ ergonomics have always been a Dodge strength. With wireless Android Auto (also standard) at my disposal, I easily navigated Metro Asheville with voice commands. The console was rich in clever details like an upright storage cubby so I could see my phone’s screen, and a fat button on the steering wheel to access SPORT mode.
Hornet is at the smallish end of the compact segment with interior proportions closer to CX-5 than Nissan Rogue. But this tall guy had plenty of headroom in front and legroom in back. Clever details extend to sub-floor storage in back (except in R/T, where the space is consumed by the electric motor).
Around town in the R/T, I ran on battery power alone thanks to the e-SAVE feature, which stored 30 miles of range. The GT is easy ‘round town, too, and its AWD will be appreciated by Michiganians in March snowstorms. Put your boot in it, though, and GT’s nine-speed gearbox isn’t nearly as smooth as the Mazda’s velvety six-speed.
I’ll stick to sedan-based pocket rockets like the VW Golf GTI or AWD Mazda3 Turbo or Hyundai Elantra N — the latter with similar price/power to the Hornet GT. But for those who want an SUV hot hatch, the Dodge is a welcome segment addition.
And if you want more visceral thrills, you can always dive into Dodge’s Direct Connection bag of tricks to outfit your Hornet with, say, an exhaust sound enhancer. Hornets were meant to buzz.
2023 Dodge Hornet
Vehicle type: Front engine, all-wheel-drive five-passenger SUV
Price: $31,590, including $1,595 destination ($33,585 GT and $52,305 R/T as tested)
Powerplant: Turbocharged 2.0-liter Hurricane inline-4 cylinder; 1.3-liter turbo-4 cylinder mated to 15.5 kWh lithium ion battery and rear electric motor
Power: 268 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque (2.0L); 288 horsepower, 383 pound-feet of torque (hybrid)