Expert Reviews

2023 Dodge Hornet First Drive Review

Over the past decade, Dodge has worked hard at its reputation for being the badass of the automotive industry.

While most manufacturers have stuck to the straight-and-narrow, building lineups of tame crossovers with mass appeal, the folks at Dodge have cranked out a collection of wild machines for the social fringe – or at least those who like to think of themselves as outsiders. Don’t believe me? The most powerful production sedan, muscle car, and SUV on the market today are all Dodge products.

Alas, it was only a matter of time before the brand toned down the attitude – or offset it at least a little – with a compact crossover. However, the 2023 Dodge Hornet doesn’t stray too far from the path of its predecessors, and the brand’s first all-new model in a decade happens to be the most powerful and best-handling machine in the segment.

Serious Styling

Looking at the front end of the Hornet, there’s no questioning its lineage. The grille, with its mail slot opening and ‘racoon mask’ headlight treatment, clearly resembles its Charger sibling. The hood has a power bulge sculpted into it, and there are even heat extractor vents, which may or may not actually do anything. The profile is clean and not particularly aggressive, save the stylized hornet badge on the fender, and while the full-width taillight strip is meant to recall the larger Durango, there are definitely hints of the similarly sized Porsche Macan from certain angles. Not bad company to keep, that’s for sure.

In typical Dodge fashion, the colour palette is more exciting than the typical hues offered by its competitors. Sure, there’s still white, black, and grey (each with amusing names like Q Ball, 8 Ball, and Cray Gray), but there are also vibrant choices like Blue Steele, Acapulco Gold, and Hot Tamale (the latter two pictured here). The base model’s 17-inch wheels are the only styling letdown, which will surely prompt most buyers to opt for an upper trim with the dark-painted 18- or 20-inch wheels, or swap them out for something from the accessory catalogue or aftermarket.

Sporty Cockpit

The Hornet’s interior reinforces Dodge’s sporting intentions. The seats are aggressively bolstered for a compact crossover, and upper trims feature synthetic suede. For those with extroverted tastes, red upholstery can be specced, but even the black seats are accented with red stitching and perforations. The cockpit is canted toward the driver, with a thick-rimmed steering wheel, traditional lever-type gear selector, and a row of actual buttons for the climate control. There’s even a roller wheel for the stereo’s volume. In the interest of styling, the side glass sweeps upward towards the rear, but the result is a tighter space in the back in terms of both head- and legroom, as well as cargo space.

Safety and Technology

The driver faces a 12.3-inch gauge display that can be configured to showcase a pair of dials for the speedometer and tach, and a number of different options for the space between, including the navigation system map. The 10.25-inch infotainment touchscreen is mounted high on the dashboard and can be set up to display two or three columns of widgets, depending on the driver’s priorities.

The Uconnect system used by Dodge – and sister brands Jeep and Chrysler – has long been one of the industry’s best, most usable systems, and this latest fifth-generation version carries on the trend but with greater responsiveness and better graphics. There’s wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity (which worked seamlessly during this test), wireless smartphone charging, and Amazon Alexa integration. The available 14-speaker sound system offers powerful audio, too.

The Hornet marks a first for Dodge’s new Level 2 autonomous driving capabilities, with lane control and adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability. There’s traffic sign recognition and driver attention monitoring available as part of a Tech package, too. Automatic emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, lane departure warning, and blind-spot monitoring is standard on all trims.

A Pair of Performance Powertrains

The entry point to the Hornet lineup is the GT trim that comes with a turbocharged 2.0L cylinder that delivers a class-leading 268 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. The bigger news is the range-topping R/T that serves up Dodge’s first performance-oriented electrified offering in plug-in hybrid (PHEV form). Here, a 1.3L turbo four-cylinder engine is augmented by a 44-hp electric motor up front and a 121-hp electric motor in the back, both of which are juiced by a 15.5-kWh battery pack. The net output is 288 hp and an impressive 383 lb-ft of torque.

Both trims come with standard all-wheel drive, with the PHEV using a six-speed automatic transmission, while the lesser GT directs power through a nine-speed auto. Fuel consumption figures haven’t yet been released for the R/T yet, but they should be notably more miserly than the GT’s 9.9 L/100 km combined rate – plus, it’ll reportedly travel up to 50 km on electricity alone.

Dynamic Drive

The Hornet shares its platform with the new Alfa Romeo Tonale, which is not a bad place to start. Dodge used the Mazda CX-5 as its dynamic benchmark with the intention of bettering it, and the engineers have done a good job of meeting that goal. On paper, the powerful drivetrains are impressive, as is the weight distribution – 50/50 for the R/T, 60/40 for the GT – and electronic limited-slip differential, as well as the standard high-performance Koni shocks. On the beautiful backroads of North Carolina, the Hornet mostly lived up to expectations.

R/T models boast a so-called PowerShot that allows an extra 30-hp kick for up to 15 seconds when ambient temperatures and charge levels allow. In practice, the R/T is swift, and with the PowerShot applied it feels quicker still, though it’s not as big a difference as Dodge would have us believe. The folks behind the brand claim the R/T will zap to 96 km/h (60 mph) nearly two seconds quicker with that electrified boost than without, doing the sprint in 5.6 seconds.

The GT version isn’t burdened with the mass of the battery pack nor the R/T’s additional motors, and even with its lower power output, it will still scoot to 96 km/h in a claimed 6.5 seconds. I spent the most time in a base trim GT riding on Goodyear all-season tires, and came away very impressed with how composed and engaging it was when hustled through high-speed curves. The suspension tuning is very well dialled, hinting at its Alfa connection. Another GT with the optional 20-inch wheels and Michelin performance all-seasons helped the steering feel even more direct, although the combination diminished the ride quality somewhat.

While the R/T may be quicker, it doesn’t feel like it most of the time. The throttle response has been dialled back compared to the GT’s liveliness, and worse still, the PHEV’s smaller engine is buzzier and the power doesn’t come on as linearly. The R/T’s mass is also significantly greater and it makes itself known, especially when cornering aggressively. The handling and grip is there, but it just doesn’t dance as joyfully as the GT does.

Final Thoughts

After a decade without any new models, the 2023 Dodge Hornet proves this is a brand that’s come out swinging hard. With its genuine performance chops, aggressive styling, and the availability of an electrified platform, the Hornet is poised to be a serious contender for buyers who put more stock in fun over functionality.

Dodge dealers are taking orders now for the 2023 Hornet, with the first GT models arriving in showrooms at the time of writing, and R/T models expected to start showing up before summer. Pricing starts at $37,995 before freight and tax for the GT, while the hopped-up R/T will start at $50,495 and should qualify for most federal, provincial, and territorial zero-emission rebates.