If your tastes skew to the sporting side of the driving world, you probably know of the Tail of the Dragon. Maybe you’ve even driven it. The road’s cornucopia of curves snaking through the Appalachians between Tennessee and North Carolina is an institution. You can buy the shirt or order photos of your car in action.
Yet the Dragon is only one of countless similar roads in the region. I’ve driven some of them in hard-core sports cars. Now here I am on the same roads in a small mass-market crossover SUV – a plug-in hybrid crossover SUV at that. One may think it would be out of its element. Instead, it’s an absolute blast.
The R/T I’m helming is the PHEV flagship of a new Dodge Hornet lineup that doesn’t really have a base model (at least, for now). The “entry-level” GT, powered by a 268-horsepower two-litre turbo four-cylinder, is the most powerful UV under $40,000. And Dodge calls the R/T, which claims 288 horsepower from its combo of a 1.3-litre turbo gas engine and electric motors front and rear, the most powerful compact utility vehicle, period.
All-wheel drive is standard, and either model is available with up to four option packages – not least a Track Pack that was a key enabler of our expressive romp through the Pisgah National Forest.
Dodge calls the Hornet a compact, and its $37,995-and-up pricing indeed fits that category as defined by the likes of the Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-5 and others. However its overall length of just over 4.5 metres positions it more as a large subcompact, sized between the Honda HR-V and the Volkswagen Taos.
We spent most of our time in the R/T, which combines 177-horsepower from its gas engine with a 44-horsepower belt starter-generator in the front, a 121-horsepower electric motor driving the rear wheels, and a 15.5-kilowatt-hour battery pack. Other key stats include a claimed 50+-kilometre electric driving range and acceleration to 97 kilometres an hour in 5.6 seconds when engaging a PowerShot mode that can supply an extra 30 horsepower (plus unspecified added torque) in 15-second bursts. The GT gets to the same speed in 6.5 seconds.
Dodge claims best-in-class dynamics, with chassis assets that include Koni dampers, torque vectoring and available Brembo brake calipers. The Track Pack adds dual-stage damping and aggressive Michelin performance rubber on 20-inch wheels. Unique to the R/T are near-50:50 weight distribution and a lower ride height; we would really appreciate those in the hills.
First, however, we had some 40 kilometres of sedate getting-there roads. With the display showing 50 kilometres of EV range, I set out in Hybrid mode. After 47 kilometres, the range display dropped suddenly from three miles (five kilometres) to zero, but the gas engine didn’t fire up for another three kilometres. At that point the drive had been 93-per-cent electric and cumulative fuel consumption still showed “75 miles per gallon” (3.1 litres per 100 kilometres) – the display’s version of infinity.
For the remaining 36-kilometre frolic through the hills to the break stop, I selected Sport mode and revelled in the Track-Pack’d R/T’s eager steering, taut body control, great balance and staunch grip. At the stop, overall fuel consumption now stood at a miserly 4.2 – and the R/T had actually recouped 9 kilometres of electric range.
After our hosts reset the trip computer, the 95-kilometre return route included intermittent use of Sport mode on back roads, plus about 30 kilometres of Interstate. Overall fuel consumption: 6.2. Frugal fun indeed.
The Hornet shares its architecture – and a factory in southern Italy – with the new Alfa Romeo Tonale, and Alfa Romeo is not noted for reliability. At the time of the Tonale reveal last year, however, officials stressed that the plant has been extensively refurbished for the new products. Improved quality was surely a prime priority.
Time will tell. Meanwhile, the 2023 Hornet GTs are arriving in Dodge showrooms now and the R/T will arrive as a 2024 model this summer.
- Price: $37,995 – $54,995 (exclusive of iZev rebate on R/T).
- Engines: GT – two-litre turbocharged four-cylinder; R/T – 1.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder/32-kilowatt starter-generator/90-kilowatt rear motor
- Transmission/drive: GT – nine-speed automatic/all-wheel drive; R/T – six-speed automatic/all-wheel drive
- Fuel consumption (litres per 100 kilometres): GT – 11.2 city/8.2 highway; R/T – to be announced
- Alternatives: Alfa Romeo Tonale*, Buick Envision, Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape*, GMC Terrain, Honda CR-V*, Hyundai Tucson*, Jeep Cherokee, Kia Sportage *, Mazda CX-5, Mazda CX-50, Mitsubishi Outlander*, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4*, Volkswagen Tiguan
*HEV and/or PHEV available
The Dodge “mail-slot” grille and Durango-like full-width tail lamps add distinction to an otherwise attractive but somewhat generic small-crossover shape.
An eight-way power driver seat (except on the base GT) provides ample at-the-wheel adjustability with enough space (at least absent a sunroof) for a six-foot-six colleague. However sightlines are compromised by stout A-posts and high-mounted door mirrors. A 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster is standard on all trims, as is the 10.25-inch free-standing touch-screen radio, while hard buttons handle some audio and climate control functions, but not heated seats. We were surprised by the claimed 105.9-cubic feet of passenger volume: most interior dimensions – and sitting-behind-ourselves assessments – suggest a lower figure than that. Still, ample foot room beneath the front seats helps adults get comfortable in the back.
Test-track numbers aside, both powertrains deliver pleasing driveability. Acceleration is linear – no appreciable launch lag, but no step-function lunge either – and the gas engines go about their business with minimal fuss. The ride errs on the firm side but, especially with the Track Pack, the athletic handling is a worthy reward. Transmissions – nine-speed on the GT and six-speed on the R/T – are seamless, though GT drivers won’t likely see much use for ninth.
Standard driver-assist technology includes automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, rear cross-traffic alert and adaptive cruise with stop and go. An optional Tech Pack includes park assist, drowsy-driver detection, traffic-sign recognition and Level 2 semi-autonomous driving. Standard infotainment assets include satellite radio, wireless CarPlay/Android Auto and both Type-A and -C USB ports; the Plus package adds navigation, wireless phone charging and a 14-speaker Harmon Kardon audio with sub-woofer.
The GT’s cargo volume – 765 litres with the seats up, 1,500 litres with the seats down – slots between subcompact and compact crossover norms. The R/T’s electrification hardware reduces those numbers to 650 and 1,430 respectively. Both are rated to tow 2,000 pounds.
The Hornet GT is expensive for a small crossover, but what it lacks in space it makes up in pace, while the R/T delivers a rare blend of fun, function and fuel-sipping frugality.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.
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