When it comes to driving excitement, the compact crossover segment is very short on talent, but there is where the 2023/2024 Dodge Hornet comes into play. Small crossovers are the fastest growing segment in the United States, replacing small sedans with more interior space, more functionality and improved efficiency, but Dodge has focused entirely on large cars and SUVs over the past few years.
Not only is the brand missing out on a huge group of potential buyers, but the focus on big, Hemi-powered beasts has caused a bit of an issue with the company’s CAFE scores. The company has already paid nearly $160 million in fines for 2016 and 2017, and they are facing hundreds of millions more for the 2018-2023 model years – which is a key reason why the Dodge brand has rolled out this compact CUV.
However, Dodge didn’t rebadge a current small Jeep or two from the U.S. market and call them Dodge products, instead beginning with the underpinnings of the premium Alfa Romeo Tonale. The performance-minded brand then designed the Hornet R/T to offer excellent fuel economy in a way that still presented plenty of fun-to-drive factor – or so we were told when this vehicle debuted.
Brand executives claimed that the Hornet was designed with the spirit of a muscle car, and while enjoying all of the other modern Dodge vehicles, it was a bit skeptical that even the team that brought us the Hellcat cars could make a compact crossover that was actually fun to drive.
Most of them are dreadfully slow and they handle like crap, so for the Hornet to be the best vehicle in the segment from a drivability standpoint is not really saying much. However, after driving the 2024 Hornet R/T around North Carolina, I am here to proclaim that an automaker has finally made a compact crossover that is legitimately a ton of fun to drive – and it comes as little surprise that it comes from Dodge.
Sure some people will scoff at the suggestion that the new Hornet is that much fun to drive. Let’s point out that this doesn’t offer the driving experience of a Challenger or Charger (which should be obvious), but compared to other vehicles in the class. Even when compared to more expensive, slightly larger SUVs, the Hornet offers a more engaging driving experience than any of the competition.
For those wondering about model year detail, the first units being delivered are 2023 models, but when the R/T models begin shipping later this year, they will all be 2024 models. Some GT models will be 2023 model year, but all R/T models will be 2024.
My day of driving the new Dodge Hornet around rural North Carolina began in an R/T model with the Track Pack. The R/T is the plug-in hybrid model, featuring a turbocharged 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine. It drives the front wheels with help from a 6-speed automatic transmission.
The unique eAWD system used an electric motor to drive the rear wheels. When working together, the gasoline and electric drive systems provide 288 horsepower and 383 lb-ft of torque with a power split the gives this small crossover the feel of a rear-drive vehicle..
While the time taken for the turbocharger on the 1.3-liter engine to spool up is minimal, the electric motor on the rear axle provides instant torque as soon as you hit the throttle. When the Hornet R/T is in the Sport drive mode, that hit of electric power is evident.
It provides a quick hit of power until the gasoline engine reaches its peak output. This all-but-eliminates any feel of “turbo lag”, but it also provides the rear-wheel-drive feel that makes the hybrid Hornet so much fun to drive.
The 2024 Dodge Hornet R/T has four drive modes – Hybrid, Electric, E-Save and Sport. Many hybrid models have a selection of modes similar to these, and while the names of the modes may change from brand to brand, they all do the same basic thing.
Hybrid combines gasoline and electric power to get the best possible overall range. Electric is, as you might imagine, just electric, but if you ask for too much power in Electric mode, it kicks over to the Hybrid mode.
That being said, Dodge claims that the Hornet R/T will go up to 30 miles on just electric power and some other journalists at the drive event were able to get as much as 35 miles on pure electric.
The night prior to driving the Hornet, several members of the Dodge team explained that it was a good idea to use the E-Save mode during the first stretch of the drive, which took us out of the city of Asheville and on a short stretch of highway. This would save the electric drive battery power for the twisty mountain road that made up the most exciting portion of the route.
Sport mode uses both gasoline and electric, so to get the most out of Sport mode you would want to preserve battery power, E-Save made sense. Driving in that more conservative mode, the Hornet R/T provided a nice smooth, quiet ride, which was a concern.
When some automakers try to make a compact vehicle sporty, they add suspension components which negatively impact ride quality, but the sport-tuned Koni dampers do a great job of combining road handling with ride quality. Along the way, the gasoline engine was on more than it was off, keeping the state of charge of the test vehicle at 26 miles of range.
When exiting off of the highway and into the twisty mountain roads to the southwest of Asheville, it was time to switch the Hornet R/T over to Sport mode. This stretch of road was packed with tight turns and switchbacks connected with short straights, so it is a perfect road for testing a sports car, but could the Hornet really handle this tough test course?
Stated off by pushing the Hornet R/T kind of hard and getting a feel for the braking system with the dual-mode dampers that come with the Track Pack. A key advantage of the Hornet with the Track Pack is the Michelin Pilot Sport tires, which are among the best tires on the market today.
These tires allowed the compact SUV to be pushed as hard through the turns as one would push a Hellcat Challenger with confidence. Further into the route, the Hornet wanted to be pushed further and further. At times you could smell the tires and brakes getting hot, but the little hybrid crossover handled the grueling test road beautifully.
Aside from the tires, brakes and suspension doing a great job of getting through the tight turns, the gas-electric hybrid drivetrain provided loads of power to build speed between the twisties. Thanks to the rear-drive feel mentioned above, when coming out of a turn and hammering the throttle, the electric motor out back immediately gets the Hornet moving and when the gasoline engine reaches its peak output, the hybrid CUV puts you back in the seat much harder than you would expect.
There is no compact crossover that will handle the twisty test road as well as the Hornet R/T, but what is even more impressive was the efficiency of the hybrid system. Arriving at the break stop shortly after the twisty mountain road and switching back to Hybrid mode had the expectations of seeing the range meter at or around 0 miles.
Instead, it showed 31 miles of electric range. After about an hour of pushing the Hornet R/T as hard as one could with both the gas and electric drive systems at work, the system had actually gained range.
With most modern hybrids, attempting to drive them as hard as the Hornet was driven would quickly deplete the drive battery. Between the regenerative braking system and the charging effort of the turbocharged engine, the Dodge hybrid creates electricity more quickly than it burns it.
As a result, when driving in Electric mode the range dipped down into the higher teens. A quick switch to Sport mode and some aggressive driving would build up more electric range. The fact that you can drive it in a spirited fashion and maintain electric range, let alone add more, means that it is a performance hybrid that you can actually use the performance all of the time.
But wait…there’s more! The 2024 Dodge Hornet R/T features the unique PowerShot system, which provides 15 seconds of a 30-horsepower electric boost. You arm the system by pulling back both of the steering wheel-mounted shift paddles and as long as the battery it at a high enough level of charge, the PowerShot system is engaged.
That extra power is stored and ready to use for us to 45 seconds, and it is activated by putting the throttle all of the way to the floor. This allows you to use it on a hard launch or when passing slower moving traffic, and it provides a noticeable difference.
This will propel the Hornet to dash from a stop to 60 in just 5.6 seconds. For comparison, the Dodge Challenger R/T with the 5.7-liter Hemi hits 60 from a stop in roughly 5 seconds, so when using PowerShot, the Hornet R/T is nearly as quick as the Challenger R/T.
In combining impressive handling capabilities, awesome power delivery that creates the feel of rear-wheel-drive, a hybrid system that regenerates more efficiently than any vehicle I have tested and a roomy, comfortable cabin, the 2024 Dodge Hornet R/T is the most exciting small crossover on the market and perhaps the most exciting small hybrid on the market today.