Dodge doesn’t approach building cars in the same way as most of its industry rivals. While we’ve watched the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro become genuine sports cars in the post-recession era, Dodge has leaned heavily into its muscle car roots. Now that Dodge is part of Stellantis however, things are starting to change. The automaker just unveiled the new 2023 Dodge Hornet crossover, which marks its first new product since the much-derided Dart. R&T sat down with Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis to discuss how this compact crossover can be made to fit the Brotherhood of Muscle ethos.
The compact crossover segment is massively important in today’s automotive landscape. More than a million of these machines are sold in the United States every year, supported largely by one of the youngest customer bases of any segment. Dodge is no stranger to young buyers, as the automaker currently maintains the youngest customer base of any automaker. That said, the Dodge recipe isn’t necessarily what CUV customers are after. As Kuniskis explained in an interview with R&T, the why-buys of the crossover segment are centered around factors like price, value, fuel economy, and brand reputation. Things like power, fun behind the wheel, acceleration and vehicle image fall much lower on the list, making them statistical throwaways according to the CEO. Regardless, Kuniskis isn’t concerned about the Hornet capturing some interest from a different kind of buyer.
“We know that that younger demographic likes what we do,” Kuniskis told R&T. “They like the way we have an attitude, our personality, and the way we go to market. If they like that, there have to be a lot of people in that UV segment that would like that sort of vehicle too, but they just haven’t been offered it yet. Our bet is that if we bring that to market we can capitalize on that.”
In order to make that plan work, Kuniskis and his team had to make the Dodge Hornet feel like one of the brand’s products at its core. This starts with a heavily modified version of the former FCA SCCS platform, which also underpins vehicles like the Jeep Compass and Alfa Romeo Tonale. The platform was worked over by a suite of former SRT engineers, including the former lead engineer and the entire suspension team. Kuniskis even went as far as to say that the crossover will behave much more like a hot hatchback than a typical commuter from behind the wheel. That’s especially true of the Hornet R/T PHEV models, which feature a 1.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine mated to an electric motor at the rear axle. The powertrain is good for 285 hp and 383 lb-ft of torque, with that torque figure being particularly strong for the segment.
“The first thing we said was that we aren’t going to sell electrification for the sake of electrification,” said Kuniskis. “We’re going to sell electrification as a performance enabler, and it will be justified by the performance. That’s why we decided to call it the Hornet R/T, because the R/T models have always been a step up in performance. Even though we have a smaller displacement gasoline engine, we needed to make sure we had enough performance out of the engine and the e-Axle to accomplish that goal.”
Customers can expand the performance capabilities of the Hornet by way of the optional track package, which brings upgrades like Brembo brakes, a tuned steering rack, upgraded dual-mode shocks, and 20-inch wheels. The package was part of the Hornet’s ideation from the start, as Dodge wants the crossover to take advantage of the Direct Connection Catalog. Kuniskis even hinted at the possibility of some power-adding packages arriving for the Hornet before too much longer.
“When you’re looking to add more power with some of the Direct Connection packages, you need to make sure you have the right suspension and braking to go along with it,” Kuniskis said.
Whether or not the Dodge Hornet is able to become a massive success in the competitive crossover segment, it marks an important step for Dodge moving forward. The brand has stagnated somewhat in recent years with its current product line, even if the products remain enjoyable for a portion of the enthusiast community. It’s hard to imagine a crossover becoming a new performance hero, but Dodge is sure going to try its best to make that happen.
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