Recently, we found ourselves talking about the curious story of the Tritec engine. It was a $500 million Brazil-based joint venture between Rover and Chrysler, but the former ended up leaving the table before the first engines left the production line in Curitiba. Former Rover owners BMW took over that stake in the endeavour, backing away in 2007 and deciding that its second-generation Mini would instead use ‘Prince’ engines made via a new partnership with PSA. In the midst of a financial crisis, Chrysler then offloaded Tritec to Fiat.
By that point, the relatively old-fashioned but strong inline-four engines had made their way into various Chrysler products including the Neon and the PT Cruiser. The supercharged version was only used in a production setting by the BMW-owned Mini brand via the Cooper S. We have to stick that ‘production’ qualifier in there as Chrysler did deploy it for a concept - the 2006 Dodge Hornet.
Reviving an old name from the AMC stable (Chrysler had acquired and discontinued the brand a decade and a half prior), the concept made its debut at the Geneva Motor Show. Funnily enough, a few stands over Mini was showcasing a concept that previewed the incoming Clubman and the second-generation Mini hatch as a whole.
Unlike the Mini, the Hornet had no time for retro shenanigans. It had tight, boxy proportions with small overhangs and discreet door handles giving the five-door hatch a sporty three-door look. Sizeable, flared wheel arches housed 19-inch wheels, which even now would be considered massive for a car of this size. Speaking of, although it was intended for the ‘supermini’ B-segment, it was getting on for C-segment width, with the aim of providing as much room inside as possible.
The rear doors opened in a backwards-hinged ‘suicide’ fashion, revealing a conspicuous lack of B-pillars and an airy cabin with a flat floor coated in a tough, honeycomb-textured rubber mat. The front seats were made as thin as possible without adversely affecting comfort, further increasing room for whoever might be in the back.
This was supposed to be a car that appealed to buyers on both sides of the Atlantic. “We set out to create a vehicle with a uniquely American character to expand the image and presence of the Dodge brand in Europe and international markets, especially in the entry-level market,” exterior designer Mark Moushegian said.
It was certainly very European in its mechanical makeup, with a transversely-mounted inline-four powering the front wheels exclusively. And yes, that engine was a supercharged Tritec/Pentagon 1.6 (a ‘T16b4’ for you engine code geeks out there), providing 170bhp and a 0-60mph time of 6.7 seconds. Like the R53 Cooper S it shared the engine with, the Hornet had a functional bonnet scoop to provide the intercooler with an abundant supply of fresh air.
At the time, the official line was: “It’s purely a concept, but it shows you what the Dodge brand means in terms of future products”. A couple of years on, however, a production version seemed likely. “We are working intensely on the Hornet study and I think we will announce something on this in the future,” Chrysler international purchasing VP Thomas Hausch said in 2008.
The same year, a report emerged suggesting Chrysler was to team up with Nissan to make the Hornet in Oppama, Japan using Versa underpinnings. There was just one problem: money. The financial woes that saw Chrysler back away from Tritec rumbled on through the ensuing years, compounded by the Great Recession and the demise of DaimlerChrysler. The historic American brand could no longer expect to be propped up by a financially healthier partner. In April 2009, Chrysler filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
A merger with Fiat to form Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) reopened the possibility of a production Dodge Hornet happening, with talk of a car based on the same platform as the Grande Punto and the Alfa Romeo MiTo. In the end, the Hornet project morphed into the Dart, with that great name from Dodge’s past reduced to being slapped on the back of a generic-looking front-wheel drive saloon based on the Alfa Romeo‘s Giulietta’s platform. The use of Fiat’s E.torQ engine, successor to the Tritec, would have added a nicely ironic sense to proceedings, but instead, the Dart used a mix of FIRE and Tigershark four-pots.
15 years on from the Hornet causing a buzz (sorry) at Geneva, it’s looking like the name might finally make it to showrooms. The car it’ll be used for (Dodge’s first all-new design since the now eight-year-old Dart) won’t be anything like as interesting as that quirky, supercharged, suicide door concept shown all those years ago. Currently, there’s talk of it being based on the long-awaited Alfa Romeo Tonale, so yes, it’ll be a crossover. Try to act surprised.