The other night, as we all descended into Mercedes’ secret basement (accessible only by a correct sequence of pulls on various Smart door handles) and donned the ceremonial cloaks for the weekly Autopian World Domination business meeting, I had an idea I thought I could raise after the Any Other Tail Lights part of the agenda. We should do awards, like those other hoity-toity magazines and websites. And I had a pretty good idea what our first award category should be: The Most Lazy-Assed Badge Engineering Job on Sale.
What hath wrought this staggering lighting bolt of journalistic integrity, you may ask? Gathered friends I have an answer. If you’ll indulge a bit of British colloquialism, bloody hell do I have an answer. If it pleases your honor, may I present Exhibit A: The newly released Dodge Hornet.
“But Adrian, you’re from the Land of Badge Engineering, Great Britain,” you’re likely shrieking. And it’s true. Throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies as Austin Morris begat BLMC begat British Leyland, and oh god it’s so depressing, they pioneered the art of doing the absolute bare minimum to differentiate various nameplates.
Would you like your 1963 ADO16 as an Austin, Morris, Riley, MG, or a Wolseley? It happened because the British car manufacturing empire was imploding faster than it could find customers, and the government was forcing all these companies to consolidate. However, having gotten a taste for it, BL did it again in the seventies with ADO 71, which was an Austin, a Morris, a Wolseley, and in 1982 an Austin again, and I’m so very tired.
Let’s back up slightly before we dive in. I’ve mentioned British Leyland, but they’re far from the only guilty parties. If ever there’s been an automotive screw up in the past, you can bet GM will have an example, so let’s have a look.
In 1982, GM crimped out the J-car, its supposed import fighter. It appeared both sides of the pond with superficial trim and sheet metal changes. But that was merely leaving a fragrance in the little room for the main event, the 1982 A-bodies. They had even less differentiation, leading to a famous 1983 Fortune magazine cover, which lined up the offending turds side-by-side in the same “I drank too much red wine” color. Buick Century, Chevrolet Celebrity, Oldsmobile Cutlass and Pontiac 6000, and if they thought they could get away with it, there was probably a Corvette version mocked up somewhere inside the Tech Center as well.
That was the level of utter contempt GM was treating its customers with at the time. And you know what? Like BL, GM was hemorrhaging market share and consolidating its divisions in pursuit of cost savings. Now, there’s nothing wrong with badge engineering per se, you just have to be clever how you do it. The soon-to-be-flushed Buick Encore is an Opel (Vauxhall) Mokka with a tri-shield badge and not much else. But that doesn’t matter, because you can’t buy the Opel version in the US, and I can’t buy a Buick here in the UK.
But you will be able to buy an Alfa Romeo Tonale or a Dodge Hornet, and now we have the internet full of pictures and smart asses like me pointing out the differences. Or in this case, the complete lack of them. So let’s do that.
The news is not quite as grim at the front, because the Hornet does have a new hood stamping. Dodge would have had no choice in this, because you can see the Alfa hood contains a cut out shape for the roundel in the center. But other than that, it’s a case of new lights, a new front bumper, and not much else. In fact, the size and shape of the lamps is exactly the same on both cars because the underlying structure is identical. If you look at the large lower black grill on both cars, in the center at the bottom is a flat surface area. Behind this is most likely the active cruise sensor, so keeping this in the same position will have saved some recalibration work. It’s a bit harder to tell from the photos if the parking sensors (the little round guys) are in the same places but these attach to the bumper so they may have had some latitude to alter their position slightly (full disclosure: I am not an engineer).
The shut lines between bumper and fender and hood and fender are an exact match up because, drum roll please (who is the musician around here?), as we move around to the side it’s underwhelmingly clear the sheet metal is exactly the same. You could unbolt the doors from the Tonale and bolt them straight on the Hornet (good news for David in about thirty years time). Even the mirrors are identical (or carry over, as we professionals say).
At the back, it’s a similar story to the front. Dodge had no choice but to make a new infill panel on the tailgate below the lights, because the original had a cutout for the roundel like the hood. The light graphic is different (although I expect the functionality is identical), but the rest is Tonale all the way. It’s only the lower cladding which has changed slightly; the rear reflectors remain in the same place which is a legal thing – homologate one and you’ve done both. The overall shape is very similar but the Hornet does away with the extraneous fake vent of the Alfa, reducing cost. Well, all that money they’ve saved they surely splashed it all over the interior, right? Right?
Now, slight caveat, I’m not an interior designer and have never worked on interiors (most designers specialize in one or the other. They do sometimes cross over, but not often), but it looks like the only thing that has been changed is the IP (instrument panel) upper. That is, the top piece of the entire dash across the width of the car. But although the vents are a different shape, the center screen and IP cluster are the same parts. The only other thing that looks to be ever so slightly altered is the start stop button on the steering wheel. Same pasta, very slightly different sauce.
Remember we joked about designers being lazy? I want to be absolutely clear that none of this is the designers fault. Designers do as they’re told, and I guarantee you the Auburn Hills guys were absolutely dying inside doing this. This is corporate fuckshamblery pure and simple, and I’ll explain why.
The Alfodge Hornale is going to be built at a Stellantis corporate plant in Pomigliano d’Arco, Naples, Italy. A production line can only handle a certain amount of complexity, which is why it’s not surprising there’s so little differentiation between the two cars. This leads us to another point; it makes a certain amount of sense on a financial spreadsheet. Doubtless some MBA type looked at the numbers and thought, Hey, we can make another car for minimal investment and plug a bit of a gap in the Dodge line up. But here’s the thing.
The Hornet is very clearly an Alfa Romeo and not a Dodge. Light graphics aside, nothing about the shape, surfacing or details shares any visual DNA with the rest of the Dodge line up. The swoopy C-pillar screams curvy Euro CUV and not downsized chiseled American attitude. Not only that, there are not that many media images of the Hornet available, which suggests they don’t want people doing what this article has just done, which really is the sort of shit GM would have tried forty years ago.
[Editor’s Note: I see the advantages of Dodge’s move, so I can’t really hate on it, though I’m not a designer. And Adrian is making some good points; I get why he’s worked up, and I kind of dig it. -DT]
Dodge and Alfa executives will argue that these cars are pitched at different parts of the market – the Alfa towards the premium end and the Dodge more accessible. But this is marketing bullshit – you’ve just admitted your premium Italian BMW alternative is cheap enough to be offered as a domestic American brand. And for those heartland American customers, the car is built in Italy, and doesn’t really look like a Dodge at all.
Somewhere in a C-suite in the Ren Cen, a bunch of executives are laughing and thinking, Man, Stellantis is trying the same stunt we didn’t get away with forty years ago! Aren’t they fucking stupid!
Lead photo credit: Stellantis