Vintage R&T Road Test: 1973 AMC Hornet Hatchback – The Best American Competitor To The European Sport Sedans?

The review of this Hornet Hatchback makes an interesting counterpart to the Grand Am review in the same issue as it makes a rather compelling case for it being a better pick than the GA in just about every way. It was faster, much more fuel efficient, handled fairly well, had quick power steering, an excellent drive train, and a more compact body with a practical hatch and decent space utilization.

It also makes for perhaps an even better comparison to the four import sport sedans tested by R&T recently, as this well-optioned Hornet’s price fell right in the middle of the prices for those four (Audi 100, Saab 99, Volvo 144E, Peugeot 504).  Without overtly saying so, in Road and Track’s eyes, this properly equipped domestic compact was about as good as it got in terms of being a viable alternative to that class of import sedans. And the Hornet wasn’t overtly trying to be European. The key was in the options.

R&T tested a Hornet back in 1970 and was not pleased, but back then it was a six with the B/W automatic, soft suspension, drum brakes and slow manual steering. But this ’73 was altogether different, despite being the same basic car. It goes to show how selecting the right options makes a huge difference.

This one was equipped with the 175 hp 360 AMC V8 teamed with Chysler’s Torqueflite, a combination both quick (0-60 in 9.1 seconds; a full second faster than the Grand Am) as well as surprisingly economical. It averaged a solid 16 mpg at a time when that was not at all common for a brisk V8 powered car, never mind any car with half-way decent performance. And to top it off, it exhibited none of the driveability issue that plagued so many 1973 MY cars; it actually started and ran perfectly!

Of course there were some limitations, such as drive line noise intrusion into the interior. But then this was a unibody and designed to be a relatively low-cost car.

The brakes (disc front; drums rear) were good, with no sign of fade after six panic stops. The heavy duty suspension was “a mixed blessing”. The Hornet cornered flat, but with a worse ride as a trade off, especially over small, sharp bumps. This was typical of Detroit suspension tuning: either too soft and lack of control in spirited driving, or stiff springs and the resultant downsides. Europeans did it differently, with long suspension travel, moderate-soft springing, but damped effectively. The Hornet’s lack of suspension travel was simply lacking, so stiff springs were the expedient Band Aid.

Despite 61% of the weight being over the front wheels, with the handling package the Hornet’s intrinsic understeer was not excessive. And the quick power steering with 3.3 turns lock-to-lock enhanced the experience. The Goodyear radials also contributed to the generally positive handling. It was even possible to hang the tail out in spirited cornering.

There were a few gripes about some interior details, but the quality of materials was praised. AMC’s rigid fiberglass headliner was deemed to look out of place. The Mercedes-like gated floor shifter was deemed not quite up to snuff.

Overall, R&T was “pleasantly surprised” with the Hornet, due to its packaging, looks, performance and economy. That is of course if it’s optioned right. Note that its as-tested price was $4, 304, a whopping 75% higher than the base price. Unfortunately this was the reality back then: if you didn’t want a stripper with a six, manual gearbox, slow manual steering drum brakes and a drab interior, you had to pony up, a lot. All this would change eventually, as folks became spoiled by well-equipped imports and increasingly wouldn’t touch strippers.

This disparity also makes price comparisons with imports at the time rather misleading, as folk tend to focus on the huge disparity between the base price of domestics vs. imports. Optioning a domestic properly and that disparity suddenly was a lot less.