Excerpt from the July/August 2022 issue of Car and driver.
On the Cherohala Skyway, sometimes the turns are so long it’s like rolling down the side of a spiral ham. There are no gas stations, no convenience stores, and no apparent reason for this 43-mile strip of sidewalk to exist. It connects Tellico Plains, Tennessee, to Robbinsville, North Carolina, two places whose own residents might admit they never needed to connect. It wasn’t until 1996 when the skyway was completed after 34 years of construction that cost around $100 million.
It all actually started as a joke in the late 1950s when a Kiwanis club organized a wagon train through the mountains. But you know how jokes get out of control – someone makes an offhand comment, and the next thing you know, you’re kicking off a three-decade construction project. Or maybe someone at Hyundai says, “We should make a 286-hp Kona that terrorizes Volkswagen GTIs,” and before they can say, “Just kidding,” the factory is gearing up for the Kona. N, which reaches 100 km/h in 4.8 seconds. , pulls 0.95g on the skid and has an exhaust that looks like an upright jet ski powered by illegal fireworks. It’s just the thing for a road that feels like the best sections of Virginia International Raceway in shuffle mode. For 43 miles.
The Cherohala’s remoteness means that most of us will have to deal with a healthy will to get there. But it delivers a worthwhile drive, and the Kona N can tame its wilderness and double as a sensible hauler when you just need to get somewhere. Plug the active exhaust, set the adjustable dampers to their softest setting, tell the transmission and differential to slack off and click the miles. Then when you get to where you’re going, undo all that and let the N show.
This car is a trickster, a certified rascal, a talkative punk dressed in business casual. It doesn’t look crazy – in fact, its body-color fenders make it look more mature than some of the lesser Konas with their black plastic cladding. But under that pretty cross skin, the N gets a major overhaul. It was one of the last cars developed by Hyundai R&D director Albert Biermann before his retirement last December, and that’s one hell of a goodbye statement.
Under the Kona’s chunky hood is a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four that develops 286 horsepower and 289 pound-feet of torque. It is mated to an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission equipped with an electronically controlled limited-slip differential. Compared to a Kona without N, the brake rotors are enlarged (14.2 inches front, 12.4 inches rear), the power steering motor is rack-mounted rather than column-mounted, and the gear steering is faster. The suspension gets those adjustable shocks as well as the multi-link rear of the all-wheel-drive models. The N has the biggest wheels you’ll find on a Kona, 19ers wrapped in Pirelli P Zero PZ4 235/40R-19s. Opening the active exhaust adds two decibels of attitude at idle and three at full throttle, along with growl and spirited pops. Despite the lack of all-wheel-drive hardware, the various performance upgrades make the Kona N the heaviest non-electric Kona at 3,343 pounds, just over 50 pounds heavier than a 2022 Kona N Line AWD. It’s still a four-door flyweight.
It’s definitely cut for a small SUV, which is how Hyundai and the EPA describe this muscular curiosity. The Kona N are a lot like below-the-knee jorts – hard to categorize, but still make a strong statement. For our part, note that the SUVs are not front-wheel drive with silhouettes evoking a GTI wearing a fancy foam cowboy hat. At 61.6 inches tall, the Kona towers 2.5 inches above that famous all-terrain colossus, the former Scion iQ, and its 6.8-inch ground clearance is less than that of a C8 Corvette with the front linkage engaged (6.9 inches). So, according to the transitive property, Corvettes are also SUVs, but only when negotiating speed bumps.
We found no speed bumps on the Cherohala, or Corvettes for that matter, though along the way we did see a Lamborghini Huracán Evo and a McLaren 570S heading for the tail of the dragon. On the Robbinsville side, traffic is sparse and thins out as you climb higher, from 2660 feet at the start of the airway to 5390 feet at Santeetlah Overlook. Which might not be the Rockies or the Sierra Nevada, but still makes you happy to have a turbocharger downstream of the exhaust manifold.
Like some Biermann cars you may have heard of (the ones that wore BMW M badges), the Kona N offers plenty of customization options for its various driving settings. There’s a simple button that selects certain preset modes – Sport, Eco, Normal – as well as two large N buttons on the steering wheel that signal custom modes. Want a loud exhaust with supple suspension and aggressive diff-lock? Configure that, and it’s a button away. For Chero-haulin’ purposes, we simply created a mode that drives every bit as crazy as it gets: loud exhaust, heavy steering, firm suspension, hard shifts, edgy throttle response. But we left the stability control on the normal setting. Kona N’s boundaries are high, and it’s a public road where more than one corner is adorned with a makeshift memorial cross.
Here, the Hyundai is completely in its element, as if it was designed for this specific route. Unlike Dragon’s Tail, the Airway has long sweeps and straights mixed with tighter blind turns and those turns that almost make you dizzy before straightening out again. The Hyundai’s grip is prodigious, and the steering wheel transmits constant road noise, so you feel in your hands as the pavement suddenly changes from smooth and cool on the North Carolina side to patchy and parched in the Tennessee. Sensing that we’re doing some hijinks, Kona’s N Track Sense Shift transmission software begins to aggressively downshift through corners and hold redline gears on its own. You can still use the paddle shifters to shift gears manually, but it’s rare to guess a gear.
As well as the drive mode button and preset N buttons, there’s another button at your disposal: a big red button on the steering wheel that looks like it should trigger a self-destruct sequence. It’s marked NGS, for N Grin Shift, and pushing it triggers a frantic downshift, a 20-second countdown and a temporary boost that Hyundai says adds 10 horsepower. If any extra ponies were let loose, they weren’t detectable by our test gear, but the regularly programmed 276 horsepower is enough to ship the quarter mile in 13.4 seconds at 105 mph. Best of all, there’s not too much daylight between a hard launch control tear from 3000 rpm to 60 mph (4.8 seconds) and a rolling start off boost (5.4 seconds from 5 to 60 mph), highlighting the glorious responsiveness of the 2.0-litre. The Cherohala doesn’t have many passing zones, but when you need to send a straggler, the Kona N stretches the leash by pressing that NGS button. And when the next corner comes, those big brakes scrub the speed again and again without faltering. We recorded a 168-foot stop from 70 mph.
Considering all the time, effort and money spent on this road, we feel lucky to just be able to show up and drive it for free. The Kona N is also the culmination of a lot of hard work, and while its base price of $35,495 isn’t free, it’s still a certified bargain for a convenient mode of transportation that’s infused with so much joy. . Like the Cherohala Skyway, no one really needed a 286-hp Kona. But they built one anyway, and we’re all better off for it.
We realize crossovers pay the bills. The Kona N is an exciting, smart four-door alternative to the funky Veloster N, all the effervescent power and snorting exhaust rolled into a more salable package. But Hyundai missed its chance to fix one of its N models’ biggest flaws: an annoyingly harsh ride on everything but freshly laid asphalt. To win over the new group of buyers sought by the N brand, the Kona N should have a little less starch in its suspension. So no macchiato would come out of the cup holders on a ride. —Mike Sutton
The Kona N is a performance bargain, but it would be nice to forget about the merchant part behind the wheel. Instead, the cheap interior is a reminder that maybe you should have spent a bit more on a BMW X2 M35i or a Mercedes-AMG GLA35. While the black plastic cabin is forgivable in a $22,000 Kona, it doesn’t work as well when the price goes up to $35,000. The Kona N is quick, nimble and fun to drive, just like the Elantra N and the Volkswagen Golf GTI. The Kona N’s subcompact SUV body makes it unique. However, the interior prevents it from becoming special. —Drew Dorian
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