From the July/August 2022 issue of Car and Driver.
On the Cherohala Skyway, sometimes the corners go on for so long, it feels like you're driving up the side of a spiral ham. There are no gas stations, no convenience stores, and no apparent reasons for this 43-mile ribbon of pavement to exist. It connects Tellico Plains, Tennessee, with Robbinsville, North Carolina, two places that their own residents might admit never needed connecting. They weren't until 1996, when the skyway was completed after 34 years of construction that cost about $100 million.
The whole thing actually started with a joke in the late '50s, when a Kiwanis Club organized a wagon train across the mountains. But you know how jokes get out of hand—someone makes an offhand comment, and next thing you know, you're kicking off a three-decade construction project. Or perhaps 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 tooling up for the Kona N, which hits 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, pulls 0.95 g on the skidpad, and has an exhaust that sounds like a stand-up Jet Ski powered by illegal fireworks. It's just the thing for a road that looks like the best sections of Virginia International Raceway on shuffle. For 43 miles.
The Cherohala's remoteness means most of us will face a healthy drive to get there. But it offers a drive that's worth the drive, and the Kona N can rein in its wildness and play the part of reasonable transportation when you just need to get somewhere. Cork up the active exhaust, set the adjustable dampers to their softest setting, tell the transmission and differential to relax, and click off the miles. Then, when you get to where you're going, undo all of that and let the N show its true self.
This car is a trickster, a certified rascal, a mouthy punk dressed in business casual. It doesn't look crazy—if anything, its body-colored fenders make it look more mature than some of the lesser Konas with their black plastic cladding. But under that cute crossover skin, the N gets a thorough overhaul. This was one of the last cars developed by Hyundai R&D head Albert Biermann before his retirement last December, and it's quite a farewell statement.
Under the Kona's stubby hood is a turbo 2.0-liter inline-four that belches out 286 horsepower and 289 pound-feet of torque. It's hooked to an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic equipped with an electronically controlled limited-slip differential. Compared with an N-less Kona, the brake rotors are upsized (14.2 inches up front, 12.4 inches at the rear), the power-steering motor is rack mounted rather than column mounted, and the steering ratio is quicker. The suspension gets those adjustable dampers as well as the multilink rear end from the all-wheel-drive models. The N is fitted with the biggest wheels you'll find on a Kona, 19-inchers wrapped in 235/40R-19 Pirelli P Zero PZ4s. Opening up the active exhaust adds two decibels of attitude at idle and three at wide-open throttle, along with feisty off-throttle snarls and pops. Despite the lack of all-wheel-drive hardware, the various performance upfits make the Kona N the heaviest nonelectric Kona at 3343 pounds, just over 50 pounds heavier than a 2022 Kona N Line AWD. But it's still a flyweight as four-doors go.
It's definitely trim for a small SUV, which is how both Hyundai and the EPA describe this muscled-up curiosity. The Kona N is a bit like below-the-knee jorts—hard to classify, but making a strong statement nonetheless. For our part, we'll point out that SUVs aren't front-wheel drive with silhouettes that evoke a GTI wearing a novelty foam cowboy hat. At 61.6 inches tall, the Kona towers 2.5 inches above that famous off-road colossus, the old Scion iQ, and its 6.8 inches of ground clearance is less than that of a C8 Corvette with the front-end lift engaged (6.9 inches). Thus, according to the transitive property, Corvettes are also SUVs, but only when they're negotiating speed bumps.
We didn't find any speed bumps up on the Cherohala, or Corvettes for that matter, though en route we did see a Lamborghini Huracán Evo and a McLaren 570S heading toward the Tail of the Dragon. On the Robbinsville side, traffic is sparse and becomes thinner as you climb higher—from 2660 feet of elevation at the beginning of the skyway all the way to 5390 feet at Santeetlah Overlook. Which maybe isn't the Rockies or the Sierra Nevadas, but still makes you glad 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 for its various drive settings. There's a simple knob that selects some preset modes—Sport, Eco, Normal—as well as two big N buttons on the steering wheel that cue up custom modes. Want loud exhaust with soft suspension and aggressive lockup from the diff? Set that up, and it's one button away. For the purposes of Chero-haulin', we simply created a mode that makes everything as crazy as possible—loud exhaust, heavy steering, firm suspension, hard shifts, edgy throttle response. But we left stability control on the regular setting. The Kona N's limits are high, and this is a public road where more than one corner is adorned with a makeshift memorial cross.
Out here, the Hyundai is completely in its element, like it was designed for this specific route. Unlike the Tail of the Dragon, the skyway features some long sweepers and straightaways mixed in with tighter blind corners and those bends that almost make you dizzy before straightening out again. The Hyundai's grip is stupendous, and the wheel transmits steady chatter from the road, such that you feel in your hands when the pavement abruptly transitions from smooth and fresh on the North Carolina side to patched and parched in Tennessee. Detecting that we're up to some hijinks, the Kona's N Track Sense Shift transmission software starts aggressively downshifting for corners and holding gears to redline all on its own. You can still use the shift paddles to manually change gears, but it's not often you'll second-guess a ratio.
In addition to the drive-mode knob and preset N buttons, there's one more button at your disposal: a big red one on the steering wheel that looks like it should initiate a self-destruct sequence. It's marked NGS, for N Grin Shift, and pushing it triggers a frenetic downshift, a 20-second countdown timer, and temporary overboost that Hyundai says adds 10 horsepower. If extra ponies were unleashed, they weren't detectable by our test equipment, but the regularly scheduled 276 horsepower is enough to dispatch the quarter-mile in 13.4 seconds at 105 mph. Even better, there's not too much daylight between a brutal 3000-rpm launch-control rip to 60 mph (4.8 seconds) and an off-boost rolling start (5.4 seconds from 5 to 60 mph), underscoring the 2.0-liter's glorious responsiveness. The Cherohala doesn't have many passing zones, but when you need to dispatch a straggler, the Kona N strains the leash at the push of that NGS button. And when the next corner arrives, those big brakes scrub speed time and again without fade. We recorded a 168-foot stop from 70 mph.
Given all the time, effort, and money expended on this road, we feel lucky that we can just show up and drive it for free. The Kona N is also the culmination of a lot of effort, and if its $35,495 base price isn't free, it's still a certified bargain for a practical piece of transportation that's infused with so much joy. Like the Cherohala Skyway, nobody really needed a 286-hp Kona. But they built one anyway, and we're all better off for it.
We realize that crossovers pay the bills. The Kona N is an exciting and clever four-door alternative to the funky Veloster N, all effervescent energy and snorting exhaust bound up in a more salable package. But Hyundai botched its chance to fix one of its N models' biggest deficiencies: an annoyingly stiff and harsh ride on anything but freshly laid asphalt. To win over the new group of buyers the N brand is seeking, the Kona N should have a smidge less starch in its suspension. Then no macchiatos would get bucked out of the cupholders on a commute. —Mike Sutton
The Kona N is a performance bargain, but it'd be nice to be able to forget the bargain part from behind the wheel. Instead, the cheap-looking interior serves as a reminder that you maybe should have spent a bit more for 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 rises to $35K. The Kona N is quick, agile, and fun to drive, but so are the Elantra N and the Volkswagen Golf GTI. The Kona N's subcompact-SUV body makes it unique. However, the interior keeps it from rising to specialness. —Drew Dorian
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