Great Driving Roads | Hyundai i20 to Kolli Hills
This was on my bucket list. I don’t remember where I had seen the photograph first — probably Instagram, since I spend an unhealthy amount of time on there. It was a drone shot that showed a part of this road — about 10- 12 hairpins scything through the forests below. At evo India, we’re constantly looking for nice and new roads to drive. I couldn’t resist looking up the name in the title: Kolli hills. Kollimalai, as the locals call it. More photos came up. More hairpins were revealed. A couple more links informed me that this place had a total of 70 hairpin bends. YouTube showed me that the surface was impeccable. Google Maps told me it’s accessible from Chennai and Bengaluru. It checked all the right boxes, and was duly added to the list of roads I want to drive. And then years went by.
This Great Driving Roads series was reason enough to pull this file out of my mental cabinet. My brief was to find the best driving roads in the country and this was the first one that popped into my mind. All preliminary (online) research pointed to the fact that this could rank right up there with the best of them. So a Hyundai i20 was requisitioned and GPS coordinates were dialled in. I’m not going to bother with how to get to Kolli hills, it’s a mix of regular Indian highways and village roads. Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary except for the stunning sights of the Eastern Ghats along the highway, and an unbelievably large number of colleges basking in their glory. One bit of advice though: remember to type in ‘hairpin road’ when you search for it in Maps as there are two roads to the top, and you want to be on the right one.
The Hyundai i20 is the perfect car for the job. We have it here in turbo-petrol guise, very similar to the N-Line that we took road- hunting in the last issue, but not quite the same. For starters, it flies under the radar with a more conventional paint scheme. The N-Line screams, “Hey, I’m fast! Look at me!”. This one, not so much and that was great because I’m not sure about whether we will be allowed to shoot here in the first place. I’m more than happy not drawing undue attention to myself. That said, it has the same performance so there are no compromises there. It gets the same engine, the same snappy DCT transmission but without the fruity exhaust. This car has a slightly lighter steering, slightly more pliant suspension and that gives it a wider breadth of ability. Its focus is clear — provide fun without compromising every day ability in the slightest. I am also glad we have the i20 as this road is notoriously narrow, and a small car such as the i20 should be able to thread it up comfortably.
Crane your neck upwards as you approach the hill and you’ll see it. Little white streaks on the side of the mountain stacked one on top of the other — the barricades lining the road following it up as it climbs. Goosebumps ensue. I don’t have the same perspective that the drone had from where I was standing, but I knew what lay in wait. 70 hairpins.
You notice the incline the moment you hit it. You have, after all, been driving the last 300km in anticipation of exactly this. The first couple of corners you hit are really wide, flowing turns — a left followed by a right — but those aren’t even a part of the actual 70 hairpins. It’s only when you pass through a gate that is manned by stoic forest officials that you are actually on the hill climb. Kolli hills, this is it!
I slot the transmission into Sport. This is the only prep the i20 needs to get ready for the climb. You see, the DCT has been set up for efficiency in the standard D mode, and it tries to stay in the highest gear possible. Great for the city. Not so great for blasting up hills. Good thing then that the S mode on the transmission wakes it up and injects in it a sense of urgency. The throttle feels sharper, the shifts come at you quicker, and the car feels alive.
The first hairpin is a tightening left-hander. You don’t expect it. Your attention levels and reflexes are still what they were 10 minutes ago, when you were bumbling along the countryside. You’re driving along the side of the mountain following the road that is bending left, tightening ever so slightly before it swings back on itself without warning. Actually, I wouldn’t say without warning — there was a board marking the hairpin somewhere, but I missed it. 1 of 70 done. Time to wake up. The next one is a right-hander. Not as tricky, you can see it coming at you from a distance. 2 of 70 done. Then there’s another left. And another right. I kept at it, climbing the mountain for what seemed like a fair bit of time. I must be halfway to the top, I thought to myself until I saw a board saying 14 of 70. That’s all I’ve done so far?
This road isn’t for everyone. If you are someone who prefers long, flowing corners to tight, tricky ones, stay away. You won’t find what you want here. But if you’re someone who enjoys hairpins, it’s paradise. These bends simply don’t stop! And they never get monotonous either — each one is different. Lower down, the turns are wider and more sweeping. As you climb, they get steeper and tighter. Some of them are tightening-radius corners. Others open out gently. Some of them are tucked under the canopy, others have brilliant views of the valley below. Some of them arrive very quickly, barely giving you time to breathe. Others appear more lazily, allowing you time to regain your composure. It keeps you on your toes. And it isn’t just hairpins — there are plenty of other corners peppered between them, giving you plenty to do as a driver.
The i20 is fabulous up here. It flows beautifully with the road, and gets into a good rhythm. The chassis balance is what really stands out — it feels connected and dialled in right through. It rolls around a bit, but the weight is always well controlled and does more to communicate what is going on underneath than hinder the experience. The tarmac is flawless so it’s not like the i20’s ride quality is ever tested. The steering is direct, keeping you attuned to grip up front and allowing you to place the car precisely. The drivetrain more than keeps up, delivering all 118bhp and 172Nm enthusiastically. Being an automatic, I don’t have to ever worry about getting it into the right gear before the corner either. The transmission is attentive and always makes sure I have drive when I ask for it. Refined, quick, communicative, fun. I wouldn’t have wanted any other car in Hyundai’s line-up for this hill climb!
Pro tip: When driving up this hill, turn your music off. Yes, the i20 has a fancy Bose Premium Sound System but this is in the interest of safety. Many corners aren’t too wide and two cars won’t pass side by side, let alone a bus or truck. Motorists here tend to honk before blind corners and it would serve you well to pay attention. Also there is wildlife here — this is a forest after all, and they have right of way.
Was Kollimalai everything I imagined? It was all that and more. 70 hairpin bends isn’t for the faint of heart. The climb up is 50km long and that’s longer than any hairpin-infused climb I’ve attempted before — Valparai and Ooty — they have nothing on Kollimalai. This is a road that draws you in and keeps you alert right through. There’s no room for error. But get it right, and it’s the best feeling in the world. This hill climb has been struck off my bucket list. And it’s something you should strike off as well!