Last weekend I spent three days (12-01 thru 12-04) in Palm Springs and the surrounding environs on a short vacation. I reserved a “Ford Fiesta or similar” through the rental agency, which became a silver Hyundai Elantra SE when I arrived at the rental counter. Here are my impressions after three days and 280 miles of driving.

(File photos.)

Engine: 2.0L four-cylinder is remarkably smooth and quiet. No trouble climbing into the Little San Bernardino foothills on CA-62. 147 hp is perfectly adequate for a car of this mass. Indicated average fuel economy during my trip was an astounding 40 mpg. Some enthusiasts might want something more. For those people, Hyundai sells the Elantra Sport and Elantra GT Sport.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic is smooth, quick-witted, unobtrusive: much better than most recent automatics I’ve driven, including several CVTs. I used to think I would never own another car with a torque converter, but I would seriously consider owning a Hyundai/Kia product with this engine and transmission combination.

Ride: Slightly firm (never harsh) but generally well damped and very well composed. Bumps are heard and felt, but distantly. Makes comfortable work of the washboard gravel/sand road leading to Ladder Canyon trailhead. Some credit may go to the base 15” steel wheels and 195/65R-15 tires.

Handling/steering: Steering feel is surprisingly communicative for what I assume is electric power steering. Even without a leather cover, the steering wheel feels quite comfortable. Sport drive mode makes the steering uncomfortably heavy at low speeds, so I mostly used Eco and Normal. Handling is largely secure and composed, except for a slight shimmy in the steering column at speeds above 75 mph, coupled with a slightly floaty feeling in the front end at those speeds. Not sure if this is a design flaw or just how the car behaves after 40,000+ rental miles. U-turns are easy on the wide divided boulevards of Palm Springs and Palm Desert. My overall impression is of a lithe, compact, readily maneuverable (dare I say tossable?) sedan that drives smaller than it really is and adds a pinch of fun to everyday driving.

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Brakes: Spongy brakes are the sole weak point of this car’s performance, leading to a few cases of late/hard braking when I don’t initially get the bite I’m expecting.

Interior: Pleasant, clean, handsome styling is a welcome change from the previous Elantra. Gauges are clear, unfussy, easy to read. Driver information center displays current speed, estimated fuel range, and average mpg. Driver’s seat is clearly not designed for someone of my height (6’ 4” or 1.93m), but six-way manual adjustments partly make up for the small seat frame. Rear view mirror is always in my line of sight thanks to the low, sleek roofline. Seat fabric has a smooth, comfortable weave but, unfortunately, stains easily, a recurring fault among Hyundai/Kia products. Strong air conditioning keeps passengers cool under the harsh desert sun. Low cowl pays off in forward visibility. Strong headlamps inspire confidence on remote country roads after dark. Rear-view camera and remote keyless entry are conspicuously absent on this base trim level (power locks are standard). Side visibility is OK; rear visibility is abysmal. There are few, if any, squeaks or rattles after 40,000 miles. Not a bad place to spend some hours.

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Exterior: Meh. It’s another compact sedan with an upswept beltline, a high trunk lid, and a low, sleek roof. I don’t like it. At least there are some fun colors available. Get an Elantra GT if you want something sexier and more practical.

Overall verdict: A-. Despite a few foibles, the Elantra instills a remarkable degree of refinement and solidity into a tidy, compact package that doesn’t compromise much on driving dynamics. This makes my own car, a 2010 Honda Fit, feel almost laughably coarse, slow, unrefined, and inefficient in comparison. 

AMA.