Wow! I didn't even have this car on my shopping list when I first started looking, but it made such an impression on an unscheduled visit to a Mazda dealer that I bought one.
I had suffered with a Suzuki Reno hatchback that first started out reliable, but eventually started to have a weekly trip to the dealer for warranty service and recalls. After they finally fixed the last "bugs," the Suzuki was driving OK, but I decided I wanted something with more road cred and better handling.
So I narrowed my choices down to the Nissan Versa, the Honda Civic, the Dodge Caliber, and the Toyota Corolla/Matrix twins.
I became depressed.
The Versa was spacious, but the handling was sub-par and the Renault heritage of the vehicle (it's basically a Euro-market Renault Clio with a Nissan engine) made me wonder about reliability. Nissan has had some great reliability marks and some atrocious ones in other areas -- seemed a bit like a crap-shoot and after experiencing some reliability issues that took a while to iron out with my Suzuki, I didn't feel like re-entering the lottery.
The Civic was lovely -- handled great, nice interior, quiet, comfortable to drive. Oh, and WAY overpriced for what you got. Reliability was unquestionable though -- Hondas last forever.
Caliber was actually not too bad -- Chrysler did a great job with this car. However, I'd had some negative experiences with Chrysler products in the recent past, including Chrysler's unwillingness to admit common problems and fix them, and so felt a bit too burnt to take a chance on another Chrysler product -- especially one that was only a model year old. The interior was also laughably cheap -- the rumor being that Chrysler's then-owner Mercedes wanted to ensure people bought a Merc if they wanted a car with a nice interior. Scratch the Dodge off my list.
Both the Toyotas were snooze-fests -- they felt cheap, tinny, and old-fashioned. The Corolla handled like an Oldsmobile. The Matrix felt tall and boxy inside with lousy handling. About the only thing going for these cars was fuel economy -- and Toyota's reputation for reliability (which is getting increasingly tarnished -- I certainly didn't view the Corolla or Matrix as "quality feeling" cars. In fact, the Dodge felt better built and more substantial.
Feeling defeated, I sulked away to consider whether I'd get the Nissan or dig deep to get the Honda when I had a conversation with a friend who asked me if I'd tried a Mazda.
Stupid me! Mazda hadn't even been on my list -- and it should have been.
One trip to the dealer and I was behind the wheel of the Mazda 3. And let me tell you, this car is a breath of fresh air in every way.
Let's start with the interior. It's easily the highest-quality feeling of the bunch I'd tested, besting even the cool Honda cockpit. Covered in textured grey and black plastic, it's got lots of soft-touch surfaces, an innovative radio-control with lights that sync with volume changes (a visually cool feature) and it's built super-tight. The whole car, from the cockpit, screams "upscale sport sedan," from the cockpit feel of the interior to the iPod audio-in jack in the armrest (complete with an extra power adaptor space to keep it powered!) Even the hard plastic is textured in such a way that it doesn't look "cheap." Chrysler and Toyota take note -- it's possible to build an economy car with a great interior.
On the down side, the cloth seats worry me a bit -- I wonder how long they'll weather being sat on (the cloth is very soft). That said, they're comfortable and the front seat handles my 6'2" height without problems.
The 3 is sold as a sedan or hatch. The sedan edition is cheaper and available with a 2.0L engine as well as a 2.3. I test drove both, and while the 2.3 has more torque, the 2.0 is perfectly good for highway and city driving. It has good acceleration, a good power band, and I'm averaging 36 MPG in a mix of city and highway driving. What's not to love? Compared to the anemic 1.8 in the Versa, this engine rocks.
Oh, and handling? This car handles like a little sports coupe. It loves twisty turns, it brakes on a dime (with very responsive 4 wheel disk brakes). Throwing it around a tight curve on one of California's mountain roads is a joy. It makes me smile to drive it.
The trunk is a bit on the small side, but not so much so that I cannot deal with it. It doesn't open using the key fob (an odd exclusion on Mazda's part), so you'll need to unlock it the old-fashioned way with the key to get access.
Style-wise, this car is not for everyone. I like the styling -- the understated chrome grille, the chrome-tipped exhaust, the "high butt" and low front end. Other people say it looks a bit strange. Judge for yourself -- all I can say is that in dark-grey like mine, it looks wicked... and the "sport" tailights and headlamps (standard!) look classy, not boy racer-esque.
Overall, I am delighted with this car. It's a standout in every way -- handling, fuel economy, ride, space, interior quality, build quality. It blows away the competition.
But I saved the best part for last -- Mazda's pricing is (at least in California) quite aggressive. I paid about $18K for the 3i sedan, which includes standard automatic with autostick (a decent transmission), ABS and 4-wheel disk brakes, power windows/locks, AC, and CD-radio. Compare that to the $22K I would have spent on a lower-spec, lower-powered Honda and it's a no brainer.
If you're looking for a compact "economy" car that's spacious, well-built, doesn't feel "cheap," that is both sporty and good-looking, add the Mazda3 to your list. You'll be glad you did. And chances are, you'll drive away with one like I did!