I recently picked up a 2005 Mazda 3s, with the 5spd, as a grocery-getter / everyday workhorse. I wanted something versatile, reliable, and cheap to maintain, with above average city mpg. However, I also love driving, so I wanted to make sure it was still fun and very much a "driver's car".
The 3s has been good-to-excellent on all counts.
The shifter is superb. Somedays, I actually like it better than the shifter on my M5. The handling is precise, like a go-cart. The brakes are good. In combined driving, I average about 28-30mpg without fail. Typical trip to the pump is 11gals for 330mi. Decent - but if fuel economy is your absolute top priority, buy a Prius because it will crush this.
I consider the 5spd manual and steering response as the best performance features of the car. The brakes are also above average.
I really like the interior/exterior styling compared to most of the alternatives. It's held up well. Sharp wheels. Nice lines. Sporty, but not ostentatious. Nice glossy paint. Firm seats. Good ergonomics.
The utility is great with the hatchback. Fold down the rear seats and you really have great cargo space.
Glad the car has a timing chain, instead of a belt. I expect to get 200,000mi out of this.
This car could be better on the highway. Specifically, it could use a 6th gear to help the highway mpg. If you drive much faster than 65-70mph, the RPM's start running too high and push the numbers down from 32mpg to about 30mpg.
The engine has proven very reliable, but it is not in the same league as the handling and transmission. Not the smoothest/most refined in the segment. Not the strongest.
My car has also developed a small amount of rust on both rear wheel wells, that I am having addressed.