After looking at other 5-door hatchbacks in the price range (notably the Kia Spectra5 and Toyota Matrix) I test drove a Mazda3. 10 minutes behind the wheel sold me. The 2.3 liter engine with the auto- stick transmission is probably the most powerful 4-cylinder power plant I've ever driven. Nothing in any of the competition came close. The Kia, while good with some low end torque, was noisy and bottomed out at 70MPH; the Toyota was marginally powered in the FWD configuration, and painfully underpowered in the AWD version. Neither of those cars come close to the tight handling of the Mazda3. The interior of the 3, though smaller than the Matrix, is surprisingly roomy and comfortable.
Handling, power, the overall driving experience, cruise and audio controls on steering wheel