My last car was an Audi A4. When it was time for a new car I went with the Mazda3. It's fun to drive and responsive, with decent handling for this price range. The only handling problem is the tendency to spin the front tires when making a 90 degree turn from a stop onto wet roads. It affords good visibility and I never have a problem merging quickly into traffic. I get 30 to 31 MPG on the highway even with the larger engine and automatic transmission, although you can knock 2 MPG off that when running the AC.
Great acceleration, audio controls on the steering wheel, plenty of room for groceries in the hatchback.
Reduce the noise. Better traction when turning. Add a pull-out extension to the tiny sun visors. More comfortable seats for those longer rides.