2006 Mazda MAZDA3 s Grand Touring 4dr Hatchback (2.3L 4cyl 5M)
Looked at a Toyota Matrix, a VW Golf and a Golf GTI, and by far this was the best bang for the buck. Toyota Matrix and VW Golf are not as much fun to drive. Golf GTI, more powerful, costs much more and comes in 3 door only. The handling of Mazda3 is excellent and so are the brakes. Currently I am getting around 26mpg, and that is for mostly highway driving. The dog (110 lbs) fits in the car just fine and so do the boxes from IKEA. Visibility is great. The dash lights up very well and the stick shifts amazingly well. Overall, a great car which is fun to drive and doesn't cost a whole lot.
Easy clutch, 5 speed stick shift, handling, suspension, brakes, heated seats, hatchback versatility. The dash lights up great and is very easy to read. Steering wheel mounted controls. Telescopic steering wheel adjustment is a great feature.
Pretty poor snow handling with the stock Goodyears. The ride is somewhat stiff. Auto dimming mirror not an option anymore as it breaks the auto wipers and auto headlights. AWD version would be nice especially in the snow.