2009 Mazda MAZDA3 s Sport 4dr Hatchback (2.3L 4cyl 5M)
Bought the car last week and have put 600 miles on it. The 17" wheels and independent front and rear suspension provide unsurpassed handling for a car in this price range. The 156 hp engine provides adequate power and acceleration. The 5 spd manual gear box is smooth and predictable, seats are firm and supportive while still being very comfortable. Smooth and straight on the highway at 80 mph. The car gets a little sketchy when manuevering through the twistys on uneven pavement. The stock goodyear tires are hard and noisy, but provide adequate grip on dry roads. Braking is superb and this is one super fun car to drive for under $17k.
Hatchback and rear folding seats provide great versatility. Independent rear suspension (only vehicle in it's class with this feature). 4 wheel antilocking disc brakes. This car instills confidence behind the wheel without having too much power to get into trouble.
6 sp gearbox. I sometimes find myself without enough torque in 3rd but too much speed to shift into 2nd. Compressing the gear ratios in 3rd and 4th and adding a 6th gear would make this car absolutely perfect. More insulation from road noise would also be nice, maybe new tires will help this.