Test drove the Civic, Carolla, Sentra, and Forte. Forte was a close second. Mazda3 had the best performance, design (our opinion), features, and overall build quality. The performance was the biggest deciding point. Driving a Civic after a Mazda3 was like night and day. The engine, transmission, steering, and suspension work very well together to provide a comfortable but fun ride. We've been getting 35mpg on the highway with the larger 2.5L engine and 5 speed automatic. If you are shopping in this segment I would HIGHLY recommend test driving a 3. You might be surprised at how this car stands out from the other appliances on the road.
Design, performance, higher than quoted mileage (what's up with that Mazda?), available features, quality breathable cloth seats.
Make the Nav screen and the Radio screen match a little better. Other than that, none.