2012 Mazda Mazda3 i Touring 4dr Sedan w/SKYACTIV-G (2.0L 4cyl 6M)
After driving the car a while, it's easy to forget how peppy this little compact really is. So, to remind myself, I let my friends take it out for a spin every now and then, and when they push the pedal down and let off the clutch, and when you watch the inevitable Zoom Zoom smile spread across their faces, you remember why you bought it.
Make no mistake: The 3 is no sports car, and calling it sporty for its class is like calling a Mr. Coffee pot "gourmet." But the Mazda 3 feels like a sportier car than it is, and that's why most people love driving it. If you can get your hands on a SkyActiv with a manual like I did, you'll realize those modest 155 ponies pull more than their weight.
Did I mention the SkyActiv-G engine? It's an impressive piece of machinery, delivering good horsepower (for a compact) while getting impressive real-world gas mileage. I drive conservatively in mostly city settings, and I average about 34 mpg. On long highway trips, it's not that hard to beat the EPA-estimated 40, either. I also like the Dune interior and the fold-down seats, which offer considerable cargo space, as does the spare wheel cavity under the trunk (seriously, check that out. It's easy to fit fix a flat, a window scraper and jumper cables in there with the donut).
A little more passenger space in the backseat would be a huge plus. As a 6-foot fella, I pity the fool who has to ride directly behind me. And although I like the interior, it is terribly outdated and half the controls on the CD player are useless (but then, so is the CD player thanks to the bluetooth and aux input).
If you're looking for a car you'll love driving that can largely ignore gas stations, and if you don't need a cream-of-the-crop interior, the Mazda is by far the best choice in the class.