I've owned and driven this car going into my 3rd Michigan winter, and aside from routine oil changes and brake maintanence, have had ZERO problems with this car. It's been a rock solid little go-kart. It's also totally boring. I might think higher of it with a splash of color (as mine is silver with grey interior), and it has no fun toys to speak of (typical PW/PL/cruise) but I can count on it to run and run well. Engine still has some 'zoomzoom' even after 170K miles. Very impressed with this thing's longevity.
Build quality, reliability
Styling (they did so with the 3), better suspension, less road noise.
Bought it new in 2000, only repairs have been new brakes, alternator, battery and rocker arm. I've only put 90,000 miles on it, luckily, but it just keeps on running. Gas mileage has consistently been 27-28. It's a little loud on the freeway, but not bad for an inexpensive small car. Only disappointment has been the radio.
Acceleration is great, even after 10 years of driving. Handles well with small turning radius. Lots of fun!
Would love a remote trunk latch, and if the noise issue were solved, it would be about perfect.
This car has not been too bad overall but it has had some issues with idling which have never been resolved. It's a problem in the cold climate of Canada. When it gets very cold it cranks really slow then floods. The CD player is junk - sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. The rocker panels rust almost as fast as a GM or Ford. Maybe because Mazda is now owned by Ford and is no longer a true import. Buy a Toyota and you won't see that kind of rust on it so fast and they start easy at even minus 40 deg F.
I like the fact that it doesn't have ABS brakes.
The rear interior door panels seemed to have warped in the sun and are sticking up and out. The door rubbers are lousy. How about a P/S pump that is not so noisy. It sounds like its out of fluid all the time.
Been very happy. Did all my own work, and yes, had to replace things, but to be expected with 210,000 kms. I find the car takes care of you if you take care of it. Brakes, battery, intake manifold gasket, alternator, engine mounts (front and back), as well as transmission pulse generator, front exhaust pipe, radiator were needed repairs. Regular maintenance (i.e., timing belt, even oil pan gasket, and trans gasket/filter) relatively easy for mechanical types. Apart from a bit of a combustion chamber carbon-buildup issue (think it is a flaky EGR valve), it is running beautifully, hitting 35 MPG on a recent trip.
Build quality good. Adding a line-in to the OEM stereo was easy (can be found on the internet). Quite peppy - reliable, even at -25C, or +35C. Lots of aftermarket improvements (i.e., struts, exhaust, etc). good power to weight ratio.
Transmission (j39a, aka FN4a-el) sometimes shifts roughly - thanks to the CPU trying to interpret the inputs (i.e., upshift downhill usually rough), but later trans designs in the Mazda 3 supposedly improved. Engine oil seals start to give out a bit early (around 200,000kms). Carbon buildup is chronic.