I'm a difference finder .. I find what could be better, rather than what's good or great. 2012 Mazda 3 -- i've only got 30,000 miles on it. ZERO mechanical issues so far. ZERO repairs or maintenance [except normal oil changes, etc.]. Visibility from inside is good. I'm retired and so rarely drive during busiest times on highways. Acceleration is what you'd expect from a 4 ... not huge -- and mostly not needed anyway. I'm just on 6 feet ... yes, a Mazda 5 SUV would "sit" better for me. No, I'm not going to rush to buy one ... cost too much for a retiree. I do recommend that you get first quality tires; the original equipment ones didn't make over 27,000 miles. Truly good tires [Michelins or Pirellis] will improve your traction and handling. I chose the lowest model for the cloth seats -- this is Florida and I dislike having my back sweat because the seat is hot. Same engine technology ["skyactiv"] as in newer models. Overall, a fine alternative to a more pricey Toyota or Honda.
Mazdas fly under the radar in many ways. They are often overlooked, and therefore sell at bargain prices compared to more popular makes. The Mazda 3 hatchback, aka 5-door, is a great driver's car. With the 2 liter fourbanger and six speed manual, it frequently exceeds 30mpg in spirited driving. It's FWD, but is quite neutral in the curves, with just slight understeer. I've kept up with BMW M3's going over the Santa Cruz mountains on back roads. The Mazda's stick is a joy to use, and the clutch engages smoothly. Revving the engine doesn't sound painful, so you can pass cars easily with by shifting down a click or two, and the return to overdrive sixth and be back in the 30's for mpg. The low points are it's a small car. I'm near the limit at 6'0", and my right knee rests against the center console. More problematic is the sound level; this car isn't insulated very well, and the stock tires are loud. Switching them out made a huge difference, but I waited 25K before doing so. Also, this car with the stick is fitted with smaller wheels, so the absolute best tires (including quietest) aren't available without upsizing the wheels. If I were to do it over, I'd have gone up and inch and fitted it with better/quieter rubber. I did have a stereo system installed, and a lot of sound deadening in the doors and floor helped a bunch. It's an inexpensive car, so you don't get top shelf audio or features with the base model (which is the only one you can get the 6spd manual) but the joy of that shifter and teaching both sons to drive a manual was well worth the inconvenience of upgrading the audio and tinting the windows.