I recently got the i touring hatchback version of the mazda3. The steering is very precise, unlike a lot of other cars. Skyactiv is a must. The improvement in performance and fuel economy is worth the extra cash. Stay away from the base trim for the 4 door. The car is pretty fun to drive even at low speeds.
I traded my '13 Ford Focus (that I bought brand new), for my brand new Mazda3. Let me tell you this car is better in all aspects. The Focus was very nice, but could not get used to the Dual Clutch transmission. I was in heaven when I test drove my Mazda, it drives better then the Focus, it shifts better, handles better. Everyone says how the Mazda3 has hard plastic all over the place on the inside, I don't know about you but I don't drive and tap my fingers on the dashboard at the sometime. Yes, somethings could of been made and/or placed different, but I've never seen a car where everything is perfect, but the Mazda3 comes pretty darn close.
My wife bought a 2013 Mazda3 i Touring manual sedan used with about 6k miles. We liked it so much I bought a 2012 Mazdaspeed3 (manual hatchback) with about 40k miles. We've put about 30k miles on each of them since, and love these cars. High-level pros: fun to drive, cheap to run/maintain. High-level cons: cabin noise a little high. Performance For its class, the i Touring's 155 hp keeps the small car zippy. You're not blown away, but stepping on the gas puts a smile on your face and lets you merge with ease. The clutch and shifter are light and excellent. My gripe about the manual is that 5th and 6th gear ratios are too close together, making 5th almost worthless. Handling If you enjoy the act of driving, at least test drive this car. It'll make you wonder why anyone buys a Civic/Corolla/Elantra. The responsiveness is great and the brakes induce confidence. The agile handling comes at the cost of a stiffer ride, but if you enjoy driving, you prefer feeling the road instead of floating over it anyway. The seats are comfortable enough for none of that to be jarring, and they have enough bolstering for you to really enjoy taking curves at speed. Interior This is mostly personal preference, but I find the interior a nice place to be. Controls are easy to access and intuitive, and the bluetooth works reliably. The seats were comfortable even when driving 15 hrs a day on a cross-country trip, but I'm a skinny 5'8", so I can't speak to fitting larger people. The road noise is more pronounced than I'd like, so rough roads are tiring on the ears. The engine is fairly quiet during normal driving, but has a nice sound when you rev it up. A few minor rattles have sprung up already, but they're only noticeable on certain roads and when paying attention for them. Trunk space has been adequate, but I don't often need to haul much. Cost to run/maintain The manual Mazda3 i Touring got about 38-39 mpg highway on a cross-country trip, with LA city rush hour mileage (averaging about 20 mph) closer to 26 mpg. With only 30k miles, unsurprisingly not a thing has needed repair. I've done full synthetic oil changes every 5k miles and rotated the tires at the same time for even wear.