help me pick a car
October 8, 2012 1:55 PM   Subscribe

"Snowflake" car purchasing question: Ford Focus vs Mazda 3 vs Honda Fit vs Hyundai Elantra.

My car has finally bitten the dust.

We are interested in the following cars, probably new, possibly lightly used if we can find a good one. We, unfortunately, need to purchase fairly quickly as our only car is "dangerously" broken currently (although running).

I've driven all of these options before except for the last one.

1 - Ford Focus 5-door. More expensive, also what my gut wants.

2 - Mazda 3, sedan or 5-door. Sedan seems to be a good price, the 5-door seems to be comparable in price to the Focus. Would be pretty happy with this.

3 - Honda Fit - size class down, still a good car. Less expensive - but worth it since it is a smaller car?

4 - Hyundai Elantra - everyone's been saying the new Hyundais are great. But... I'm not sold.

If you drive one of these would you recommend it? Are you a car nut with a good sense of the value of these cars - i.e. is it worth it to spend a little more on the Ford I most want, or should I really just get the Mazda 3 sedan and save myself a couple thousand dollars? Any of these have major known issues I should be aware of? I've been led to believe they're all pretty solid picks - or is there a clear winner on this list?

I'm not really interested in other suggestions, but if you can't restrain yourself, feel free to shout it out. We are in Los Angeles, so stuff like AWD or whatever isn't really an issue (i.e. we don't want a Subaru).
posted by annie o to Shopping (54 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think, of all these, the Mazda 3 is the most fun to drive. I had one that I loved dearly and was sorry to give up when I moved away, and I'd buy one again a heartbeat.
posted by olinerd at 1:59 PM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've had an Elantra for several years now, and have really loved it. It's a 2006 that we purchased in 2009. It's been absolutely solid and reliable, with pretty good mileage even with mostly city driving (I'd say average of about 24 MPG in the city and more like 35-38 highway). I would absolutely purchase another one.
posted by goggie at 2:00 PM on October 8, 2012

Here's my anecdata:

1. Both my sister and my cousin had a Ford Focus. My cousin had a sand bucket in the car for all the pieces that fell off. My sister never liked hers and the happiest day of her life is when she traded it in on a Miata.

2. Mazda 3. I had a Mazda 626. Mazda's are fine little cars, but they don't hold value well. If you plan on driving it until the wheels fall off, then go ahead because you don't care about the actual value down the line. If you plan on upgrading in a couple of years, buy one used, let some other shmoe take the depreciation hit.

3. Honda Fit. We have a friend who loves his Fit distractedly. Husbunny and I both have Hondas and we'd have no other. Great cars, cheap to own, hold their value and dependable as the day is long.

4. Hyundai, you'll never regret not getting this car.

My vote is for the Fit, with the Mazda right behind it.

Check out rental car places for deals. I bought my 1994 Acura Integra from Enterprise and it was AWESOME!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:04 PM on October 8, 2012

The Honda Fit is a nice little car; I have an '09. I don't care much about "fun to drive," so I suck at evaluating that, but my sense is it's peppy enough. It's geared so that you'll run at higher rpms than some other cars if that matters to you.

I generally get about 40 mpg on the highway and in the 30s for mixed driving. You'll probably get less in heavy city traffic, but we don't do that here in Maine. It is a bit small, so if you think you'll often have adults in the back seat, it might not be ideal. Also, infant & toddler car seats in the back will definitely limit your leg room up front, so tall drivers + babies is a challenge.

Oh, it's a bit noisy, especially on the highway, but not worse than other compact cars in my experience.
posted by that's candlepin at 2:07 PM on October 8, 2012

Mazda or Honda. Go drive both! You can't go wrong with either.
posted by gatsby died at 2:09 PM on October 8, 2012

I have a Mazda 3 and I have two complaints: it's loud on the freeway and the gas millage isn't that hot. (I'm hoping new tires will help with both of these issues.)
posted by vespabelle at 2:17 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I drove a Focus for 12 years (first model year!) and I loved it (sedan, though, not hatchback). It was a trooper of a car and pretty inexpensive on repairs and I only had one major repair in 12 years. Easy to maintain, fun to drive for that pricepoint. My husband drives a 5-door Focus (couple of years newer than mine was), pretty much the same story. His is 10 years old now and has no significant problems.

I moved on to a Mazda 5 (not a Mazda 3) and I kind-of think the Mazda is funner to drive. (Some of this is that I drove the same car for 12 years, though. Anything is fun when it's novel!) I think there's a little less road noise in the Mazdas, but it's not quiet on the freeway.

I have noticed the Mazda costs me a bit more when I have it serviced, and I have fewer places to choose from, but living in a big city like L.A. that may be less of an issue. Everyone and his brother drives a Focus, you can get them serviced anywhere and parts are easy to acquire. Mazdas are less common here and the market for parts isn't nearly as large.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:20 PM on October 8, 2012

I'm four months into a '12 Focus Titanium sedan. If the one you're looking at has you infatuated with the MyFord Touch system with Sync by Microsoft, I predict you'll be disappointed with its very buggy performance, despite several software updates; I certainly am.

Other than that, it's a little rattly/squeaky/vibration-y - I haven't had the time to take it in to the dealer to try to deal with some of that.

I picked it after driving one as a rental for several weeks. In spite of it all, I'm relatively happy with it.

Haven't driven the others.
posted by DandyRandy at 2:22 PM on October 8, 2012

Before you count out the Elantra, I highly suggest going for a test drive. My parents have an '05 (I think) and it's a really solid car. Good mileage, not noisy, comfortable, etc.
posted by InsanePenguin at 2:24 PM on October 8, 2012

Both my sister and my cousin had a Ford Focus.

Older ones? The pre-2011 Focuses in the US are entirely different cars from the new ones that use the global C platform.

Anecdata-wise, I was disappointed by the Fit when test-driving last year, even with the sport package -- which is the one that dealers will try to sell you, and supplies of the base package may be more limited. It felt noisy and plasticky, and due a model refresh -- although the upside of it being late in the cycle is that most of the kinks have been ironed out. The arrival of the new Fiesta in its class stirred things up a bit, so it may be worth giving that one a test-drive if you like the new Focus but not its price, and haven't completely ruled out a smaller car.
posted by holgate at 2:26 PM on October 8, 2012

I used to own a first-gen, absolute low-end Focus, and I hated it. Some of that was because it was the absolute low-end (the engine was so puny they stopped selling it after a year or two, and it was not well-matched to the transmission), and some of it was because I got a crappy deal on it used. I hear they made it a lot better in the current generation, but I'm still wary.

Two of my former coworkers both owned Mazda 3s, and they were both pretty happy with the decision (I believe they were the previous generation, I don't really have experience with the current incarnation). I believe the 3 and the Focus both share the same platform, but I would still side with the Mazda over the Ford.

I had another coworker who owned a Fit, which she owned largely because of the ad that showed it transporting a llama (she never had any cause to transport a llama). The main selling point of the Fit is the ability to re-arrange the interior and transport bulky items. Transporting 5 people to lunch is another matter. It's a small car, it doesn't have the comfort level of the Focus or the 3, and I felt the suspension was a bit tighter and it rode a bit rougher than I would expect for its class.

I have no experience with the Hyundai.
posted by ckape at 2:27 PM on October 8, 2012

SO Jones and I have a current model year Honda Fit--and though it's a smaller car technically, it's much better than most of the others mentioned for moving oddly sized cargo. The seats flip around in the most surprising ways. If you frequently have to move moderately long things, or awkwardly tall, it's the best very small car.

It also rides well, is peppy enough, does not feel "cheap" except for the carpet, and gets very decent modern gas mileage (though not as extreme as some).

And the 12s and 13s are apparently much less loud than the earlier ones thanks to better insulation and seals (it seems perfectly acceptable to me).
posted by LucretiusJones at 2:29 PM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I drove a Mazda 3 5-door and loved it. For the money it was a delight. The only reason I sold it had more to do with wanting a MINI Clubman than any shortcoming of the Mazda. I managed to trump up a need for more dog crate space in the back, but amazingly I could get four crates into the 3 as it was.

I drove a Focus wagon for many years and it was "not as bad as expected" but not near as enjoyable to drive as the 3. Mine was older, though, so probably not relevant to today's model.
posted by cairnish at 2:45 PM on October 8, 2012

I own an '06 Mazda 3 sedan and have been pretty happy with it. One thing I have noticed compared to other cars is that I feel the road more, which can be good or bad. Makes it more fun to drive, but also causes it to ride a bit rougher than my old Corolla. That being said, it's a great car and I've been pretty happy with it - very zippy, handles well, gets respectable gas mileage, and seems to be pretty reliable.

Can't speak to the Hyundai or Ford, but I did seriously consider buying a Fit instead of the Mazda. Went with the Mazda mostly due to price - I think the Fit is a newer model, so I couldn't find a used one in my price range. It did seem a shade small, not too small for me but I can see how hauling people could be an issue.
posted by photo guy at 2:50 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Through work, I get the chance to drive a lot of new/recent-model compact cars. I've driven all of your choices but the Honda Fit (which I love and covet).

My favorite to drive out of all those was the Focus -- this was the 4-door sedan, not the hatchback. It reminded me a lot of the Corolla I drove in high school. Easy, fun, no-brainer car. Again, this is setting aside the Fit, which I want to tell you to get just because I want one so bad.

Hated the Mazda 3. I wish I didn't -- I really wanted to like that car, but it was just an uncomfortable rattlebox and I can't really say beyond overal lack of enjoyment why it sucked specifically (can't quote safety ratings or X feature vs. Y feature), but OMG ew. Just a gut "I hate you so much" reaction.

A friend of mine is really into the Hyundai Elantra and keeps telling me to get one (I am also in the market for a car, but mine will be a beater). I have no concrete memories of the Elantra I drove for work. It was... unremarkable, I guess? That said they are supposed to be edging up on the Civic in terms of rockstar performance and reliability type stuff. I would definitely get an Elantra if the price was right.
posted by Sara C. at 2:54 PM on October 8, 2012

I own a Fit and love it. It's not all that peppy, but it is a ton of fun to drive. As to concerns about size, I offer that I am a larger dude (6'3") and the Fit a car in which I can comfortably sit behind myself (with the driver's seat all the way back). It's a taller car and the seating is more upright than in most vehicles. More importantly, the amount of cargo space available is unmatched in its class.
posted by hoboynow at 3:00 PM on October 8, 2012

I own an '04 Mazda 3 hatchback, and liked it a lot for the first few years, but I don't think it's holding up well. I've had to replace one front wheel bearing (a fairly expensive repair), both sides' front brake rotors and pads, and I've been told that the rear brakes don't have much time left. There's enough rust on both back quarter panels that the body shop said it's not worth fixing.

Yes, the car is 8 years old, and yes, it's been in Michigan for the whole 8 years, but it's got just over 27,000 miles on it, and is always in a garage overnight and most of the time that it's not on the road. It's never been in an accident.

The dealer (who I don't trust) says my problems are because I don't drive much, and they may be right, but it seems to me that the car should hold up to sitting as well as to driving. I don't remember having this kind of problems with other cars, and it's not like I drove them much more.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 3:02 PM on October 8, 2012

I have had a 2008 Fit Sport since I bought it new and I pretty much love it, feel safe in it and know I can pack it full of all that I need. The one thing I would change would be more driver legroom. I am a 5'10 female with a bit longer than average legs and while I don't notice it day-to-day driving, the seat doesn't go back far enough for me to get a full leg extension which is uncomfortable on longer trips (tho still do-able with cruise control). See if the Fit gives you the leg room you need and if so, get it.
posted by krix at 3:02 PM on October 8, 2012

I have a 2009-ish Mazda 3 sedan and I love it. Gets good mileage, and is fun to drive. I haven't noticed it being particularly noisy. (I'm in LA)
posted by mogget at 3:07 PM on October 8, 2012

I've got a Mazda 3 and dig it a lot.

The Mazda 3 and Ford Focus are actually built off the same platform.
posted by PenDevil at 3:09 PM on October 8, 2012

I just went through this decision process in June (asked here).

We narrowed it down to the Focus 5 Door and Mazda 3 5 door, and went with the Mazda. We've been very happy with it. For us, the drive was comparable between these two, but I hated the technology packaged on the Focus. Car tech gets outdated way before the rest of the car, and the Ford touchscreen and voice control seemed much worse than current Android devices for the car.

That was our experience. Overall, I'm glad we went with our gut. You have to live with it for the next N years, so what really matters is that you're happy with the decision.
posted by heliostatic at 3:11 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I looooove my Fit. And I love Hondas. My last one survived despite massive neglect and two fender benders from 1998 to 2011.

My favorite thing about my Fit is all the tricks it does with seats and cargo space. When shopping at the garden center this spring I was able to pack my car with tall plants and pots with no trouble at all. My second favorite feature is the USB port.

If you get the Fit, make sure that you get the doohickie that covers the hatch cargo area. It just looks cleaner from the outside and is easily removed. I also got a cargo liner.
posted by xyzzy at 3:18 PM on October 8, 2012

I have a 2010 Mazda 3 and love it. Have had it for about 3 1/2 years now and have never had any issues with it. I did feel like it was a bit slippery on the ice in Minnesota winters, but not horrendous. Before that, I had a Mazda 6 for three years and also loved that car. They're dependable, get good mileage, are fun to drive and are relatively cheap.

My parents have an Elantra, which I never cared for. I thought the blind spots were GIGANTIC and it just wasn't a fun driving experience.

I haven't driven the Ford or Honda you mentioned, but had coworkers who really liked their Focuses. For me, I don't drive often enough for it to make up for the price difference.
posted by JannaK at 3:35 PM on October 8, 2012

I have driven both the Fit and the Focus as rentals, expecting to love the Fit and hate the Focus. Turns out I'd rather have a Focus, if I were to be buying that size of car. The Fit was noisy and felt insubstantial.

I drive a friend's 2011 Elantra regularly. I love that car and, when my 2001 XTerra finally bites the dust, I will probably get an Elantra.
posted by catlet at 3:43 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Consider the Hyundai Accent. I bought one 10 months ago and already have put 25,000 miles on it. Zero problems, great mileage (pretty much as advertised) and fun to drive. I considered all these different cars at the time, and the Hyundai won on just about every count. The Honda Fit has more cupholders, less power, worse mileage, and costs more.

Anyway, test drive them all and see what you like.
posted by gjc at 3:43 PM on October 8, 2012

A year ago I finished car shopping for something in the same range and my preferences were (best to worse) Mazda 3, Ford, Honda, and Hyundai. The Ford did not have a good technology package, it was too hard to use. The Honda felt slightly underpowered on the highway. The Hyundai just felt underwhelming compared to the Mazda. I have been very happy with my Mazda 3, plus my gas mileage is better than the sticker. WIth the manual, I average around 31mpg.

Frau Nackt just bought a car last month. She wanted something similar and ended up with a Subaru Impreza. We have both been very happy with it so far.
posted by Nackt at 3:49 PM on October 8, 2012

I have an Elantra Touring, which is the wagon version and a completely different car from the sedan. I doubt it could be considered fun to drive but it met all my criteria: decent owner reviews on Consumer Reports, enough room for the dogs and baby, decent gas mileage (30+ highway, avg of 26 around town), and better than average warranty. I think the Mazda 3 wagon met all of those but the warranty. Plus not many people around here have a Touring so I've been enjoying having a car I don't see every time I turn around (which wasn't the case with my Chevy Cavalier).
posted by bluesapphires at 4:11 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Fit was Consumer Reports' car of the year this year. Just got '13 and I'm loving it. It's a lot bigger inside than it seems from the outside.
posted by BlahLaLa at 4:19 PM on October 8, 2012

I have an 05 5 door Mazda 3 and I LOVE it. I'd buy another in a second. It's a manual so I can't speak for the automatic transmission experience but it's fun to drive, can haul a lot of stuff (or people), and gets good mileage considering the larger engine/body size. I've also had great luck maintenance-wise. My good friends have a fit and while I've never driven it, it's not an especially comfortable ride in the back. They do like the ability to test just how apt its name is though!
posted by PaulaSchultz at 4:22 PM on October 8, 2012

I've owned a used-2002 ford focus for the past 7 years now. I've driven it around the country twice and half, and more than 10 times from midwest-->new england-->mid west

Its almost at 100,000 miles.

Problems I've had: flat tire about 80,000 miles. Small gas tank (~10 gallons). To some people, its quite bumpy.

However, I think overall it is great. Also, I like that its American-made. And for a girl who roadtrips on her own and knows nothing about cars, I am very thankful for never having a problem on either of my roadtrips. Gets good gas mileage. Also for a small car, it holds a lot. Back seat folds down. As a 5"5' tall person, I could lay flat with my legs in the trunk part. Pretty awesome.

Not sure about any of the other cars, but just another input. :)
posted by fuzzysoft at 4:23 PM on October 8, 2012

I bought a Fit last September (the 2012 model) and have driven it from Baltimore to Texas and back and I love it. Not much road noise, excellent gas milage, you can pack ALL THE THINGS into it and I love the USB outlet. It's a great little car and I only see myself getting anything else if I find I need AWD for something.
posted by youcancallmeal at 4:44 PM on October 8, 2012

I owned a 2001 Focus sedan which betrayed me terribly and cost lots of thousands of dollars before I finally ditched it after it needed its 5th major repair in as many months. The Focus was a fine-not-great car on its good days, and a total disaster on its not-good days, which grew overwhelmingly common before I even hit 70k miles. I've heard great things about the new Focus and Fiesta, but my bad Focus experience has soured me for either.

After the Focus, I bought an '08 Honda Fit and love it. It's technically smaller than the Focus, but it feels much bigger, and the way the seats fold down/disappear makes it vastly better for cargo. I get mid-high 30s mileage in mixed highway/city driving, and I adore the paddle shifters in "Sport" mode - they make the little engine feel pretty peppy and fun. I would absolutely buy another Honda/another Fit tomorrow if I somehow spontaneously developed the need to buy a car.
posted by Rallon at 5:02 PM on October 8, 2012

I bought a 2012 Mazda 3 almost a year ago. I have the sedan with the SkyActiv engine - gets an easy 40 mpg on the highway. I drive this car A LOT (~140 miles roundtrip communte) on the freeway. It is easy to drive and comfortable. I have the top trim level, and it's a lot of nice bells and whistles for the price point. I'm a slender, tallish woman (I have noticed bigger people seeming not as comfortable in the car).

But the new Fords are also pretty nice. We bought three Mazdas before this one; we just like them. If the Ford really makes you more happy, and it's a difference of a few thousand dollars over several years of use, I would just get what you really want.
posted by jeoc at 5:07 PM on October 8, 2012

Honda Fit has excellent quality and engineering for the price tag. And tons of cargo space (much more than any car in its class). And you will NEVER have problems with it.

Can't say the same for Ford, Mazda, or Hyundai.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:17 PM on October 8, 2012

BTW, I can't emphasize the engineering enough. The Fit drives really, really well.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:19 PM on October 8, 2012

I've driven all these cars, and I'll throw one more into the mix – the Toyota Prius C. Not the standard version of the Prius, it's a 5-door hatch similar in body to the Mazda 3. Had some extended test-driving with this car, and it was very nice. Very tough to beat 53 mpg.

Certainly not going to win any drag races, but it's a nice car in that class. I looked at the Fit as well, but it's a tough choice at 28-33mpg.

Mazda 3 wins hands-down for pure fun, but only clocks in at 35-40mpg.
posted by Exploding Gutbuster at 5:23 PM on October 8, 2012

We bought a car three weeks ago and all of these were on the list. They really are all quite different cars. Fit will almost certainly be lowest cost of ownership. On test drive I liked the Focus better then than the Mazda. We didn't try the Hyundai. We did try the Kia Elantra which left me very pleasantly surprised. If you want a mid-size sedan style car I suggest trying it out. As said before, Fit will be most reliable, lowest cost of ownership - probably by a significant margin if you hold cars for ten years. If you are looking to fall in love it is probably the Focus or Mazda, whichever does more for you.

(Our budget stretched a bit higher and we got a VW Golf TDI - but that is in a different category).
posted by meinvt at 5:28 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not a car expert, but the 2005 Focus wagon here has 176k on it and has never had any sort of major work needed, or anything really minor, either, though the muffler is now a bit non-muffly. It is not flashy or fancy but it's been very dependable, with good mileage. A pal said the Focus wagon 'hugged the road like a tank; never felt safer in anything,' and this was an assessment I can get behind. I have put a two-person kayak (of a kind that 'unsnaps' into three pieces) in the back with a child's car seat installed in the back seat at the same time -- very roomy. Before it I drove/learned to drive on a Civic, and I am surprised at how much more I like the sturdier-feeling Ford. (I learned to drive only in recent years; I am a fearless parallel parker and now a pretty confident driver in general, and thank the Focus for some of that; it is certainly easy to handle)
posted by kmennie at 5:35 PM on October 8, 2012

How long are you planning to own this car? That's an absolutely crucial part of the car purchase decision for me.

If you're in it for the long haul get the car you want with the features you want. I'm driving a 12 year old SUV which is still one of my favorite cars on the road. So yeah, I paid more up-front but haven't had a car payment in nearly a decade. The fact that I avoided an upgrade car purchase saved me a ton in the long run.

The question I would ask you is which one of these cars would you be happy driving for a long, long time? Which one of these cars feels like a compromise that you'll never really be happy about driving. If the Focus is a bit more expensive - but still within your price range - and you'll drive for a long while, then it's a good purchase.
posted by 26.2 at 5:47 PM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have a 2012 Honda Fit, manual transmission. I test drove an automatic Hyundai and a manual Mazda. The Mazda was zippier, but had less headroom. The Hyundai drove nice and was comfortable, but the rear window seemed very small (and I wanted a manual trans., anyway). The Honda is very roomy. I'm getting 32.5 mpg, mostly highway driving. My major complaint is the AC, which doesn't do a good job of cooling the car in the heat of the summer.
posted by dtp at 5:57 PM on October 8, 2012

I have a 2007 Elantra and if I was in the position to buy a similar car again I'd buy another. Good mileage, good room for a compact, and I use the audio jack and built in XM all the time.
posted by look busy at 6:42 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have an 09 Fit and I'm very happy with it - but I'm not familiar with any of the others on your list. It gets great mileage, especially on the freeway.
posted by insectosaurus at 7:07 PM on October 8, 2012

I have a 2010 Mazda 3 and love love love it. I knew as soon as I test drove that it was the car for me, had to have it, and never once has a flicker of regret existed. I like the "close to the road" feeling and the modern interior electronics.

But I think you will know if you test-drive your options and go with your gut. If you want a car that will make you happy, just listen to your gut.

Also I grew up with Fords and will never buy one. Not fun to drive, just kind of run of the mill, and they had the most random, and frequent, problems.
posted by DoubleLune at 9:14 PM on October 8, 2012

If you care about such things, the Honda Fit likely has more interior rear seat room than the Focus or Mazda3. The Focus and Mazda3 are based on the same platform, and mechanically if you like one you'll probably like the other, so buy one or the other based on looks, price, interior comfort and dealer service. If you're getting the latest of either, both are a lot of fun to drive, but the Mazda3 has a traditional automatic that gets lower gas mileage but might be a better driving experience for you (if you drive stick, you can get a nice Focus with one but only a base model Mazda3, so better off with the Focus.) The Hyundai? Eh, only if you're going to keep it long enough to take advantage of the incredibly long warranty, because short-term resale will be lowest of the four.
posted by davejay at 10:03 PM on October 8, 2012

I have a 12 Elantra and love it. Plenty of front and back seat room, enough oomph in the engine, and quite good with gas (I get ~30-31 in a highway/city mix; best ever was 45.6 highway).

If you had any experience with Hyundais, say, 10 years ago... forget it. Night and day difference. Give it a try.
posted by hijinx at 4:27 AM on October 9, 2012

Just to make things even more confusing for you, I looked at: the Fit, a 5-door Mazda 3, the Elantra Touring, and the base (non-WRX/STi) Subaru Impreza wagon.

Out of them all I found the Subaru to be the best.
posted by Gev at 5:09 AM on October 9, 2012

I've got an '09 Fit and it's great. The cargo capacity was absolutely key for me. I can fit SO MANY things in there.
posted by MsMolly at 5:21 AM on October 9, 2012

I have a Mazda3 hatchback and LOVE it. Sometimes I feel like a Mazda3 ad. In it, I have: moved across the country with spouse and dog, gone on multiple not-short roadtrips involving multiple surfboards/living out of the car, maneuvered through tight city streets and parking (say, New York), and done so in a zippy fashion. I too didn't understand what made a car "fun" to drive until I got the Mazda3, and now I do. :)

That said, some issues: my mpg isn't as great as the comparable cars; I've noticed that bigger people feel somewhat more cramped in the car, and I had an obscure and unusual car problem which, though fixed for free, left me car-less for about a week (so obscure that the dealership wouldn't fix it without the national Mazda people coming in to observe that, yes, I really did have this weird obscure problem).

The only serious issue I would note is that if you live in a place with icy roads on the regular, you might consider a different car. I lived in New England for several years with this car, and it was noticeably poor on ice. (And just to be clear: the issue was the car, not me - I grew up doing winter driving.) I slid through more red lights with this car than any other I'd driven.
posted by Nx at 6:52 AM on October 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nthing either the Fit or the Mazda 3 five-door. I bought my Mazda 3 five door in 2008, but if I could have gotten a Fit at a better price (the dealer wanted $500 OVER sticker, because it was during the Great Gas Price Hike of 2008) I would have gotten one of those.

I have the previous generation Mazda 3 hatchback, so take my comments with a grain of salt. I have an automatic, and if I could do it over again, I would have gotten a manual. So much more fun to drive, and the automatic shifting is a little laggy for my taste. Still, it's fun, and once it finally downshifts, it's easy to outrun a 18-wheeler when merging onto the highway. The cargo space is fantastic. I can fit tons of stuff in it when I fold the seats down.

Gas mileage is NOT what I hoped for either. It is noisy on the road. And it's terrible in the snow. Just terrible. Even with better tires, it's still not great (I refuse to get snow tires and swap them out every season. That's just too much fussing for me). My old 1998 Saturn SL1 stick shift was rock solid in Upstate NY blizzards. The Mazda 3 wimpers at half an inch of snow. So if snow is a concern, you might want to consider another car.

Everyone around where I live drives Subarus, and with good reason. But, there are amy Fits as well, and every Fit owner I've met loves their car. I agree that going with your gut will ensure the best result.

Update: You're in LA. If gas mileage isn't much a concern and since snow isn't an issue, get the Mazda 3. Unless the compact nature of the Fit will give you more flexibility with squeezing into tight parking spaces.
posted by absquatulate at 8:47 AM on October 9, 2012

I just bought a '12 manual Mazda 3 skyactiv hatchback and love it. I also test drove the Fit. I found the Fit to be a bit sluggish and so very, very practical (which could be good or bad, depending on your needs.) I ended up getting the Mazda because it has a few hundred pounds on the Fit, but still gets better fuel economy. The ride is definitely stiff, but I prefer that. I feel like I'm in a cockpit and the car is an extension of me.
My last car was a Honda, and it was the most reliable/repair free car I have ever had. I can't say the same for the last Ford I owned, though that was many years ago.

Good luck finding the car for you!
posted by k8oglyph at 9:50 AM on October 9, 2012

I'm kind of a car nut, also a Ford guy - as in, not an employee or anything, I just really like their line.

I have an '08 Focus SE with a manual and it's fun to drive. Yeah, it's only about 130 hp (if that). Wife's car is a really nice, loaded up Camry and I don't like driving it at all.

Looking at your choices, you really can't go wrong with any of those. They're all quality cars that should last you with better than average reliability.

The new (2012 and now 2013s too) Focus is a major change over the first couple generations. New engines and everything. I wish I could run out and get one.

I give the nod to the Ford, but probably only because it's my brand. Drive them all (if you haven't already) and pick the one you like best that fits your budget. They're all solid choices.
posted by thatguyjeff at 9:56 AM on October 9, 2012

I drove Toyotas for almost 20 years & poo-poo'd Hyundais. In 2010, i bought an Elantra and I love that car. It is very comfy to drive, good gas mileage, and good price for the features I wanted.
posted by pointystick at 11:25 AM on October 9, 2012

The Mazda 3 stock tires suck, or at least they did on my '05 4 door. The car performed much, much better with new tires. I'd change the tires if you're taking any cross country trips or dealing with ice.

I'm on my sixth year and still love it. I like to drive, and like being able to feel the road - road noise doesn't bother me. The more connected I am, the better.

My only problems other than the lousy stock tires are:
1) the heat takes awhile to kick in
2) the passenger behind me has very little legroom (I'm 6'3" and have driver's seat all the way back)

I've had to replace all of the rotors/pads once, but I drove it aggressively for a year or two when I first got it.

That being said, go with your gut.
posted by L. Ron McKenzie at 2:28 PM on October 9, 2012

I drove the Mazda 3 and Hyundai Elantra Touring. The Mazda 3 is supposed to be amazing, I drolled over the reviews and look of it for years, but when I finally got to drive it I wasn't impressed, and it felt teeny inside, and price tag seemed huge.

The Elantra Touring felt like a MUCH better bargain, and it has a cult following of it's own, with people pointing out that it's a re-naming of one of the most popular cars in Europe. And I just love, love, loved the way it handled.

Ended up having to buy something cheaper and used, but I still dream about the Elantra, over a year later.

Test drive everything. Come up with a route that includes speeds over 40 mph, breaking, donuts in an empty parking lot, reverse, and breaking -- driving lots of cars really helps you get a feel for how they're unique and what you're going to prefer when stuck in traffic or having to swerve to avoid an accident.
posted by MeiraV at 3:01 PM on October 9, 2012

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