If you're not car people, I wouldn't buy some semi-high-end German car. Or any Euro car, for that matter. I've owned an Audi and VW, and have friends who have owned Mercedes and Saab, and the repair costs for anything but the most minor repair were always devastating. VW would be a maybe, and they're kinda cool. Fiat? Stay far, far away until they have proven themselves in this country for a generation. Hopefully they've improved, but they were always synonymous with abysmal reliability and shoddy quality. Get something at a reasonable price that is reliable and cheap to maintain. But no reason that it can't be a little cooler looking than a Civic (which is a car I have great respect for, BTW.)
I've rented the little Mazda, the 3, I think, a few times and really liked it. It's just a little cooler looking than a Civic. It drives really nice. I also like Nissans. They always seem to have great styling, and strong engines. The Maxima is a really cool looking car, IMO. Especially in its price range.