The rear-wheel-drive ruse has its flaws
Part of what makes you feel so 'settled in' and at home behind the driver's wheel is that the Mazda 3 takes an unusual tack for a front-wheel-drive compact car—it pretends, in many respects, that it's a rear-drive fastback. The long hood (and if you pop the hood, long exhaust manifold that takes up space) leads to a cabin that feels (and is) shorter than that of other compacts. On the up side, though, you feel like you’re sitting at the midpoint between the front and rear wheels.
The down side is that back-seat accommodations in the Mazda 3 are simply quite limited—and if you try to get in and sit back there for any time, they feel fore-and-aft virtually the same as some models that are a size smaller, like the Chevrolet Sonic or Ford Fiesta. In our Grand Touring, with the moonroof, even those approaching six feet were pushing their heads up into the headliner, which has a recess built into it. The headliner itself is an area of disheartening cheapness; it felt like flimsy cardboard covered by a felt-like material, with the entire section a bit loose over the moonroof mechanism in both test cars we spent time with.
A Kia Soul we had around at the same time had a far more spacious back seat (and we're not talking just headroom); and a Nissan Sentra that we had at the time, while it doesn't compare in other ways, felt a full class ahead in back-seat space.
The Mazda 3 feels premium from the front seats forward, with materials that are major step forward for Mazda—even in some cases better than what’s offered in the new Mazda 6. But there are some disappointments as well; for instance, the interior surface alongside the front doors is soft touch, but alongside the rear doors it's a hard surface that mostly mimics the look but has a slightly different sheen and is just hard plastic (Mazda isn’t the only offender; it’s also done by Honda in the Civic, for instance).
Rolling on 18s, not particularly quiet or smooth
A few other gripes emerged when we got over the adrenaline surge of some rewarding driving roads and plodded along in traffic. The 2014 Mazda 3 makes slight advances in damping road noise, but there's still a lot of it compared to most other models in this class. As soon as the surface turns rough, you hear it on our test car with its 18-inch alloys; and ride comfort in general is a little on the busy side of what we'd consider the class norm.