There’s no way to sugar-coat it: The long hood and swept-back proportions that make the 2014 Mazda 3 so attractive—even a little sexy—on the outside end up limiting its space (and usefulness) inside.
Although if you’re mainly planning to use the Mazda 3’s front seats, that might not matter; for the most part this compact-car family offers pleasing interior appointments, and even the look and feel of a premium-brand vehicle in some respects.
The third-generation Mazda 3 rides on a wheelbase that's 2.4 inches longer, but the five-door hatchback model is 1.8 inches shorter overall; it’s also about 1.6 inches wider than the previous model. While Mazda touts increased front and rear shoulder room, as well as better rear knee room, the net effect is that the cabin feels a bit smaller than most other cars in this class, especially in back.
The front seats are very comfortable and supportive, with lower cushions that are long enough for taller drivers; and the nice, contrasting perforated-leather upholstery in our Grand Touring felt luxury-caliber. Mazda has enlarged the cushion of the driver's seat and completely redesigned its front seat backs, to provide a more natural sitting position and increase lateral support.
In back, two six-footers will be able to get comfortable enough, provided those in front aren’t also tall. We’d also advise against the moonroof, because it brings a very odd, scooped-out headliner that will leave taller passengers feeling like the roof is bowing around them. Rear occupants sit almost two inches higher than in the old car, but the way the rising beltline limits window space still makes it one of the more claustrophobic small-car experiences—especially in the hatchback.
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). The headliner itself is another area of disheartening cheapness; in both top-of-the-line Grand Touring we spent time with, it felt like flimsy cardboard covered by a felt-like material, with the entire section a bit loose over the moonroof mechanism.
In theory, the Mazda 3 is a step ahead in refinement over the old car. The company says that it’s added noise-absorbing material behind the dash, under the floor mats, and elsewhere. While we didn’t hear a bit of road noise, and engine noise is in the background most of the time, we think that there’s a bit too much road noise whenever the surface is coarse or imperfect.
As for the ride, by current compact-car standards, it’s a bit busy (it would have been a bit ahead of the class norm a few model years ago, but loads of ride and refinement attention have transformed many on-a-budget offerings). You might call it ideal, but only if you've driven on smooth-surfaced Southern California roads. We still haven’t driven lower-level ‘i’ models with less aggressive wheels and tires, and we’ll update this impression when we have.