This car accelerates relatively quickly for a 1.8L. Reviews I've read seem to peg it around 8.7 to 8.9 seconds to 60mph. That feels about right. I think that the car feels quicker than it is because its low and the engine revs quite quickly. I normally drive pretty calmly and shift @ 3,000 rpm. The motor is fairly torquey even though it's a twin cam 24 valve engine. However when I feel like a spirited drive, this engine obliges. It revs smoothly all the way up to the 8,000 rpm fuel cutoff and makes a great sound all the way up. Mazda put a V-6 in this car purely because it would idle and rev smoothly. V-6s are inherently smooth whereas four cylinders are not. The exhaust is low and has good bass. I think it actually sounds better being driven between 2 and 3,000 rpm. Power is decent with 130hp @ 6,500rpm and torque is 115 lb-ft @ 4,500rpm.
Handling is great for a front drive car with a relatively heavy V-6 up front. The engine block is actually the same code (KL-Z) as the 2.5L V-6 in the Ford Probe/Mazda MX-6 twins. Its been de-stroked and maybe even de-bored in this application.
I should preface my evaluation of the handling by saying that I am running snow tires up front (came that way) and cheap all-seasons in back, both of which are 60 series tires. They should be 55 series sidewall.
As far as handling is concerned the way I got the car, corner turn-in is crisp and its easy to stay to a given line through a corner. It almost turns in too quickly and it feels like the rear suspension is changing toe-in by a few degrees and helping "steer". That wouldn't be surprising since this was common for cars in the '90s as engineers wanted to tune out understeer. I love it, you can actually feel the rear "steer" when you turn in and take a set in a turn.
However, I put in lowering coil-over springs. The car was slammed and looked great. However, since the shocks were not valved to operate within the lower range of their motion, the ride was horrible and there was very bad rebound damping on bumps. The stock ride at the stock ride height was pretty good and body lean was minimal. The lowering spring didn't really help handling (even with the lower center of gravity) and actually made it worse on uneven surfaces since the tire would not stay in good contact with the road. I can't wait to see how the car will handle when I put the stock springs back in and put on performance tires in the proper 55 series sidewall height.
Inside, the front buckets are comfortable and really hold you in turns, but they do seem to lack a bit of lower lumbar support for long drives. the steering is communicative and has great feel. It is relatively heavy, but gives great feel, you know exactly what the tires are doing and their slip angle. The backseat is surpisingly room (this is a small car afterall) and I have had 4 people in the car, two of whom are 6' or taller. I wouldn't want to ride in the back for 6 hours, but its not terrible. As well, the back seat folds flat and opens to a huge trunk. I can carry 170cm long skis no problem. They aren't 60/40 split though. Overall, the car is fairly loud on the freeway with tire noise (probably because they are snow tires), wind noise, mainly around the side-mirrors and exhaust noise. As well, I don't think there is a lot of sound insulation. The car only weighs 1,100 kgs according to the door sticker.
Overall, I bought this car used and have had to fix things. I think it drives great and gets good fuel economy (8-9L/100kms city, 7L/100kms highway, about 8L/100kms combined). The ride is okay in stock form too. It wouldn't be the best long-hauler since the seats aren't that great, the noise on the highway gets tiring (especially the exhaust note) and it revs high too. At 100kms/hour, the engine is reving at around 3300 rpm and at 120kms/hr, its revving at 4,000...yikes. I wouldn't want to run that for 8 hours.
However, the positives are outweighed by the complication and difficult access to the crammed-in V-6, relatively expensive parts (compared to say a Civic) and only okay reliability. The car has made me take a walk twice. I think a car like a Civic Si, older Integra, or Celica would provide as much fun and fuel economy without (hopefully) the questionable reliability. You know its bad when my mechanic tells me to sell this car.