Well I bought this car in her 9th year, so I expected some trouble. After an inspection there were a number of things that needed attention, so I haggled the previous owner's price down to $1000 (Canadian) which, considering the book value of $3450, was a decent deal.
In the past year I've had to replace the following:
-brake pads and rotors
-rear sway bar link
-both rear struts
-hand brake cable
-water temperature sensor (which gave me hell before I found out what it was, causing random stalling in the worst possible situations)
-heater core flush
-Read control arm cracked (got it welded)
The list isn't pretty, but I knew what I was getting into beforehand. The previous owner obviously didn't know, or didn't care much about his car. Now with a 1K car, and around 2K in work (everything finally done) I've found it to be a great dependable drive.
I did have some god awful dealer support when I had the sensor problem. My regular mechanic was unable to diagnose the issue himself, which was the only reason I brought it to them for service. It turns out that despite my regular mechanic practically disassembling and reassembling the entire car, he supposedly missed my cracked radiator, leaking oil gasket, and worn spark plugs. Fed up with having my car in the shop I agreed to their absurd repair list (my mistake), and then got the car back only to find that after a 10 min drive my temperature gauge was on H. I had to bring the thing back 3 times before they finally fixed it (both of the previous times they gave it back to me saying it was fixed, when it obviously wasn't). That being said, a bad dealership experience isn't enough to turn me away from an otherwise decent car.
One thing that has impressed me is the finish. 10 years (with some pretty brutal Canadian winters) and the paint finish is almost perfect. There were a couple of small rust spots near the bottom of the car, but I easily patched them myself @ $10 for a can of Mazda hunter green spray paint.
As for performance, I've read numerous professional reviews touting (in particular) the DX w/automatic as a car that will barely haul you up a hill. Not sure what those reviewers drove, but while holding her in second gear my car can make it up to the top of the steepest hill in our city @ 85km/h (while still accelerating!). From a stop, mid-way up the hill, the car has little trouble doing 0-60 in first gear, while continuing to accelerate in second their after (at full throttle). Even under normal gas, hill climbing is just fine. 0-120 acceleration is right on par with class performers w/automatic transmissions. From a stoplight I've beaten a number of (new) sedans, including the Olds Alero, a number of Saturns, the Subaru Outback, Pontiac Sunfire, and numerous others. A good V6 or even a 4cyl with a standard trans. will put this car in its place, but nevertheless, it's hardly as slow as the reviews make it out to be.
Highway driving is also a breeze. 160 km/h can be swiftly reached in 3rd gear, which is pretty much the top speed of this car on an incline. On a good day (with some slope), even that can be surpassed easily in fourth, with very little vibration I might add.
The automatic trans. is adequate. A little eager to up-shift, but will down-shift readily in all, but the 40-50 km/h range. Shifts relatively smooth in all, but full throttle action, where it sometimes gets a little jerky. The hold function on the shifter works well to maintain power when you anticipate needing it.
Stopping power is the cars main fault. No ABS and 13" tires don't inspire me with confidence when emergency braking is needed. A couple of times I've found myself skidding towards my impending doom (while not slowing down nearly as fast I would like to be) only to find a way out at the last minute. I consider myself a swift, but careful driver, but in a world of reckless drivers, lack of ABS w/small tires is more than enough to make one feel uneasy.
All in all I'm relatively pleased with this car. I could see it had the potential to last once the obvious repairs were worked out, and thus far I haven't been proven wrong. It's been roughly 5 months since I've been in the shop for anything, but routine or requested maintenance, and by the looks of it I'm in for some smooth sailing *knock on wood* I only regret I hadn't found an LX model with a manual trans. the bigger engine with manual would have greatly increased already adequate performance I'm sure.