I really like this car, and cannot relate at all to any of the bad reviews I have read.
I love the way it handles. After putting more than 35,000 miles on the tires that were on the car when I bought it, when one caught a nail and blew out, I decided to replace the tires with Yokohama's (even though the old Firestones were still safe/serviceable). What a great decision it turned out to be, though. Really improved what was already pretty good handling. I can really pull some G's on tight on-ramps without even a small complaint from the tires.
Also, for a 4-cylinder, the engine is great. One thing to note about the engine in this car, it really likes to rev. That is to say, if you keep the RPM's up, you'll have a lot more fun driving it. I could not imagine this car with an automatic trans. It really has this nice 'pull' at around 4000 RPM's.
The transmission took a little getting used to, but patience paid off, and I really love it now and almost never 'miss' a shift, even under hard acceleration.
It also gets very reasonable gas mileage: ~29MPG in my regular, mostly highway 70 mile (RT) commute.
Other than pretty routine oil changes, I have done almost nothing to this car (not even a tune-up), and the performance has deteriorated very little.
I find the interior pleasant and comfortable.
Aside from a few burnt out (and insignificant) interior lights, everything still works in this 8 year old, 100K + car.
A few of the things I don't like:
* air con does not turn on with a button, but is 2 positions on the same dial that directs the air to various areas (panel, feet, defrost). I would like to be able to turn it on and direct it where I want it (only comes out of panel).
* for some reason, this is the most difficult car to fill with gas that I have ever experienced. The pump keeps shutting off after it's about 1/3rd full, meaning I need to move the pump around in the filler hole until I can get the gas to flow down without backing up and shutting off the pump. I have asked around about it, and nobody seems to have any idea why.
* The interior is a little bit noisy, but not too bad, just a bit of engine/road noise.
But for the most part, these fall into the 'quirks' category. I have so-far really enjoyed this car, and plan on keeping it for another year or so, and will maybe buy another, or even better, a Contour SVT (sigh!) (note that the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique are based on the same 'platform', or are more or less the same car with different styling).