I've now owned my P5 for 4 years and driven about 55,000 miles. Owning this car has been a mostly positive experience with a number of drawbacks, most of them being the slow discovery of the faults of this car. I continue to own it because A) the positives continue to outweigh the negatives, and B) I have yet to find a newer car that I like better, is affordable, and is reliable.
If I were to sum up how I feel about my P5: I desperately want to love this car, but am forced to just like it because it has never quite been the car I think it should have been. It's the perfect size with the perfect steering feel, economy, and cost of maintenance/reliability. It desperately needs much more sound deadening, about 20-30 more horsepower, and a sixth gear for highway cruising (70 mph is about 3300 rpm). With these simple additions it could have been a much, much better car overall.
Would I buy it again? Probably, though I would seriously shop other hatchbacks/small wagons to see if I could avoid some of the things that bother me about this car. If you are less sensitive to its faults than I am you will absolutely love it. For me, I just like it, and that's been enough to not replace it yet.
Great looking car, even at 12 years old (currently).
I average right around 30mpg with mixed driving, a little highway-biased. I've been satisfied with the overall gas mileage.
Handles EXTREMELY well for a front-drive economy car, excellent steering feel and feedback. Every time I go to test drive new cars I am disappointed because I am used to the Protege5. I have yet to drive a new car that can match the steering feel of this car.
Driving position & visibility
Very easy to see out of, unlike many newer cars. The position feels a little high at first but becomes an advantage after adjusting because of the increased visibility offered.
Reliability & durability
My car has needed repairs in the time I've had it, but nothing that a normal 10+ year old car wouldn't routinely need. It has never stranded me or had a part fail that I wasn't expecting.
This is a LOUD car. I've taken some of the interior apart and there is basically zero sound-deadening material installed from the factory. Nearly everyone that rides in the car comments on how much road and engine noise there is. Not a great car for extended highway trips.
This has a shorter wheelbase and a semi-firm suspension, so things can get bumpy. This is directly linked to the great handling qualities listed in the pros: you're simply not going to have the best of both worlds in an economy car of this age.
Don't buy this car if you're looking for a great engine. It's adequate at best, and as it's aged it has developed a fair amount of vibration felt throughout the cabin. I would say that the engine is the worst large component on the car overall, something that Mazda addressed with the Mazda3 that replaced this car.
Materials & workmanship
This is a cheap car with a cheap interior. But I do like that it doesn't try to be something it's not: nothing in the interior feels gimmicky or fabricated. It's just cheap and plain, nothing luxurious about it.