Since asking this question I've played Civ 5, so I thought I'd answer my past self as only a future self can answer a past self:
Q. Has the speed of conquest been slowed down even further?
A. No, @Raven Dreamer's answer is accurate. More consideration is needed before making an attack, but the increased depth of attack (ranged played a big role in sieges) means the well-planned decapitation of a civilisation can be performed in only a few turns.
Q. Are wars any easier to end (and avoid re-igniting) diplomatically?
A. Friendships with world leaders are both easier to keep and make, but also fickle. A long-standing friendship can be created, and wars can be ended sensibly, but a change in allegiances between other world powers can suddenly change your political environment.
Q. Are there still culture-related borders?
A. Culture is no longer obsessed with borders; policies (like character perks) replace this goal. Instead it is used (as a side-effect) to claim unowned land for cities and civilisations.
Q. Is the AI as aggressive as the article seems to indicate, or is it possible to have stable diplomatic neighbours?
A. Again, friendships can be made, but are by no means permanent.
Q. This one's rather subjective, I'm afraid: With regards to improvements, is this an XP to Vista kind of upgrade, or Vista to 7? By which I mean are they generally look driven, or core gameplay driven improvements?
A. The whole game feels like it's been reconsidered. The interface is similar, as if it had been rewritten with the same interface goals, rather than with adding features in mind. The messaging system of blocking essentials and optional notes integrates very well with the game; allowing you to set your own pace and choose what you want to deal with first. I would say it's an XP to 7 improvement.
P.S. You're going to love the city-states; such a mischievous addition to an otherwise straight-laced game.