Overview

Question: When is a Mazda 929 not a Mazda 929?

Answer: When it's a Mazda Millenia.

Teasing aside, Mazda's introduction of the '95 Millenia luxury sedan may spark a question or two when car buyers start comparing it to Mazda's 929 luxury sedan. With an MSRP of $31,995, the smartly appointed Millenia S is in the same ballpark as its older, similarly upscale 929 cousin, which starts at $35,795.

The Millenia is available in three models: a base model with cloth interior ($25,995), a Millenia with leather interior ($28,895) and the aforementioned top-of-the-line Millenia S. The plush S model surely will butt heads in the showroom with its more established 929 stablemate.

That's why Mazda is taking great pains to position the Millenia S as a sportier, more muscular alternative to the stately 929, while targeting buyers who are younger and more freewheeling than the comparatively genteel Mazda 929 owners.

Actually, the Millenia S was conceived as the flagship model for Mazda's Amati luxury-car division. But when Mazda sat down and took a hard look at the bloodletting going on in the high-end market segment - where the Acura Legend, Lexus and Infiniti were slugging it out for an ever-skinnier slice of the pie - it wisely put its Amati Division plans on the back burner.

Also to its credit, Mazda has equipped the Millenia S with a powerplant that not only distinguishes it from the 929, but also from every other entry in the luxury-sedan class.

It's the Miller-cycle engine, which employs an air-compression technology that has never been used in a production auto before now, and which beefs up performance without hogging fuel.

All Millenia models come equipped with quite an impressive list of standard equipment: dual airbags, automatic climate control, 4-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock (ABS), automatic transmission, alloy wheels, AM/FM/cassette sound system, anti-theft alarm, power driver's seat, and power windows and door locks.

The leather-clad Millenia also comes with a power passenger seat, power moonroof and remote keyless entry as standard.

Our Millenia S test car came with options that included a Bose audio system with a trunk-mounted 6-disc CD changer, a protection package that offered carpeted floor mats and alloy wheel locks, and the 4-Seasons package with heated front seats, a heavy-duty battery, heavy-duty windshield wiper motor and larger-capacity windshield-washer reservoir.

The $425 inland freight charge brought our test car's total price to $33,450.

Walkaround

Consistent with Mazda's desire to target a younger crowd, the Millenia body has been sculpted in a sleeker, more aerodynamic fashion than the 929. And in this case, form definitely follows function: The wind-penetrating design reduces drag to make this car one of the sleekest in its class.

Another plus is the savvy forward-fashion front grille design, which is a variation on the Jaguar's haughty nose, with wraparound headlights that are equally catlike. Meanwhile, the Millenia S presents a monochromatic look: The fascias, recessed door handles and mirror housings are painted the same color as the body panels.

The hood-release catch is easy enough to locate, but triggering it required so much force that our fingers actually smarted a bit.

In the rear, the nice, fat trunk opens to reveal enough storage space for perhaps a dozen grocery bags as well as a suitcase or two. And for those who care about such things, the Millenia's trunk closes with a crisp clunk.

Interior Features

Our favorite interior design feature is a nifty mechanism that prompts the steering wheel to slowly ascend when the key is removed from the ignition, allowing the driver to swing his or her legs around when stepping out. Later, when the key is reinserted, the wheel descends to the preprogrammed drive position. Clever.

Other comfort-plus amenities are the huge stereo-control knobs, each of which approximates the size of the tuning knob on a 1972 Pioneer home stereo receiver. Just turn the left hand knob for volume control and the right hand knob for reverse and forward. The bass and treble are adjustable via pressure-sensitive buttons, to a maximum level of six.

And from an ergonomic perspective, the cassette player and radio tuning buttons can be easily engaged without reaching around - or cracking the knuckles against - the gear shift or the cupholder.

Likewise, the power-window and power-mirror controls are a lazy person's dream. Both can be deftly flicked without so much as lifting the forearm from the driver's door armrest.

The climate-control system is similarly well conceived. It generated cool air (we tested this baby during the hot summer months) as efficiently and as comfortably as any vehicle we've driven.

The front seats are plush and comfy, and the front-seat cabin afforded enough headroom for our 5-foot, 11-inch driver.

Although Mazda claims the backseat is roomy enough for three, the person in the middle would be riding the hump. Two good-sized passengers, however, certainly could relax in beaucoup comfort.

The aft also offers map lights, and all four of the Millenia's doors are mounted with interior lights that illuminate the street surface when the doors are opened.

Driving Impressions

The base Millenia and Millenia with leather are powered by a 2.5-liter V6, offering 170 hp at 5800 rpm and 160 lb.-ft. of torque at 4800 rpm. The Millenia S's most significant technological edge is the Miller-cycle engine, which, in simple terms, lowers the engine's compression ratio without diminishing power. It's supercharged by way of a Lysholm air compressor, which forces extra pressure into the cylinders.

Consequently, the Millenia S's moderately sized 2.3-liter engine yields an impressive 210 hp at 5300 rpm, and an equally handsome 210 lb.-ft. of torque at 3500 rpm - best in its class. But fuel economy isn't sacrificed at the altar of added thrust: All Millenias boast EPA fuel economy numbers of 20 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway (the S model goes one better at 28 mpg on the highway).

Once on the open road, the Miller-cycle engine's horsepower boost translates into assertive acceleration - 0 to 60 mph in less than 8 seconds.

And depending on the heaviness of your foot, the transmission automatically chooses whether to engage the normal or power shift modes. The engine redlines at 6000 rpm and hovers at around 1500 rpm at 45 mph.

The Millenia's rack-and-pinion steering allows for effortless one-finger lane maneuvers, even at 75 mph. The 108.3-in. stance, MacPherson struts and multi-link suspension conspire to ensure a taut, uneventful 90-degree turn at 25 mph.

The 4-wheel ABS brakes - ventilated in the front, solid disc in the rear - assure a controlled, surefooted stop. And the Millenia's windswept lines and superior drag coefficient make for a serenely quiet ride. Even when a semitrailer pulled alongside us, noise was minimal.

Summary

What's not to like about this vehicle? The Millenia is swift, well appointed and stylish, albeit in an understated way.

We're still a bit puzzled why it's positioned, price-wise, so close to the 929. Hopefully, that kind of coziness won't lead to its virtues being obscured by the 929's long shadow, because this car deserves some accolades of its own.

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