A great luxury sedan with fresh new styling.
by Ted West
Base Price (MSRP) $28,025
As Tested (MSRP) $31,505
If there is exclusivity in anonymity, then the Mazda Millenia is one of the most exclusive luxury cars in the world. Perhaps it's because Mazda, unlike Honda/Acura, Toyota/Lexus or Nissan/Infiniti, never created a separate brand channel for its premium product, in spite of its attempts to do so. The Millenia's styling hasn't helped either; it's sleek and clean and attractive but not particularly distinctive. Whatever the reasons, the Mazda Millenia has slipped under the radar of most luxury and near-luxury-car buyers.
And that just shouldn't be, because this is a great luxury sedan that offers good value as well. The Millenia S, particularly, with its supercharged 210-horsepower Miller-cycle V6 engine, remains one of the most interesting cars in the near-luxury class. A crisp-handling sedan that encourages you to take the long way home, it offers the kind of gracious creature comforts that'll make you want to skip home altogether for a road-trip adventure instead. Originally planned to be launched as a premium-brand product, the Millenia is superbly engineered and is built at one of the world's highest quality assembly plants.
Stepping out for the beginning of the new millennium, the Millenia sports fresh new styling up front for 2001.
Purists may argue that the new millennium actually began in 2001, but Mazda has dropped the Millennium Edition Millenia this year, leaving only the Millenia Premium ($28,025) and Millenia S ($31,025).
The S is powered by Mazda's innovative Miller-cycle engine, a 2.3-liter dohc V6 that uses an innovative scroll-type supercharger to produce 210 horsepower without compromising fuel economy or smoothness. The Premium, which is really the base Millenia, comes with a naturally aspirated (i.e. at operating at atmospheric pressure, not supercharged) 2.5-liter dohc V6 rated at 170 horsepower.
Standard equipment for both Millenia includes a four-speed automatic transmission, leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruise control, automatic climate control, alloy wheels, AM/FM/CD/cassette stereo, remote keyless entry with two fobs, fog lamps, eight-way power driver's seat and dual front and side-impact airbags.
In addition to the trick engine, Millenia S adds leather seating surfaces and door inserts, plus power for the passenger's seat, electronic traction control, 17-inch (rather than 16) alloy wheels, power moonroof and a Bose audio system with nine speakers.
We'd bet that one reason Millenia hasn't received the notice it deserves has been its styling: handsome, but blandly so, like the suit models in a menswear catalog. That may finally change for 2001, as Mazda has replaced every panel forward of the windshield, along with the tail lights and fascia in the rear. The company likes to call the Millenia's new look "aggressive." We're not sure we'd go that far, but it is sharper, cleaner, and better defined than before.
At the same time, Mazda engineers have reinforced the side sills and other structural members, so that the 2001 Millenia is 35 percent stiffer in torsion than the 2000 models. Torsional stiffness is literally the body's resistance to being twisted, and cars with a lot of it (the high-prestige German brands, for example) tend to "feel solid" on the road.
Stem to stern, Millenia's fit and finish is world-class, absolutely as good as it gets. The Millenia is built in a state-of-the-art assembly plant in Japan. Mazda's warranty period goes a few extra miles, to 50,000.
The interior of the Millenia is tasteful, distinguished, and deluxe. The leather upholstery is utterly first quality, buttery and rich. The center panels of the seat cushions and backs are elegantly gathered to give the interior living-room sumptuousness. The whole is finished in gentle earth tones that are understated without being mud-hut maudlin.
Front seating in the Millenia is excellent, with good bolstering and lateral support and a fully adequate range of electrical adjustment. New for 2001 is a power lumbar support for the driver's seat. The rear seats offer only average space, however, and cargo netting is affixed to the rear of the front seats, a fashion that has come and gone. A trunk pass-through feature incorporated in the rear fold-down center armrest makes it easy to load a pair of skis or other long items.
Also new for 2001 is a two-tone dashboard treatment, with the upper section finished in a soft, pleasing gray; and the lower part keyed to the earth tones of the rest of the interior. It is a rich, clean look, accentuated by tasteful splash of wood on the center console. Controls are formed of handsomely tapered shapes so that your eye is automatically directed to each function. "Optitron" gauges, also new for 2001, seem to disappear when the ignition is off; turn on the key, and first the red pointers, and then the white numbers, come alive in the darkness.
An electric steering-wheel adjuster allows infinite adjustment up and down, tailoring the driving position to individual taste. Auxiliary audio controls are mounted on the wheel. Less satisfactory is the power-window setup, with automatic-down on the driver's side only, and no automatic-up anywhere to be found. Some of the competition has one-upped Mazda here.
The heating, ventilation and air conditioning system includes straightforward controls for mode (defrost/up/down), fan strength and a radial knob for selecting temperature. Also provided is an ambient outside temperature readout. The front and rear window defroster buttons are placed immediately next to one another, and at first, these symbols' similarity make you think twice. On the other hand, in frosty conditions you may need both simultaneously anyway.
Traction control is standard in the Millenia S, and can be switched off. That's a useful feature when, for instance, the car is being operated with snow chains. Base-model buyers can still get traction control as part of a $600 "4-Seasons" Package that also includes heated front seats, a heavy-duty wiper motor, a large-capacity wiper-fluid tank and two-position wipers. A $300 package adds the heated seats and heavy-duty wiping/washing equipment to the S-model.
The base Millenia's 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter dohc V6 is a tepid performer. It takes more than 9 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph, which is not quick for a proper luxury sedan.
By contrast, the smaller-displacement Miller-cycle engine in the S sprints to 60 mph about 7.5 seconds. Yet it achieves a slightly better EPA mileage rating of 20/28 mpg city/highway.
Mazda's unique Miller-cycle engine has been named one the world's "10 Best Engines" for the last four years by Ward's, an automotive trade journal. It uses a Lysholm compressor (a scroll-type supercharger) to boost intake pressure, along with late intake-valve closing to produce an impressive amount of power without sacrificing fuel efficiency. This system allows this 2.3-liter engine to perform like a 3.3-liter engine, while still retaining the 2.3-liter engine's economy of operation. The result is a vigorous 210-horsepower with the brawny, quick response of 210 pound-feet of torque. Beyond the $3,000 it adds to the Millenia's initial purchase price, the Miller-cycle package has no downside.
Put into action, the Miller-cycle engine makes an authoritative growl. Its torque delivers immediate go-power, yet the front-wheel-drive equipment has been engineered to eliminate torque steer even at maximum thrust. And that's not the case with some of the Millenia's competitors. (Torque steer is a tugging of the steering wheel that occurs in powerful front-wheel-drive cars.) The crisp acceleration of the Millenia S is thoroughly appropriate to a well-balanced luxury sedan. At the same time, this engine is supremely smooth. Power is transmitted through an excellent four-speed automatic transmission.
The Millenia ride is stellar, a splendid combination of genteel smoothness and real athleticism. Helped by the generously wide tires, the Mazda tops most of its entry-luxury competitors with high cornering limits. Body roll is mild and well controlled. The rack-and-pinion steering transmits excellent road feel, combined with rock-solid on-center feel. All in all, the suspension doesn't disturb you overmuch with news of the road's roughness, but tells you what you need to know. Sound deadening, already on par with the competition, has been improved for 2001.
Four wheel anti-lock disc brakes are standard. (ABS allows the driver to maintain steering control in a panic braking situation.) Braking is adequate, although some other cars in this class stop in shorter distances.
The Mazda Millenia is an elegant example of affordable luxury. It offers a broad range of attractive attributes, and its assembly is uncommonly fine, on par with the very best. It has an almost timeless appearance, representative of the best in Japanese design, with just a dash of hunkered-down aggressiveness to set it apart.
Inside, the Millenia S delivers comfort and ergonomic competence of a high order. The materials used, from the elegance of the leather upholstery to the tactile solidity of the switchgear, confirm that this car is worth its purchase price.
But what truly sets the Millenia apart is its award-winning Miller-cycle engine. A paragon of resource-friendly fuel efficiency, it seems to do the impossible, using a small 2.3-liter engine's fuel appetite to deliver a much larger engine's responsiveness and excitement.
Given its hotly competitive price, it is no wonder that sales of the Millenia have begun to climb steeply. So if you're in the market for luxury sedan and want to spend your money wisely, then sneak down to your local Mazda dealership and buy a Millenia, anonymously.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.