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"That two-tone paint makes it look like a mafia car."
"Those rims are phat and dope."
"If Mazda thinks it's competing with Mercedes or Lexus, it's way wrong."
"Hey, my mother loves this car."
Yes, the comments ran the gamut. Who knew that such a simple sedan, with looks hard to ID in a lineup, could evoke such unprovoked comments? No other cars or trucks immediately spring to mind that have both the kids calling it "phat and dope" and mom giving her seal of approval. Meet the Mazda Millenia S, a quiet participant in the luxury competition. The first question everyone on the street asked was about its price. When egged on, they guessed everything from "high teens" and "I wouldn't pay over $30,000" to "When totally tricked out it shouldn't be more than $24,000." No one was as interested in hearing about the unique Miller Cycle engine or the ride quality -- their only goal was to discover the Holy Grail of Millenia pricing.
Why the all-over-the-map guessing? It didn't take long for us to learn that it might be because the Millenia, too, was all over the place. On the one hand, the exterior's appearance was quite upscale. The two-tone paint added a touch of class, as did the Lincoln-esque grille and low-profile tires wrapped around chrome alloy wheels. Pop the trunk and there was enough space for an entire drum set. But at the other extreme was a center console that seemed awfully plasticky for a fancy machine. The door handles felt cheap, as did the vinyl surfaces and small fittings for the door latches and light fixtures. The power fuel-door and trunk-release buttons being integrated into the driver's-side door speaker looked a lot like an afterthought.
At this point, we weren't certain what we'd pay either. For every refined feature, there was a niggardly one right next to it. (Dear Reader: We interrupt our regularly scheduled road test for this important message. The word "niggardly" is an adjective derivative of the noun "niggard," which Webster's dictionary defines as "a miserly person: cheapskate." In other words, Mazda was niggardly with regard to certain elements of the Millenia's interior fittings. This word is not associated with the similar-sounding racial slur. We now return you to our Millenia road test.) We figured it had to be the mechanicals that would set it apart. In other words, do what Mazda says: Get in, be moved. You might be wondering why the base Millenia comes standard with a 2.5-liter, 24-valve DOHC V6 but the "better" Millenia has a 2.3-liter, 24-valve DOHC V6. That's because the S features a Miller Cycle engine, which Mazda says makes the power of a 3.3-liter but gets the fuel economy of a small engine -- even better than that normally aspirated 2.5-liter. A low compression ratio (reduced heat and no knock) and a high expansion ratio are at the heart of this type of power output, as is a belt-driven Lysholm compressor, which differs from a supercharger because it compresses intake air within the housing before it enters the intake manifold. There are also dual air coolers (like intercoolers) for the intake mixture, contributing to the high power output and torque. This technology is borrowed from industrial and marine applications, in case you're ever on "Jeopardy!."
The Miller Cycle engine is really smooth -- rather than eliciting whiplash when you punch the pedal to the metal, it builds to speed. In a word, refined. This isn't to say that the Millenia is slow, but you may require more instant gratification. We noticed that there's a lot of driveline lash when shifting, and the four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive had to catch up to the engine speed. In fact, when the tranny upshifted, especially under hard acceleration from second into third, it felt as though it lost control of the rpm -- at one point it arced up to 4,000 rpm and then went back down again. The Millenia high-tails it from zero to 60 in 7.8 seconds, but that number isn't so impressive, despite the special engine. Two of its competitors are the Acura TL, which does this same job in 7.7 seconds (and for 2000 it has been freshened in order to be even quicker), and the Chrysler 300M, which does it in 7.8 as well. Plus, both of those cars are cheaper. Did we mention that it sucked out loud to discover that what was eliminated through its dual exhaust was premium-unleaded gas? That smarted big time, since it cost $1.63 a gallon to fill its 18-gallon tank.
The Millenia wants so badly to handle well. The low-profile tires give it a sporty look and feel, but the same rubber contributes to a harsh ride and the clunk, clunk, clunk noise that invaded the cab. The body rides on an independent front suspension with an anti-roll bar and coil springs and an independent, multi-link rear with coils, but it's tuned far too softly and tosses the occupants from side to side on twisty roads while exhibiting a bit of jounce. And can we talk steering? The power rack-and-pinion system with engine speed-sensing assist is jerky and touchy, and required a ton of correction. To keep it going straight down the freeway, our hands had to clutch the 10 and 2 positions on the wheel, with our biceps at full flex.
OK, so maybe the mechanicals aren't the selling points for the Millenia after all. Maybe it's the luxury features. Well, the heating and air-conditioning controls seemed a bit more complicated than need be. Actually, they weren't complicated; they just weren't intuitive. There's a round dial that controls the temperature, but then there's another control for the A/C that's menu-driven. The fan is also menu-driven, so we spent a lot of time with our eyes away from the road. In fact, on sunny days, we couldn't even browse the display because it wasn't bright enough. The analog gauges are easy to read, and we were digging the white numerals on black, but again, there was an odd coupling of analog displays and digital displays. The dash controls were accented by either a chrome bezel, a gray plastic bezel, or fake wood, and the lack of consistency gave an economical feel to the layout.
A sunroof is standard, as are steering wheel-located cruise control (the buttons don't illuminate at night), a cool telescoping steering wheel, remote keyless entry, power windows with driver-side express down, a driver foot rest (a.k.a. dead pedal), and dual front-seat cupholders (although the one deploying from the center console screamed second rate). In-door storage compartments were handy and deep enough for a Thomas Guide, and we thought it was really neat that the rear-passenger doors also had the compartments, until we realized that they didn't, but that the door armrests were simply coming apart. There's seating for five, but you'd want to stick with four max, unless they are small adults. With an average-sized driver (5'7") behind the wheel, legroom is tight, and there's no underseat room for toes. Also adding to the disagreeable surroundings were too-high doorsills for elbow resting and side bolsters in the seat that forced the shoulders inward (adding more strain while trying to steer straight). While the doors swing out wide, exiting requires a running start.
Probably the "Best Of" award should go to the Millenia's brakes. They felt good to the loafers, and we let 'em do their business on a steep decline traveling at about 50 mph. No squawking, no noise -- just a pure-and-simple standstill from the power-assisted four-wheel disc brakes with ABS. But, having said that, 30 grand is a lot of money to spend on good brakes. Even if your loyalty is with Mazda, you may have a difficult time justifying the price and identifying the luxury. Remember, "dope" isn't always a good thing.