Toyota has its Lexus. Nissan has its Infiniti. Honda has its Acura. Mazda had its Amati.
Yes, the Japanese automaker at one time had plans for a luxury division back in the early '90s. Due to inclement economic conditions, however, those plans were kiboshed. Mazda still produced the offspring of that ill-fated coupling and raised the aristocratic Millenia, introduced in '94 as a '95 model, amongst the humble Mazda clan.
There hasn't been too much of a demand for Mazda's upscale sedan, either. In the past few years, Mazda had to hustle to get even 20,000 units sold per year, even with generous rebates and incentives. In comparison, Toyota sells twice as many Camrys per month. If people are willing to spend $30,000+ on a entry-level luxury sedan, then they'd prefer the badge, and the prestige and dealer network service that comes with it, thank you very much. Silly, you say? Hey, how many of you would spring for a Fendi baguette purse if there was a 5 percent discount but it didn't have the shiny logo, and if you had to buy it at Target instead of Neiman Marcus?
For the 2001 model year, Mazda is taking advantage of the robust economy to reestablish their flagship sedan, the Millenia, as a contender in the entry-level luxury sedan arena, to give pause to those who want a well-appointed transport but don't need the cachet or the extra costs associated with a brand name. Amongst the majestic pines of the foothills just outside of Seattle, we were given the chance to ponder this all-consuming conundrum. Did Mazda succeed? Well, depends on what you want. The pull is that it's more luxurious than an Accord or a Camry, more sedate than a Maxima, and it gives the build quality and the rock-solid reliability of a Japanese car should you be considering a Chrysler LHS.
The 2001 Millenia gets some new duds, losing its Lincoln-esque vertical-columned grille for a Mazda-traditional five-point, horizontal bar air inlet and a body that's slightly (1.8 inches) longer than the previous Millenia. Judging by some comments of consumers in Town Hall, it's a polemical issue, with some calling the new sedan Acura-Sterile, and comparing the decision made by Mazda to be a misfire on par with the aesthetically divergent restyling of the once-handsome Nissan Maxima. Millenia's new hood, front fenders, grille, front bumper, headlights, and rear were modestly tweaked to give it a slightly more assertive countenance (and, by the way, why is the new sheetmetal of cars always described as more aggressive than the previous version? For once, I'd like to see a kinder, gentler car).
But the big news is that the ride of the Millenia has been improved. Mazda wanted to alter it so that there's more of a bias toward the driving experience. Changes that occurred under the skin of the Millenia included reinforced sidesills, resulting in a 35 percent increase in torsional rigidity. Neat trick, considering that the Premium gains only 117 pounds and the S is heavier by 133 pounds. Mazda built an autocross in the parking lot of a horse racetrack so that we could test out the stiffened chassis, as compared to the 2000 model. There really was a world of difference, as the new suspension felt more balanced, and lost some of the body roll that plagued the ride of the previous Millenia.
Yet on the serpentine roads, where we were let loose to soak in the moist, green beauty of the chlorophyll-laden hills skirting Seattle (gee, and we wonder why Washingtonians hate Californians), we found that the suspension is still geared more for the leisurely driver than any performance-oriented acrobatics. While it soaks up road irregularities with alacrity, you don't get any sense of "sportiness" while zooming into and out of hairpin curves.
Plus, this is a front-wheel-drive car; as such, a fair amount of torque steer, though not terribly intrusive, was detected. Just enough to remind you that this is a 200+ horsepower engine. Otherwise, the steering is light and nimble, though oversensitive at times, and doesn't give enough feedback as to the feel of the road to inspire any quickening of the pulse or utter confidence when faced with a twisty mountain lane.
The base Millenia is called the Premium trim. Its powerplant is a rather flaccid 2.5-liter DOHC V6 that puts out 170 horsepower. The engine of the Millenia S displaces a mere 2.3 liters, but delivers 210 ponies at 5,300 rpm and 210 foot-pounds of torque at a low 3,500 rpm. This is due to the advanced Miller-cycle engine, which utilizes a Lysholm compressor and delayed intake-valve timing to rush more fuel and air into the engine, speeding up combustion, somewhat like a supercharger. It has a nice little snarl in the upper ranges of the rpm, too.
Off-the-line launch was silky, with smooth delivery of power in the lower rpms. However, in the second and third gears, the slushbox earned its moniker; it was indecisive on downshifts, leaving us dissatisfied while going uphill. The upshifts, rather harsh and noticeable, occurred only after a bit of nudging. You'll want to be in hyper-alert mode when merging onto a freeway.
The interior, while it has been improved due to the power lumbar adjusters in the seat, a two-tone color scheme, a leather-wrapped shift knob and brighter lighting, still falls short of being deemed luxurious. The Optitron gauges are new, and look upscale. The use of standard steering wheel-mounted stereo controls are intuitive, so that you can search for that elusive Dusty Springfield song while keeping your eyes on the road. But crank up the volume on "Son of a Preacher Man," because the wind noise coming off of the A-pillar was over and above what could be expected of a "luxury car," even with the improved sound insulation.
Also new is a redesigned center console. The padded armrest was at a useful height for comfort, and opened up to reveal a power outlet, a substantial amount of space and two cupholders for the front (the rather flimsy ones for the rear were a bit disappointing). For 2001, even base buyers will get the leather seats, side airbags, four-disc ABS and a power moonroof. Other standard niceties include climate control and a power driver's seat.
Step up to the Millenia S for leather trim, electronic traction control, 17-inch wheels and a Bose stereo system. The only options are an in-dash six-CD changer, cosmetic items such as a metallic paint job and a chromed finish on the 17-inch wheels. An all-season package that includes heated seats and mirrors is also available.
The trunk has a decent amount of space and a low liftover, yet is marred by hinges that'll crush the Franklin Mint collectible plates that you'll be showing off to your poker buddies. Rear seat comfort is decent, with a nicely raked seatback and adjustable headrests. A fifth rider may mar things a bit, though, but they'll appreciate the flat floorboard due to the lack of a driveshaft.
A part of Millenia's appeal is its non-mainstream status. Millenia owners want the coddling that comes with having an upper-crust car without the cachet (or the denigration) that comes with having a luxury marque on the front and rear. A genteel subtlety for people who don't have to prove to the world that they've done well. These days, you have to be doing well to afford the premium fuel required by both Millenia powerplants...D'oh!
Sometimes, even trying to be nondescript requires a sacrifice. But are you willing to trade in a better-handling vehicle, in the form of an Audi A4, Chrysler 300M or an IS 300? Maybe you'd prefer the more luxurious digs provided by the Olds Aurora or a fully equipped Volkswagen Passat? Dude, we're operating under a capitalist entity. Get the better car.