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MAZDA’S ALL-NEW MILLENIA OFFERS QUALITY, LUXURY AND PERFORMANCE

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It's interesting how the sporty, all-new Millenia luxury sedan from Mazda - a vehicle conceived during the excesses of the late 1980s - could be so right for the frugal, post-recession, value-conscious '90s.

Here's the story: In the mid-1980s, Honda opened a second string of dealerships for its Acura luxury cars. Then Toyota and Nissan launched their Lexus and Infiniti divisions.The ventures of Honda and Toyota have been wildly successful. Nissan's misfired badly but now is showing signs of life.

Mazda, hoping a luxury division would finally give it the prestige to move to the first tier of imports, decided to create its own brand of luxury cars and a new division for them, called Amati. Two entries were planned: a full-size 12-cylinder luxury sedan and a mid-size luxury sports sedan.

Things were going smoothly until the recession hit and flattened the world's automakers. Sterling, Peugeot and Daihatsu quit the U.S. market. And then Mazda, extremely short of cash, made a most extraordinary move: It canceled the Amati division, reimbursing dealers for signs and real estate and concentrating instead on selling Miatas, MPVs, 626s and its other mainstream hardware.

Today nothing remains of the Amati division except the Millenia. Mazda had almost finished development work on the Millenia when Amati was aborted. Because the car was so close to being finished, the decision was made to produce the car and sell it as a Mazda.

Mazda officials say scrapping the division and all the overhead costs that went with it enabled the automaker to chop roughly $6,000 off the Millenia's price.

The Millenia - a legitimate rival to the Infiniti J30, BMW 530i, Acura Legend, Lexus ES300 and Mitsubishi Diamante - starts at about $26,000. But our test vehicle, an S model, came packed with every option Mazda offers.

Even at $32,000, the Millenia comes across as a solid value when compared with similar imports.

With the market crowded with mid-size, V-6-powered sport sedans, Mazda officials knew they had to offer something different, new and innovative to get people to look at the Millenia.

They did. It's called the Miller-cycle engine. Basically the engine - named after American engineer Ralph H. Miller - delays the closing of the intake valves slightly. That, along with a special supercharger, enables the Millenia's 2.3-liter V-6 to deliver more power and performance while running cleaner and consuming less fuel than other engines.

Mazda says the Millenia's power plant makes 210 horsepower. For the sake of comparison, consider Pontiac's supercharged V-6, which does not use Miller-cycle technology. It's a 3.8-liter unit that generates 205 horsepower.

From idle all the way to the tachometer's red line, the Millenia's engine is exceptionally smooth. It performs like most every other V-6 until you press hard on the gas pedal. There's a slight pause before the supercharger blasts a denser fuel and air mixture into the cylinders.

Then the car takes off in a rapid but restrained acceleration - restrained because a computer linking the engine and transmission makes sure that transmission shifts are seamless, even when the pedal is put to the metal.

The front-wheel drive Millenia has the smoothness of a Lexus ES300 and the sporting acceleration of an Infiniti J30.

The base model Millenia offers a more run-of-the-mill engine, a 170-horsepower V-6.

Mazda's engineers played it safe with the Millenia's suspension. They didn't make the car an all-out sports sedan. And they didn't make it a supersoft luxury cruiser, either. Instead, they struck a nice balance between the two.

The Millenia has a fairly soft and quiet ride, but it also is capable of performing athletic maneuvers if called upon to do so.

The power rack-and-pinion steering is crisp and responsive, enabling you to aim the car into a sharp curve with the utmost confidence. However, the 37.4-foot turning radius seems a bit wide for a car of the Millenia's size.

Anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes are standard. They are strong and fade-free; the anti-lock system is not easily provoked. It takes a fairly healthy stab of the pedal to activate it. (In some cars it can be somewhat unnerving when the ABS system engages when you don't think it's really necessary.) Because the brakes are so strong and the fat tires provide so much grip, you likely will rarely use the anti-lock system.

Road and engine noise are well-muffled, but the Millenia is not as quiet as the Lexus ES300 - and that's good. In a car like this, I like having the physical sensation of the engine revving and the tires moving over rough pavement. To me when a car is too quiet, it seems bland.

One of the first things you notice about the Millenia when you walk around the vehicle is how closely the various parts fit together.

For instance, the gaps between the fenders and doors are so small that you would have a hard time inserting anything thicker than a business card. Such tight gaps show how rigid the Millenia's body is. The bodies on most cars bend or flex slightly when driven over such things as railroad tracks, but such rigid construction practically eliminates flexing over bad roads.

Building ultrarigid bodies is one of the latest design trends in autos. When the body doesn't flex or bend, fenders, doors and other body parts - such as interior trim - can be mounted closer together. Also, a super-rigid body allows the car to handle better and it allows its suspension system to absorb more energy when the car travels over bumps.

The doors and trunk lid on the Millenia closed with the solid, reassuring sound of quality.

The spacious interior is filled with easy-to-use and cleanly designed controls and switches. For instance, the knobs for the radio and air conditioner are very large and easy to use; I've never seen anything like them before in a car.

The leather seats are quite firm but also comfortable. On a long road trip, they offered excellent lower-back support. The electrically adjustable seats are controlled by switches on the side of the seats near the door opening, making them easy to reach and use.

As much as I liked the Millenia, I noticed two minor areas where improvements could be made.

Two cup holders pop out from just below the radio; however, they are not much use because they can accommodate only small cups, not soda cans or large soft drinks.

Also, the locking switch for the doors and the electric window switches are not lighted, making them difficult to use at night.

All Millenia models come with dual air bags and beefed up side-impact protection.

If we are in an age where conspicuous consumption is unfashionable - and the social scientists tell us we are indeed in such an era - then the Millenia is the perfect car for the times.

It offers all the quality, luxury and performance of a Lexus but at a Mazda price.

How can you beat that?