Curbside Classic: 2000 Mazda Millenia S – Identity Crisis

(first posted 10/15/2012)    It is common knowledge that in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Japanese automakers broadened their lineups with luxury divisions: Acura, in 1986; Lexus, in 1989; and Infiniti, in 1990. Mazda also had a plan for a new luxury  marque to be called Amati. What instead became the 1995 Mazda Millenia was originally intended to be the first of several Amati models exported to North America by Mazda. For better or worse, it didn’t happen, and Mazda’s answer to Lexus was not to be.

Mazda was on a roll in the ’90s. The 1989 Miata had returned the small, sporty roadster to relevance–so successfully, in fact, that within a few years Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche all had two-seaters on their drawing boards. The 323/Protege was a competent little compact, and the mid-size 626, while perhaps not as popular as the Accord or Camry, still held its own. With production (at least for North America) of the Japan-built 929 luxury sedan set to end in 1996, Mazda began preparing to launch its own luxury brand: Amati.

Amati would be Mazda’s Lexus. The brand was to be positioned a cut above the regular Mazda line to compete with not only other up-and-coming premium Japanese luxury brands, but with Audi, BMW and Mercedes as well. Mazda had long used various sub-marques for its home-market vehicles (more info here), including the somewhat Russian-sounding Autozam, Efini, Eunos and M2. The Eunos 500 was what would have been the first Amati model; in the wake of Mazda’s eleventh-hour scrapping of Amati, it came to the U.S. as the Millenia.

The Millenia arrived in North America in 1995 as a completely-equipped car. The standard Millenia was equipped with a 2.5-liter, 170-hp DOHC 24-valve V6 whose block used a two-piece design. However, the more sporting Millenia S was the real talking point in ’90s Mazda showrooms. Why, you ask? Well, the S came equipped with the 2.3-liter Miller-cycle V6–a very atypical power plant, even for rotary-loving Mazda.

Wile the Miller-cycle V6 shared its two-piece block with its less exotic 2.5-liter cousin, it utilized a Lysholm compressor.  The Miller cycle uses a delayed closing of the intake valve during the compression stroke which allows, among other things, a higher compression ratio. It’s essentially the same as the modern Atkinson cycle engine used in some hybrids, including the Prius. However, the Miller-cycle version compensated for the Atkinson’s loss of power density (which is masked by a hybrid’s electric motor) with a compressor that boosted power by forcing a greater fuel/air mixture into the cylinders. Directly driven by the engine, the compressor provided instant boost when called upon.

Another feature of the Miller-cycle was twin air-to-air intercoolers, which lowered air intake temp to take full advantage of the Lysholm compressor’s charge. As with the 2.5, the 2.3 was mated to a four-speed automatic transmission.

According to Mazda, the Miller-cycle V6 was about 50% more powerful than conventional engines of similar size, a claim substantiated by the Millenia’s engines themselves. The 2.5-liter (2,497cc) version produced 170 horsepower @ 5800 rpm and 160 lb-ft of torque @ 4800 rpm. The 2.3-liter Miller-cycle, while smaller, got a healthy bump up to 210 hp @ 5300 rpm and 210 lb-ft of torque @ 3500 rpm. Not bad at all for 1995, which was well before the dawn of 300-horsepower Impala LTs.

In addition to the special engine, S models received standard traction control and 16″ alloy wheels, shod with low-profile P215/55 all-season radials.

Amati may never have gotten off the ground, but there were numerous ways to tell that the Millenia wasn’t originally intended to be a plain old Mazda–not even a luxurious one. All Millenias benefited from higher levels of fit, finish and assembly quality. Mazda happily touted that most panel gaps measured “a miniscule 3.5mm, even narrower than found on many renowned European cars,” according to the 1995 brochure.

The interior was quite a nice place to be. Standard Millenias had “luxurious cloth upholstery” but offered optional leather; leather was standard on the Millenia Leather (you think?) and Millenia S models.

Riding a 108.3″ wheelbase, and with an overall length of 189.8″, the Millenia was not quite as big as the soon-to-be-departed 929, but still pretty large for a Mazda. In its debut year, the Millenia was priced from $27,525.

The Mellinia’s seating bespoke as much attention to detail as did its exterior. Looking over this 2000 S, I can see it as a sportier alternative to a contemporary ES300. But as nice as it was, without a luxury nameplate it just wasn’t going to do as well with the country-club set. Snob appeal, don’t you know. But for those who just wanted a nice car, the Millenia was a pretty good choice.

About 10 years ago, the receptionist at my uncle’s law firm got in an accident with her Mark VIII and bought a brand new Millenia. Despite her Lincoln preference–at the time she had her ’93 Mark VIII and her husband had an ’89 Mark VII LSC and a ’98 Town Car–she just loved her Millenia. She may still be driving it to this day.

All Millenias were well-equipped, with standard ABS; power mirrors, windows and locks; tinted glass; fog lights;  an eight-way power driver’s seat; anti-theft alarm; automatic climate control; a five-speaker AM/FM/cassette stereo with power antenna; a power-operated tilt wheel; and a rear-window defogger.

Millenia Leather and Millenia S models featured standard leather seats and leather-wrapped shift and handbrake levers, a four-way power passenger seat, a power-operated moonroof and keyless entry.

I found our featured Millenia just down the street from my condo wearing a “For Sale” sign. It had been sitting for a couple of weeks, but I finally managed to pull over and get some photos. As you can see, it’s in as-new condition. It must have been well-taken care of, since around here most Mazdas over 10 years old have moderate rust, especially around the rear wheel wells. Not this one, though.

Yes, it is even an S model with that intriguing Miller-cycle V6 underhood. It’s certainly the Millenia to have, with its extra power, standard everything and nicer five-spoke alloys.

This car is still probably too new to squirrel away as a future collectible, but if you want a Millenia, you could do worse than this one. It is really, really nice.

These were nice-looking cars, and it wasn’t until I spotted this one that I realized it was the first I’d seen in years. Ironically, about a week later I was walking around the neighborhood when I came upon a late-model “facelifted” Millenia, in dark green–and with the more typical wheel-well rust. This happens to me all the time–I write (or read) about a rarely-seen car on CC, then nearly trip over one just a day or a week later!

Related: The Atkinson and Miller Cycle Engines: Not Exactly What They Started Out to Be  PN