FWD Champions: The Mazda Millenia
Here’s an oddball.
The ’95-’03 Mazda Millenia was essentially an orphan: It was built on a unique chassis, and no direct predecessors or descendants. It was intended to be one of the initial pillars of Mazda’s Amati luxury brand, but when that project was shelved, the automaker decided to roll out the Millenia under their main brand as a kind of replacement for their range-topping RWD 929 luxury car. The Millenia, though, hewed to a substantially different philosophy than the 929, being smaller, lighter, FWD and with more of an emphasis on handling excellence as opposed to smooth, serene highway cruising.
It was never a roadburner, even with the optional 210-hp 2.3l Miller Cycle V6 (more on that later), but its chassis dynamics were typically polished and lively, a rarity for cars in its class. Also, the Millenia weighed in at a trim (for its class) 3,400 lbs, a figure that benefited performance and fuel economy.
Debits? Pretty anonymous styling, although the basic proportions are well-executed and handsome, especially in person. It has the same overall stance as my BMW E34 525i: Solid yet flowing, and perfectly tasteful. My only quibble is with the nose area: The grille is oddly placed and shaped, and the other elements seem to have been located with an arbitrariness uncomfortably recalling the contemporary Chrysler 300M. As nice as the rest of the styling is, it’s a shame Mazda couldn’t give the Millenia a more cohesive face.
The top-of-the-line V6 engine was unique. Wringing 210 hp from only 2.3 liters of displacement, it employed a variation of the traditional 4-stroke suck-squish-bang-blow process known as the Miller cycle. The idea is to reduce pumping losses during the compression stroke by holding the intake valve open for much longer, well into the piston’s upward rise, and relying on a supercharger to force the intake charge to stay inside the cylinder. The power loss from the supercharger is less than would be incurred by the piston having to compress as much of the fuel/air mixture as it would with a conventional cam profile, so the upshot is more net power from less displacement. It’s a neat idea, and it worked, giving the Millenia class-leading fuel economy with respectable power from a smallish engine, as the cost of a bit of added complexity.
The Millenia was treated to a refresh for the 2001 model year, with most of the emphasis going to a fascia redesign which, ironically, made the car even more bland-looking and anodyne. And when the axe finally fell at the end of 2003, after a long, eight-year model run, Mazda never fielded a replacement, ending their participation in the luxury + performance market niche.
The Millenia deserved more success. Never quite sure how to market the car, Mazda seemed to suffer from much of the same ambivalence about their own product that afflicted the early Infiniti Q45’s model run. It was a luxury car with a few novel technical tricks up its sleeve, and blessed with a taut chassis and a dash of performance, and the Japanese just weren’t sure how to take on BMW on their own turf. I’m still not quite sure they are. Perhaps with more marketing resolve the Millenia could have been pitched as a worthy contender (the chassis was certainly up to par). Pity it wasn’t.
Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting FWD cars I think highly of, in spite of my overwhelming RWD bias. Read the other installments here:
- Peugeot 205 GTI
- B4 Volkswagen Passat
- Lancia Fulvia Coupe
- Acura Vigor
- Citroën SM
- Fiat Coupé
- ’91-’96 Infiniti G20
- ’91-’94 B13 Nissan Sentra SE-R
- ’88-’92 Mazda MX-6
- Audi Coupe GT
- Volkswagen Corrado
- Peugeot 405 Mi16
- ’78-’93 Saab 900
- Volvo 850 T-5R
- 5th-generation Honda Prelude
- 1st- and 2nd-generation Volkswagen Scirocco