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1998 Mazda Millenia S

Talk about a name with resonance. As the millennium approaches, what could be a more appropriate ride than the Mazda Millenia?

At first glance, you might feel short changed by that missing n.

But the alteration makes sense.

After all, millennia is the plural of millennium. Not even Mazda would claim that its near luxury-touring sedan will be around for more than one of them.

I drove the senior model a Millenia S, done in eye-catching dark green paint, with beige leather interior.

The car is largely a carry over for model year '98. One change is Mazda's new winged M logo. It replaces the double doughnut badge (officially called the flame and circle), which first appeared on '92 models. Good call.

The Millenia S has a unique 2.3 L (2254 cc, actually) V6.

This engine is actually smaller than that of the line's base entry, the justplain Millenia, which carries a 2.5 L V6. Both are DOHC, 24valve units, of course. The only transmission is a responsive four-speed automatic.

The S power plant gets its charisma from "Miller Cycle" high pressure super charging and valve timing.

The technology is named for Ralph Miller, an American engineer who developed the concept in the 1940s.

The idea is 3.0 L performance, but with 10 to 15 per cent better fuel economy. (In case your passengers miss the exterior badge, the car's tachometer says "Miller Cycle Engine" in bright, life affirming green letters.)

The spunky little Miller motor kicks out 210 hp, 10 more than the 3.0 L V6 in the segment's benchmark car, the Lexus ES 300.

A touch of throttle lag delays the action slightly as the Millenia's six gathers its concentration, but then you move out at a stirring clip. (The base engine is rated at 170 hp.)

You'll appreciate whatever extra mileage the motor delivers, since it requires premium fuel, as does the 2.5 V6.

Transport Canada mileage ratings: 12.2 L/100 km (city), 8.0 L/100 km (highway). Those numbers aren't much of an advance on the ES 300's: 12.3 L/100 km (city), 8.1 L/100 km (highway) on regular fuel.

Steering is quick and confidence building. The ride is poised and absorbent as you'd expect from a suspension with multi-links, struts and coils all around, plus a stabilizer bar up front.

The front-wheel drive Millenia arrived in the spring of 1994 as a '95 model. It was originally supposed to be the Amati 800.

Remember Amati (from the Latin amare, to love)? It was the Mazda luxury brand that died in the fall of 1992 when the company hit financial turbulence and a crowded upscale market. (A 4.0 L V12 super sedan was to be the ultimate Amati.)

The Millenia's aristocratic roots are reflected in its handsome styling. From the understated grille to the graceful arc of the trunk lid's edge, the design is a study in taste and harmony.

So the meandering, somewhat tacky looking, postmodern dash is all the more disappointing.

And it's not particularly functional. The low rider air vents, mounted under the climate controls, keep your forearms at the right temp, but don't do much for other areas.

The Millenia is bigger than it looks. Its overall length is just 10 mm shy of the ES 300's, but its wheelbase is 80 mm longer. This translates into a decent sized interior for four, though tall people may find rearseat knee room tight.

An upscale touch: a deep storage compartment, with lid, under the backlight.

The Millenia comes with lavish standard features, including traction control, leather interior, power tilt steering wheel with memory and side impact beams.

The $3,060 S package, besides the trick engine, adds eightway power moves for both front seats, 16-inch alloy wheels, bigger tires and insulated hood.

The high zoot Mazda carries Consumer Reports' coveted Recommended rating, with its predicted reliability put at "much better than average." Estimated depreciation, however, is "worse than average.

Millenia, slated to get a facelift for 1999, was named Best New Luxury Car ($30,000 to $60,000) of 1995 by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada.

Prices, which have held steady since last September, start at $38,660 for the base model and $41,720 for the S.

If you like formal elegance with your sheet metal and the idea of getting more sizzle from less engine size, make time for this tourer.

And remember: namewise, you'll be trendily drafting on the Zeitgeist's bumper as we race toward Y2K.

Short Turn is an occasional column describing quick impressions of new vehicles supplied by the manufacturer.

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