It has been almost a decade since Honda birthed Acura, the first Japanese car that wasn't a dinky toy with a cardboard interior. * Toyota followed with Lexus, all velvet power and squeaky leather. Then Nissan gave us the expansive,
expensive Infiniti. Two years ago, Mazda declared its desire for a luxury car by announcing there would be Amati. Sadly, with executives chosen, Orange County offices occupied and prototypes built, economies sickened and Amati died from an overdose
of negative projections. But, wait. This is the age of recycling. Mazda has revived the cadaver of Amati, revised its cars and is selling the luxury-sedan-that-never-was as the lively Mazda Millenia. With it comes a poser that would have
loomed large had Amati made it to market: What edge can a new entrant offer the luxury line that isn't delivered by existing stalwarts--Lexus ES300, Acura Legend, Infiniti J30, the smaller BMWs and entry level Mercedes-Benzes? Or some Volvos and Audis?
Price, believes Mazda. And because it will not be setting up dealerships to service a new division, and thanks to savings from needing only one executive bureaucracy, Mazda has started its near-luxury line at $25,995. Sounds good. It's
even a hard argument for shopping Mazda before looking at the ES300, Legend and J30, glossy sedans with equipment and performance close to Millenia--but costing $4,000, $8,000 and $10,000 more. BMW and Mercedes, however, have heritage and status as
the discriminating purchase. Bimmer's 325 and MB's C-Class have been earning more industry honors than Whitney Houston. Ergo, no matter price differentials, lovers of German cruisers are unlikely to be tempted by an untried Japanese sedan. Yet this
affordable rookie could well pluck leaves from the laurels of Lexus, Infiniti and Acura. * Millenia--which refers to periods of great celebration, not a 1,000-year warranty--is an appealing front-drive sedan reflecting Mazda's awareness of a
field brimming with very fine cars. The basic model is up to speed on standard niceties and the inventory reaches from here to Hofu: Included for $25,995 are dual air bags, automatic transmission, anti-lock brakes, automatic air, alloy wheels, power
driver's seat, tilt steering, power windows and lock, cruise control and an alarm system. Second in line is something called the Millenia with Leather. Seriously. And, yes, it has a leather interior. It is further separated from the foundation car
by a moon roof and a $28,300 sticker. The cars share a 170-horsepower V-6, which other reviewers have found wanting and whimpering. Our test vehicle was the Mazda with the mostest, the $31,400 Millenia S, which leaves few options unturned and
has a supercharged Miller-cycle V-6 pumping 210 horsepower. There were Millers who created tourers, funeral cars and some very good theater. Mazda
's Miller is American engineer Ralph Miller, who has developed a system of improving fuel efficiency and power of small engines without increasing displacement. Anyone whose auto mechanical skills are stretched by working credit card buttons at a
self-service gas station may skip the next two paragraphs. (In Miller engines, intake valve closing is delayed until the piston has completed 20% of its compression stroke. This reduces the compression ratio and allows the fuel-air mix to cool.
Optimum combustion is achieved more by thermal efficiency than cylinder volume. (To this mechanical process, Mazda adds a compressor that rams cool air into the intakes at 28.5 pounds per square inch. The result is a 2.3 liter V-6 in the Millenia S
that produces 30% more horsepower and torque than the larger, 2.5 liter V-6 in the base model.) * Mazda,of course, delights in the oddball. It uses a rotary engine in its RX7 and is the only manufacturer of cars t
at go thrruuuum. Meanwhile, the general public remains largely indifferent to revolving engine technology. It follows that many may question motoring by Miller. The trick engine certainly ups the cost of the Millenia S. Yet it is married to a
power-sapping automatic--the only available transmission--and doesn't accelerate quicker than the Legend LS or BMW 325i. The Miller-Millenia's top speed could offer bragging rights. But who has the right combination of open road and iron nerves to
run at 142 m.p.h.--then the brass to claim it's a bigger yuk than driving a Lexus GS300 at 134 m.p.h? Styling of this spiffiest Mazda, however, is in a cool class of its own. Looks are several seasons ahead of its time and $15,000 ahead of its price
range. The exterior shows sculpted lines of glass and steel that are gently overstated for unmistakable distinction. For quality of build, Mazda dismantled dozens of competitors' cars and researched better benchmarks for silence and stability.
Tolerance levels were attacked by supercomputers until spaces between body panels are 3.5 millimeters, narrower than the 5-millimeter separations of Mercedes. A 5,200-ton press stamped one sheet of steel into one rear frame and door fenders for increased
rigidity. Smooth insides of rolling curves are marred by jarring touches. Radio volume, for example, is controlled by a huge, sloppy knob that requires endless rotation before din and silence are altered. Cup holders are dash-mounted but low.
They block the cigarette lighter for nonsmokers who might need the outlet for a cellular phone or radar detector. So it's joe or a call to voice mail on the morning commute, not both. Multi-link suspension and speed-sensitive steering make
Millenia's handling disciplined and trustworthy. The ride has been dialed to a Sealy Posturepedic midpoint that allows relaxed vigilance. All in all, this is an elegant car priced to be a serious contender. With a little more power here, with a
realignment there, it could become a champion. Even in this millennium. 1995 Mazda Millenia S The Good: Rock-bottom pricing with high-value features. World-class styling. Meticulous construction and quality fit. The Bad: Miller-cycle
benefits not worth trouble. Mazda needs to sweat little stuff. The Ugly: What this car could do to Asian rivals. Cost Base: $31,400. As tested, $33,470 (includes automatic transmission, two airbags, anti-lock brakes, leather upholstery,
traction control, automatic air conditioning, moon roof, power seats and windows, Bose sound system.) Engine 2.3 liter, double overhead cam, 24-valve Miller-cycle V-6. Type Front-drive, front-engine, five-passenger luxury sedan.
Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 8.5 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 142 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 20
and 28 m.p.g. Curb Weight 3,391 pounds.