Spring halted its advance and retreated from winter, which had been thought dead but returned with fierce winds and plummeting temperatures. It was a seasonal resurrection appropriate for the car of the moment, the 1999 Mazda Millenia S, which once
seemed destined for retail interment. Mazda Motor Corp. sold only 16,717 Millenias in the United States last year, 7.2 percent fewer than the 18,020 it sold in 1997. Those are death-knell numbers for most vehicle lines. But the Millenia, whose numbers
have been low since its U.S. introduction in the spring of 1994, deserved a reprieve. The car's poor market showing stemmed not so much from deficits in quality or performance as it did from Mazda's seeming inability to sell lemonade on a hot day.
On-again, off-again marketing, and failure to establish an image for the Millenia, Mazda's premier sedan, all helped to deep-six sales. But the Millenia survived because of its essential goodness and stunning beauty. It returns to us this year as an
even more attractive version of its former self--and at a price, about $5,500 lower than previous models', that should move the metal. The car is a jewel, a design standout. The lines flow from front to rear, uninterrupted by gimcrackery of any sort.
The flush-mounted, crystal-lens headlamps round discreetly into the front fenders. And the reworked grille--a chrome-plated waterfall affair--is a delightful piece of brightwork that enhances the Millenia's overall appearance. Supple cream-colored,
leather-faced seats are inside. There are unobtrusive woodgrain accents on the center console and interior door panels. The instrument cluster--analog dials in an ellipsoidal setting--is intelligently designed. I normally don't care much for
"moonroofs" or "sunroofs"--rooftop apertures that seem to compromise climate-control systems. But I was taken with the one in the Millenia, because of the way it bathed the passenger cabin in soft, natural light. Mazda again makes two engines
available for the Millenia--a standard 2.5-liter, double-overhead-cam 24-valve V-6 for the base car and a Miller cycle 2.3-liter V-6 in the tested Millenia S. The standard engine is designed to produce 170 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 160 pound-feet of
torque at 4,800 rpm. Some critics have called it "sluggish." But I suspect most of those folks are recalcitrant throttle jockeys who refuse to abandon the idea that it's okay to break the speed limit. The Miller cycle engine, made to deliver
big-engine power with small-engine fuel consumption, produces 210 horsepower at 5,300 rpm and 210 pound-feet of torque at 3,500 rpm. It's more fun than the standard Millenia V-6, assuming you have a penchant for hunting vacant back roads to fully open the
throttle. Mazda tried to find the sweet middle between a sports ride and a luxury sedan ride in the Millenia, and judging from the performance of the test car, the company appears to have hit its mark. Mazda says it is committed
to making the 1999 Millenia a success in the United States. I hope this is true. This car is too darn good to suffer the sales embarrassment it has endured over the past four years.1999 Mazda Millenia S Complaints: The standard electronically
controlled four-speed automatic transmission could use some refinement. The present system lags a bit in shifts. Also, the Millenia's 13.3-cubic-foot trunk is shaped in such a way as to limit efficient use of the space therein. Praise: An absolutely
beautiful, well-constructed car overall. Very definitely a machine for people who love to drive--and look good in the process. Head-turning quotient: Knockout, touchdown, goal! Layout: Front engine, front-wheel drive. Ride, acceleration and
handling: Double aces for ride and handling. Excellent acceleration. Excellent braking. Standard brakes include four-wheel power discs with antilock system. Safety: Depowered front air bags, automatically tensioning seat belts, s ide-impa
ct door beams. Traction control, designed to limit wheel spin on slippery roads, is optional. Capacities: Seats five people, only four of them comfortably. Fuel tank holds 18 gallons of recommended premium unleaded for the Miller cycle engine.
Mileage: Unimpressive. Sorry, Miller cycle. About 22 miles per gallon in city-highway-rural driving. Estimated 384-mile range on usable volume of fuel. Sound system: Bravo! Five-speaker AM/FM/CD/cassette audio system. Speakers by Bose. Price: Base
price on the tested Millenia S is $31,045. Dealer invoice on base model is $28,084. Price as tested is $32,295, including $800 in options and a $450 destination charge. Note: The sticker for the 1999 premium Millenia S is the same as the price for the
base 1998 Millenia, which means you're getting more for your money this year. The price of the base Millenia has dropped $5,500, to $26,545. This has got to be one of the best deals out there for luxury cars.