Photo Credits: Erin Marquis
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All Mazda Millenias have had a strange life, this one in particular. A decontented, almost but not quite-Bubble Era car sold on a friends and family discount to a Ford family sick of the Blue Oval. It’s a car meant for a stillborn company, with no future and barely a past.

In Japan’s booming bubble economy of the 1980s, Mazda planned an impossibly ambitious luxury brand called Amati. In those days, no project could be too grand, no car too over-engineered. So of course Amati was to have a V12 flagship, a super luxury sedan meant to take on cars like the Lexus LS400. When the Japanese economy collapsed in the early ‘90s, that Bubble Era flagship got cancelled, along with the Amati name altogether. But Amati wasn’t just one car; it was a whole lineup, and a few of the models planned for Amati badging snuck into production. The Millenia was one of them.

While the name Amati may be long forgotten, there are still some remnants rolling around America, shades of what the ambitious luxury car maker could have been. This practically perfect Mazda Millenia S is as close as I’ve ever gotten to Bubble Era bliss. I got to spend an afternoon floating around the streets of Detroit after its owner, my good friend and favorite bar owner Stephen Roginson, handed me the keys while I visited his joint, Batch Brewing.

Stephen spotted me at the bar and rushed over to tell me all about the car he just drove from New Mexico back to Detroit. It had been sitting in his parents garage for years and, even though it was 17-years old, it only had 52,500 miles on it, give or take a mile. He brought it up to the Motor City to give to his daughter to use in her upcoming college career. Besides some minor chips in the paint from driving face-first into the New Mexico dust and a few busted plastic buttons on the door, the car was in immaculate shape.

Stephen knew it had a special engine, which is why he was so keen for me to take a look, but he wasn’t exactly sure what it was that made this model special. In fact, this sleepy little late ‘90s/early aughts sedan disguises a pretty interesting piece of engineering. While we all fawn over Mazda’s rotary engine, the company produced another powertrain that deserves a little attention. Mazda’s KJ-ZEM 2.3-liter supercharged Miller Cycle V6 putting out 210 horsepower.

But why did this unassuming car have such a special engine?

History

Even though Mazda only began using the supercharged engine in 1994, the Miller cycle was patented way back in 1956. The cycle is named after Ralph Miller, and my colleague Patrick George explained the cycle pretty well:

The Miller cycle is a modification of the traditional four-stroke Otto cycle process, except that the intake valve is left open longer than it would be on a normal engine, aided by a twin-screw supercharger. It was the first time the Miller cycle process had been used on a passenger car.

The Miller Cycle engine was a way to increase efficiency in cars where power wasn’t necessarily the goal, and has been mainly used in commercial vehicles. Subaru also used a Miller Cycle engine in a concept car, the B5-TPH and the cycle showed up in an ultra-efficient engine for the Japanese Mazda2, sold as Demio, in 2007.

This wacky engine was developed during a magical time in Japan known as the Bubble Era, when the economy encouraged experimentation in many different facets of automotive design. Mazda planned the Millenia S to be the middle child in a three-vehicle debut of Amati. However it was not to be, as our own Raphael Orlove detailed in his exhaustive investigation of Japan’s Bubble Era:

Amati was announced to the public in 1991, just months before the Japanese economy collapsed. It was a crash was so violent that it ushered in what was prematurely called “The Lost Decade,” a recession that lasted close to 20 years.

Even today it’s hard to get good information on the Amati that wasn’t. Now, there were sister cars to the never-seen Amati flagship. For instance, there was the Amati 500, and Mazda did end up putting a version of it on sale as the car we got here as the Mazda Millenia. (Europe got it as the Xedos 9 and it was called the Eunos 800 elsewhere.)

Amati hadn’t even officially named the car before the brand folded. So instead of scrapping the whole vehicle, the company got to work “decontenting” the Millenia from something ready for an Amati showroom down to Mazda-spec. The job was to make it cheaper and easier to sell in the American market. I reached out to Dick Colliver, group vice president at Mazda North America, to get a grasp of what exactly that decontenting entailed. As Colliver told me, Mazda removed specially designed seats, put in a standard suspension, and cheaper electronics. What it kept was the Miller Cycle engine.

“The powertrain remained the same, even though I didn’t agree with it,” Colliver said. “I thought we should stay with a standard V6 considering the category we were in. I think they were a little early with that technology. Today it might work pretty good.”

Mazda then slapped its own badge on the six cylinder, front-wheel-drive Millenia and set it up to replace the rear-wheel-drive 929 flagship sedan. (For a while, both cars were sold side-by-side. Look at them somewhat awkwardly sharing brochure space as “luxury sedan.”)

The problem was the Millenia couldn’t really compete in its segment. No longer super luxury, it only had its engine to differentiate it. And that fancy cycle, while interesting, only earned the car a 20 city and 28 highway mpg which wasn’t super great. The similarly-priced BMW 3 Series achieved 17 city and 25 highway, but with more robust power. In the end, buyers were being asked to sacrifice power and performance for only a slight increase in efficiency.

Indeed, sales were not what Mazda hoped for. I pulled up sales figures on Automotive News, and in 2001, the year it was axed, Mazda sold 19,849 Millenias. (That was actually a nice rise over the previous years’ sales of 16,558 cars.) Compare that again to the 2001 3 Series, which sold 103,227 units in 2001.

The disappointing sales led Mazda to replace the Millenia, along with the similarly-sized but lower-spec 626, with the Mazda 6, as Automotive News put it.

Stephen and his family didn’t buy this Millenia because they were plugged into the Japanese luxury car scene. No, they came into ownership of this rare bird in the most Michigan way possible: through a friends and family discount.

“This was back when Ford has a significant stake in Mazda, and my brother worked at Ford,” Stephen said. “My dad just walked into the Mazda dealership in New Mexico in 2002 and said ‘that’s the nicest Mazda we can get? Sold.”

Getting a Ford model was out of the question, as the late ‘90s were a time when Ford was not known for its quality of build. But they could get the same sweetheart deal at a Mazda dealership because Ford held a 33.5 percent stake in Mazda at the time. Ford’s involvement with Mazda started in 1974, when Ford bailed out the struggling automaker after its lineup of thirsty rotary engines clashed with life after the first Oil Crisis. Ford’s involvement in Mazda ebbed and rose through the years, picking up whenever Mazda started to suffer, as it did post-Bubble in the 1990s. The two held together until in 2008, when Ford, itself hard hit by the Great Recession, went from owning 33 percent of Mazda to 18 percent. In 2015, Ford sold its then-paltry two percent stake and got out of Mazda entirely.

Friends and family discounts are the life-blood of the Detroit car landscape, and can create traffic jams unlike you’d find anywhere else. It’s why you can still find countless Pontiac G6s and Grand Ams on our roads at any given moment. Right now, if you’re in Michigan, you might be noticing a lot of bright blue Jeep Compasses. (They’re everywhere right now. Must be a hell of a lease deal.) In any case, the Roginson clan got a fancy Mazda with a rare engine, and then mostly let it sit for a decade and a half.

But just being in nice condition and having a weird engine doesn’t make the Millenia a good car. My Millenia appreciation was all theory until Stephen gave me his trust, and the keys.

What’s Good

So, why drive this 17-year-old sedan now? With the Millenia mostly known for its inoffensive design—though I have to admit, being inside such a clean car from the early Aughts made my kid heart warm—it doesn’t stand out in our collective automotive memory. I drove it, simply because this is as close as I can currently get to the kind of Bubble Era luxury in the Motor City. Luxury I have only ever heard of in articles and from the mutterings emanating from Orlove’s darkened corner of the Jalopnik offices as relayed to me via Slack.

When Mazda decontented the Millenia, it put in a cheaper sound system, cheaper seats and downgraded the suspension. The last two are not a problem at all, as the the seats in Millenia are gooey soft, coated in leather with quick-working seat warmers. The back seats are similarly plush with tons of leg room.

The dash has luminescent dials that are just so charming and warm when I compare them to the digital readouts we’re all accustom to, like something out of ‘80s sci-fi. They reminded me a lot of older Lexus dashboards. Framing those dials is a nice clean dash with my favorite interactive infotainment element—real goddamn buttons, all located in easy-to-reach spots. The steering wheel and shifter are both wrapped in soft leather that has held up well after all these years and 50,000-odd miles. The rest of the cabin is huge, and the back seats comfortably fit two grown adults.

The exterior has that unfussy, slightly amorphous styling popular in the early 2000s and the simple open fascia has a welcoming affect. As for the decontented suspension, the Millenia S still has a floaty, buttery smooth ride, even on the rough roads of Detroit.

What’s Bad

As mentioned, one of the reasons the Miller Cycle isn’t embraced in cars today is that you have to sacrifice power for efficiency. Going all out in this car is just not possible. It’s too civilized for torque. So while this car is technically supercharged, it doesn’t drive like it. With its high curb weight and pliant suspension, the Millenia S drifts dangerously close to driving like a land yacht. It’s a pleasure to drive, but it won’t get hearts pumping.

As for the interior, there were two broken buttons on the driver’s side door, one meant to pop the trunk and the other to release the gas cap. I don’t blame the Roginsons for this damage, though. These buttons are located in the very spot where someone might use their foot to prop up a swinging car door and therefore had been pushed in and broken at some point. Stephen replaced the buttons, but it seems like smart design would have kept those important functions away from violent human feet.

And as for the un-Amati radio, its decontented spec was apparently very noticeable. Stephen put in a new one system soon as he got the car back to Michigan. I wasn’t able to experience the original system firsthand, but after driving cross-country he was completely done with it. That may be due more to 2019 sensibilities, though the new unit is located fairly far down on the center stack, so I could see just the placement being a real pain.

Verdict

Driving the 2002 Mazda Millenia S was a fantastic trip down memory lane, and a great lesson in how even a boring old sedan can be a fascinating piece of machinery when you take a closer look. You might not expect something so soft and seemingly mundane to be what you’d consider a survivor, but that’s what we have here: a car that was too weird to live, and is too rare to die.

In the end, there’s a reason these things went extinct. They were kinda sporty, sorta-luxury sedans that didn’t deliver on either enough to justify its price. Any product trying to be all things to all people is going to end up disappointing in some way, and in the end, there were just better options in the luxury and sporty categories. But this is still a good car in and of itself. Certainly it will serve Stephen’s daughter well, though she’d better be ready for it to attract a certain flavor of deranged car enthusiast, brandishing Amati gear and yelling about Ralph Miller.

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About the author

Erin Marquis

Managing Editor of Jalopnik.