With the recent launch of its 2014 Mazda6 the execs at Mazda would once again seem ‘poised to play’ in North America’s volume-driven midsize segment. With expressive sheetmetal, revised size, a nimble platform and – not incidentally – Mazda’s SkyActiv design ethos, this newest Mazda6 might very well be the answer to Mazda’s seemingly eternal quest to place itself among the Accord and Camry intenders. Described by Mazda as a “complete redesign and reimagining of what a sports sedan should be,” the Mazda6 was supposedly influenced by Mazda’s TAKERI concept. We’d argue, instead, that today’s Mazda6 was strongly influenced by Mazda’s Millenia, first seen in the U.S. some twenty years ago.
In retrospect, the late-‘80s were wild and woolly for Japanese automakers. Having made huge inroads into the U.S. during the OPEC-fueled crisis of the previous decade, there was a very real desire to capture more of the American market than that occupied by entry-level cars and first-time buyers. To that end, American Honda introduced a small line-up of entry-level luxury via its Acura franchise in 1986. And, at about the same time, both Toyota and Nissan announced plans to take on BMW and Mercedes-Benz with their Lexus and Infiniti divisions. Both the Mercedes-inspired Lexus and nature-inspired Infiniti would arrive in their all-new showrooms for the 1990 model year.
Existing outside of Japan’s Big Three (you could think of Mazda as occupying the same space in Japan – at the time – as American Motors did in the U.S., while remembering that Mazdas were more fun to drive), few would have felt a move upmarket by Mazda was either necessary or prudent. That, of course, didn’t matter to the ambitions of a prideful executive corps. While plans were made to launch Mazda’s Amati division in the U.S. a new sedan, dubbed Millenia, was prepped to anchor that new franchise.
Information on the new Amati division was reported by various automotive pubs in early 1992. Several factors are referenced in Mazda’s decision to cancel the initiative, including a grinding recession and – in all probability – the financial struggles continuing to face operators (at the time) of Acura and Infiniti franchises. The plug pulled on Amati, the Millenia came to Mazda’s existing showrooms in 1995.
With clean – albeit generic – sheetmetal, an airy cabin and credible connection between steering wheel and pavement, Mazda’s Millenia served as a viable alternative to the Lexus ES 300 or Infiniti’s J30. Of course, the buying experience at Mazda stores was quite different from the overtly courteous care provided by Lexus, but then, the Millenia platform exhibited a level of engineering and refinement not provided to the entry-level (and still Camry-based) ES. But with little enthusiasm from the marketplace (and arguably even less enthusiasm from Mazda) their attempt at entry-level luxury was fully abandoned by 2002.
In the ensuing decade Mazda has made no further attempt to go upmarket, while continuing to struggle in the midsize segment. The initial Mazda6, a more sporting successor to the 626, was deemed too small, while its eventual successor, sharing a platform with Ford’s Fusion, was deemed irrelevant. Today’s redesigned, reimagined Mazda6 has a great deal going for it, with sheetmetal seemingly taken intact from a concept, a platform fully appropriate to a ‘sport sedan’ descriptive, and efficiency rivaling the very best in the segment.
A brief intro, over a couple of days, behind the wheel of a Mazda6 Grand Touring leads us to believe Mazda may have finally happened on a winning midsize recipe. And that the formula had been in Mazda’s corporate archives, filed under ‘Amati’, for a generation makes for an absolutely delicious irony. It’s the new Millenia, some dozen years after the fact.