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Welcome to the new century, the new millennium. You may have thought you had crossed those thresholds last year, what with the round-the-world "millennium" celebrations--the crowning of the Great Pyramid of Cheops with a golden cap, the exploding of the Eiffel Tower, the making of "millennial" snow angels by children in Greenland.

Well, you didn't, and it wasn't. For the record, and for the umpteenth time, the 21st century and the third millennium did not begin until midnight on the International Dateline Sunday. The confusion about the turn of the millennium arises due to the counterintuitive nature of the calendar system. It all goes back to a Scythian monk named Dionysius Exiguus--Dennis the Little to his bowling buddies--who was charged by Pope St. John I to devise a calendar that would correctly calculate the date of Easter each year, thereby making it easier to plan the parade.

Dionysius started his calendar with the year of Christ's birth and called it 1 A.D. ("anno domini," or "year of our Lord"), thus the calendar begins with "1."Add two millennia, or 2000 years, and you get 2001. Dionysius did not start with the digit "0" because the concept of zero--an invention of Arabic mathematicians--had not reached Europe and would not for another 250 years. This fact badly hampered computer programming at the time.

Therefore, the turn of the century and millennium does not actually occur until Jan. 1, 2001. Take that, Dick Clark.

What has this to do with cars? The last hundred years has been called the Century of the Automobile--it has also been called the Century of the Toaster, though there is less scholarly support for this claim--yet in these hundred years, there have been only two cars that have used intervals of time as their names: the Buick Century and the Mazda Millenia. There was never a Duesenberg Decade or an Edsel Eon, for instance, though time behind the wheel of certain Fords did feel like an eternity.

Both the Mazda and Buick have peculiar problems with the millennium. In the case of Buick, its model year 2001 Century "Special Edition" features bold badging on the dashboard and trunklid with the numbers "2000." Somebody really ought to open a window over there in the Buick marketing department. First, this badging perpetuates--indeed, engraves into automotive history--the well-documented misunderstanding about the century mark that competent professionals (and reasonably intelligent preschoolers) might have avoided. Second, consider the effect on resale value. No matter what the registration says, is anyone going to believe the car with "2000" all over it is a 2001 model? Do I look like I'm from Greenland?

The only hope for Special Edition owners is that the car becomes a quirky collectible, like those pennies with warts on Lincoln's nose, or "Gore got More" buttons.

Mazda, on the other hand, for reasons both mysterious and unfathomable, chose to spell its car's name "Millenia," dropping the second "n" to the dismay of copy editors everywhere. Back in 1995, when this car came out, I inquired why the variant spelling was used. No one at Mazda seemed to know. I am left to conclude it was simply a typo gone thermonuclear, a mistake that got out of hand, like a wild pitch that loses the World Series or a "controlled burn" on government land that torches New Mexico.

Last year, Mazda produced a Millenia "Millennium" edition, properly restoring the "n" but--like Buick--missing the date of the millennium by a full year. Who would have thought a thousand years would make such a difference?

The big news for the 2001 Century is new and quieter rear-wheel fender liners. You may need a moment to catch your breath.

While some cars are the object of constant technical updating to keep up with the market, the Century is one of GM's paragons of amortization. Now five years after its last overhaul, the high-volume Century's solid if uninspired engineering, non-threatening design, respectable levels of creature comforts and a reputation for reliability--as well as an approachable price--have earned it steady sales growth even as the industry benchmarks have passed it on all sides. Small, incremental changes--like the addition this year of On Star emergency notification system on Limited Edition Centurys--keep the car credible in the midsize market.

This echt rental car has many features that appeal to the older generation: bench seats, cornering lights, smoker's package (lighter and ashtray), battery run-down protection, dual auxiliary visors, keyless remote entry, tire air pressure monitor, automatic headlights and starter interlock, which prevents the driver from grinding the starter if the engine is running.

For a total of $25,151, the leather-lined Century Limited lives in a thicket of midsize cars including Accord and Camry, both of which feel more refined and up-to-date. But for increasing numbers of Americans, the Century feels timeless.

Another car that appears a bit oblivious to the calendar, the Mazda Millenia debuted in 1995 with its best feature hidden under prosaic sheetmetal. Mazda's supercharged 2.3-liter V6, using a Miller-cycle supercharger gave the Millenia S admirable efficiency at highway speed and real kick when it came time to pass the Joads on Route 66. Almost six years later the Miller-cycle engine, producing 210 hp and returning 28 mpg on the highway, remains very competitive.

The biggest problem the Millenia faced was its styling, less Armani than Amana. This year, the Millenia received a substantial makeover in the front and the rear. The Millenia S we drove was fashionably dressed in a glowing white with beige under-cladding and supple beige leather interior. Leather is standard on both base and S editions.

Alas, in terms of styling, it seems like the Millenia got its ticket just as the movie was ending. Last year saw the debut of many seductively styled sedans in the same price range. And by dwelling in the $32,000 range, the Millenia S finds itself pitted against real sports sedans trying to undercut the BMW 3 series price, like the Infiniti I30 Touring, the Audi A4 and Lexus IS 300, which are loaded to the gills with amenities. There is blood in the water, and these import sharks are circling the Millenia.

The truth is, Time waits for no man, or car.

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