Hey, There’s a (Historically Significant but not Really All That) Cool Car: Pontiac Aztek

By Charles Krome

Ah, the cold, hard slap of reality. After spending most of the day wandering the vastness of the Detroit auto show and eyeing the latest sheet metal, I had left Cobo Hall and was immediately reminded of what can happen between a vehicle’s promising NAIAS debut as a show vehicle and its production launch some time later: There in front of me was a Pontiac Aztek.

The Aztek concept (see accompanying media photos) had premiered at the Detroit show in 1999 with a fair amount of buzz. With automakers suddenly worried about rising gas prices, some were beginning to explore the idea of creating a new kind of vehicle that would mix a certain amount of SUV ruggedness and capability with the more fuel-efficient and less taxing road manners of a car. The Aztek concept was one of the first results.

Actually built on the same platform as GM’s then-current minivans, the Aztek was a good example of the industry in transition: Instead of being a body-on-frame SUV, it was a unibody “sport recreation vehicle;” it featured GM’s innovative-for-its-time VERSATRAK all-wheel-drive traction-control system in lieu of a hardcore 4X4 setup; and it could pull a small watercraft yet still turn up essentially the same EPA numbers as a V6 Toyota Camry.

It also displayed a dramatically designed exterior with some especially dramatic business at both the rear and the front. Out back, the Aztek’s unique liftgate treatment required a vertical pane of glass to allow drivers a modicum of vision rearwards, while designers updated some familiar Pontiac design cues for the Aztek’s face, integrating hood scoops and a cat’s-eye grille. It worked out relatively well on the concept, at least from certain angles, but some kind of comprehensive design tragedy seemed to have struck the Aztek on its way to dealerships.

On the production Aztek, the hood scoops from the concept had devolved to the point where they were just rudimentary slits in the hood that looked like a second, smaller grille stacked on top of the first, an appearance exacerbated by the Aztek’s front lights. Then there was the black cladding. The overuse of cladding to distinguish Pontiacs from other GM products was a common ploy back then, and the Aztek took things to the next level by showcasing more plastic than Joan Rivers’ face. (Although the example in the photos I took was late enough to go the body-color route.) Needless to say, “stylish” touches like these did nothing to distract from the vehicle’s awkward rear, and suddenly Pontiac was selling what people were calling the ugliest vehicle ever made.

Even the Aztek’s truly impressive interior versatility and certainly competitive mechanicals weren’t enough to attract customers, and this Aztek’s calendar came to an end just five years after the vehicle hit the marketplace.

Two final points: The “old” GM often caught flak for its extensive use of badge engineering, but it’s interesting that the automaker’s initial entries in the crossover segments—the Aztek and Buick Rendezvous—looked nothing alike. If the Aztek had become a success, maybe it would have inspired GM to invest more heavily in differentiating its products before it became too late. And similarly, Pontiac could have had a very different future, too, if it had been able to cash in on this opportunity to launch one of the industry’s first sporty crossovers.

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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