Beneath the Cladding, Pontiac Aztek is a Hidden Gem

For years, the Pontiac Aztek has been the butt of many jokes in the automotive press. Often recognized as a top contender for the “ugliest car award,” General Motors is unceremoniously credited with creating the eyesore of the new millennium.

With exterior styling resembling a Toyota Prius on PEDs, the Aztek donned a face that only a mother could love. Speaking of mothers, didn’t they also teach us to never judge a book by its cover?

What if I was to tell you that beneath the Aztek’s toaster oven guise and the sea of plastic body cladding was the versatile adventure vehicle you’ve been searching for?  You don’t believe it? Hear us out.

Though controversial in design, it was unlike any vehicle General Motors had ever produced before. As GM’s “excitement division,” Pontiac was tasked with building its first-ever crossover vehicle for the 2001 model year to attract a new generation of younger buyers.

The Aztek was designed to appeal to youth who live an active lifestyle, and more recently, has become a cult icon for diehard fans of the show Breaking Bad. With a laundry list of accessories that ranged from innovative and versatile to quirky and comical, the Aztek could adapt and become whatever you needed it to be.  

Chameleon on Wheels

Pontiac Aztek
Pontiac Aztek | Jordon Shultz

Planning for an overnight stay at the lake? If equipped with the camping package, the Aztek was delivered with a removable tent that fits over the cargo hatch and a full-size air mattress that comfortably sleeps two inside the cabin.

How about a day trip to the beach? All GT models are optioned with a center console that doubled as a removable 12-pack cooler for your favorite beverage. Even simple trips to the store are made easier with the sliding rear cargo tray, which eliminates the need to bend over and strain your back loading heavy grocery bags.

What about Friday night football and college gamedays? Open the rear hatch, sit on the fold-down tailgate and enjoy a bucket of Los Pollos Hermanos for the ultimate tailgating experience. You can even tune in to the game on the radio from your seat using the rear cargo audio controls. GM truly thought of everything!

SRV Heavyweight Champion

Pontiac Aztek
Pontiac Aztek | Jordon Shultz

Well, maybe not quite. Pontiac was so proud of their efforts, in fact, that they created the new vocabulary term “SRV” just so they could market the Aztek as the world’s first “sport recreational vehicle.” Not only was the Aztek the only vehicle that comprised this make-believe segment, but in-house sales literature proudly named the Aztek first in SRV performance. Bravo.

While we may never know the truth, the person responsible for this sly maneuver likely received a generous promotion and went on to become a marketing revelation.

Though the Aztek’s adventurous spirit and rugged cladding would suggest a capable off-roader, that’s only what the Pontiac sales team hoped you would believe. In truth, the Aztek was a gussied-up minivan built on a shortened version of GM’s U-Body chassis. Yes, the same platform responsible for off-road legends like the Pontiac Montana, Chevrolet Venture, and Oldsmobile Silhouette.

To be fair, the optional Versatrak all-wheel-drive system does employ primitive torque vectoring ability that can send power to the left or right rear wheels when slippage is detected. However, lack of low range gearing makes serious off-roading and steep trail riding a perilous endeavor.

Untimely Demise 

Pontiac Aztek
Pontiac Aztek | Jordon Shultz

Acceleration certainly isn’t a strength of the Aztek either, as Car and Driver tests document a 10.8-second zero-to-60 mph time. The standard 3.4 liter V6 was a poor choice for a vehicle of this size, and unsurprisingly mid-range punch and passing power are lacking. The same maligned powertrain, also found under the hood of Pontiac’s Grand Am GT, is also accused of being underpowered for its platform that is nearly 1,000 pounds lighter. So you can imagine the strain this six-cylinder is under trying to propel the nearly two-ton Aztek up to highway speeds.

Despite tremendous enthusiasm from Pontiac’s marketing department and GM’s unwavering support of the project, the Aztek was a sales flop. Even paint-matching the Aztek’s despised gray lower body cladding in 2002 didn’t masquerade the stink. Its styling was still so unlike any other vehicle on the road.  Rather than stand out like a sore thumb, buyers chose to play it safe in less controversially styled crossovers like its chassis sibling Buick Rendezvous. After five years of uninspiring sales numbers, the Aztek was discontinued after the 2005 model year.

However, if the Aztek had been released a decade later would it have met the same fate? We’d argue against it, as this was the dawn of an era when unashamed buyers willingly began to drive on public roads in Nissan Jukes for the very first time. The new millennium wasn’t quite ready for a vehicle as eccentric as the Aztek, but today it blends in relatively unnoticed amongst the sea of oddly styled crossovers and SUVs.

If you see past its unsightly proportions and ignore the media’s harsh styling criticism, the Aztek is remarkably versatile and a budget-friendly option on the used market for all your adventuring needs. Hey, if Walter White thought it was cool, we think so too.