It’s been called one of the ugliest cars ever. It failed to meet its sales goals, even after its redesign. And it’s arguably the best example of how badly General Motors understood its customers in the early 2000s. Yes, the Pontiac Aztek has always been an easy target for criticism, a lot of it deserved. But at the moment, it’s enjoying renewed interest. That’s right, the Pontiac Aztek is actually cool—here’s why.
How GM ended up with the Aztek
The design process behind the Pontiac Aztek was rather awkward.
GM wanted to compete with lifestyle vehicles like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, which were still body-on-frame SUVs at the time, able to go off-road but small enough to work in the city. At the time, Donut Media and Regular Car Reviews explain, customers found GM’s products boring. So, GM’s CEO Rick Wagoner proclaimed that “40% of GM’s products need to be innovative.” Only, there was no real direction for this innovation. If any proposed feature looked even slightly new, it was approved. Often without consideration for how a customer was actually going to benefit from or use it.
To be fair, the Pontiac Aztek concepts were actually well-received. Designer Tom Peters and his team created an initial design that was basically a Camaro and Blazer smashed together, according to Hemmings. And the first publicly displayed concept in 1999 garnered some positive reception.
Unfortunately, GM executives were constantly fighting with engineers and designers, creating the infamous “designed by committee” looks. Even worse, GM executives had already decided that the Aztek was going to be successful. So, when the Pontiac Aztek was shown to focus groups, executives ignored any and all negative criticisms.
But, despite poor sales and legitimate critiques about its engine and interior, the Aztek actually came with some interesting features.
The Pontiac Aztek actually has some neat features
The center console featured a removable section that functioned as a cooler. And according to Doug Demuro, it actually does keep beverages fairly cool.
While its 3.4-liter V6 was low on power even in 2001—185 hp and 210 lb-ft—the Aztek offered all-wheel drive, with 4-wheel disc brakes and independent rear suspension. In contrast, it wasn’t until the 20201 model year that the Chevy Tahoe and Suburban got IRS.
The Aztek also had some unconventional storage options. The glovebox had a tissue box holder, for example. The seats didn’t have storage pockets, but rather removable packs. And the rear cargo area had a sliding floor, with wheels and additional storage pockets.
Where else were you going to keep the tent?
It could go camping from the factory
Yes, rather like Japanese vans, the Pontiac Aztek showed you didn’t need a rooftop tent or bed camper to go camping. It came with a factory tent, complete with awning. But that wasn’t its only #vanlife feature.
While the rear tailgate did make rear visibility poor, it could open fairly wide. In addition, when folded down, the tailgate had built-in seats and cup holders; it was basically a built-in bench. The rear cargo area also offered radio controls, so you didn’t have to get up and change the music when you were relaxing at the campsite.
And when it was time to go to bed, Pontiac even offered the Aztek with an air mattress and on-board air compressor. This car may not have been able to fit a winch, but it had its own useful options.
The Pontiac Aztek didn’t just break bad, it broke into normal
Arguably, the Pontiac Aztek’s resurgence is mostly due to its appearance in Breaking Bad. However, somewhat ironically, it’s the Aztek’s physical appearance and design that may also be responsible.
Look at an Aztek from the side, then look at the new Chevy Blazer. They actually fairly alike. As do the Mitsubishi Outlander and Nissan Rogue. In a way, Jalopnik and Autotrader mused, the Pontiac Aztek was basically a preview of the modern crossover. Car-based platform, AWD, vague sense of off-road potential—it does tick off a lot of the same boxes. Even today, Autoblog reported, some Pontiac Aztek owners get asked if their cars are new.
In a way, then, the Pontiac Aztek’s designers succeeded. It may have taken almost two decades, but their car is officially a head-turner.
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