Curbside Classic: 2001 Pontiac Aztek: A Face Only A Mother Could Love

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Around the turn of the century, the popularity of truck-based SUVs as family cars hit its zenith, and automakers looked for new teats to milk on their seemingly infinite cash cow. CUVs, the apparent next hot thing, were just taking off. Enter General Motors with a brilliant new idea how to jump on the bandwagon.

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Toyota had brought the concept of a “Crossover Utility Vehicle” to the market a few years earlier, first with the compact RAV4, and later with the Lexus RX 300 (CC here). Both of these cute-utes were based on car platforms and raised up to near-SUV ride height. Their advantages included improved fuel economy (vs. SUVs), “command of the road” visibility, and perhaps most importantly–at least in the minds of consumers–the image of an active lifestyle.

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So let’s take a moment and try to get into the minds of GM product planners and relive how today’s subject car came to be:

“Our research shows that younger people are flocking to SUVs. Our findings also discovered that people buying SUVs rarely take them off-road. We need to find a good compromise. What do we have in the corporate parts bin?”

“Well, how about the U-Van?”

“That’s it! We’ll jack one up, give it some flashy styling and they won’t know what hit ’em!  The profit margins will be huge!”

“Great! Now which division gets it?”

“Um, give it to Pontiac; they can handle it. After all, they are The Excitement Division.”

“Okay, but we need to spread out the costs, so we need another version.”

“Well, that Lexus RX thingy looks promising, so let’s go upscale. How about, oh, I don’t know, give one to Buick!”

“Perfect!”

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A concept version of the Aztek was shown in 1999, and was quite well received. Then again, it’s known that car show enthusiasm doesn’t necessarily translate to sales success.

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Sadly, something was lost in translation on the way to production, and we ended up with the “rolling dumpster” you see here. Once you got past its…um, styling, and rather unrefined 3.4-liter V6, the Aztek actually had a lot going for it. The minivan chassis it sat on allowed for rather spacious passenger and cargo room.

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Innovative features included a center console that doubled as a pull-out cooler. There was also an optional, up-level stereo system that included rear-cargo area controls for tailgating parties. There was also the optional Versatrak all-wheel-drive-system.

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An interesting available feature was the available tent that fit over the Aztek’s back, turning it into an instant camper.

GM had high hopes for the Aztek, and had projected sales of around 75,000 per year; well, let’s just say that didn’t happen. In its best year, 2002, Aztek sales topped out at 27,793, many of which were to fleets.

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So what was the problem? Well, for one, there was the styling. If GM had taken a bit more time to sweat out the visual details and work on the proportioning, the Aztek probably would have done better in the marketplace. The second problem was the pricing: The Gen-X target market Pontiac wanted to attract simply found it too expensive.

By 2002, GM realized it had the makings of a flop on its hands and started making changes. First, they dropped the pricey GT model; next was changing most of the grey plastic cladding to body color. Although that helped things visually, the damage had been done.

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Model year 2002 also saw the introduction of the Buick Rendezvous, a slightly longer version of the Aztek with arguably better styling and a nicer interior that featured an optional third row. Though the two did not share any sheet metal, their tall and ungainly proportions made it all too obvious that they were related.

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The Rendezvous went on to achieve modest success for Buick, and it would survive until the Enclave came along to replace it in 2007. The poor Aztek, meanwhile, quietly faded from the scene after 2005; its swan song was a Rally Edition that came along around 2003 and basically offered a more-monotone exterior and some minor trim upgrades.

Despite its rejection in the marketplace, the Aztek has since built up quite a cult following, with various owner clubs around the U.S. Sometimes, people just like to be different.

Today’s feature Aztek was a great find for your humble author. I found both it and the Rendezvous at my local Ford dealer, just down the street (and on the same day) from where I shot the Plymouth Acclaim. I have been wanting to do a CC on the Aztek for some time, but I wanted to find the right one.

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I can identify this one as a 2001 model by its first-year-only Citrus Green exterior. It’s so ugly that I love it! In fact, IF I was to have an Aztek, this one is equipped exactly the way I’d want one, with the leather interior and even in the right color. I guess if you’re going to go ugly, you should go all the way!

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