Automotive History: 2001 Pontiac Aztek – Accurately Predicts the Future. Then Fails.

In 2001, a vehicle that was both too strange and ugly to be loved by almost anyone, while also providing the unknowing world with a peek into the future of automotive trends, was released to the car-buying public. It was the Pontiac Aztek. It more or less predicted what would later become the single largest segment in the automotive landscape, and failed spectacularly while doing so.

In most every way, the Aztek is an example of what NOT to do. Or, in a way, what not to do quite YET.

Here’s the thing about the Aztek. It should have worked. Really. If you made a list of its specifications, features, and unique qualities, it would barely stand out in today’s Crossover/SUV-choked marketplace. But in 2001, when the Aztek was released to the public, it was a pretty odd duck. A duck that took it’s automotive development puberty pretty poorly. 

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The world was introduced to the Aztek Concept Car at the 1999 Detroit Auto show, which was, at that time, the largest international auto show of the year. Nearly every manufacturer created at least one concept vehicle to represent the future of the brand. Concept cars are usually extreme examples of future styling direction, featuring tech and elements not yet viable for mass production. 

For the most part, these vehicles exist only as design exercises, but sometimes, if the public reaction is positive enough, brand executives will green light the concept for production. In almost every instance, the production version of a concept vehicle is greatly toned-down compared to it’s inspiration. It’s engineered to be reliable, easy to build, and ideally return a profit for the brand. 

Sometimes, though, a Concept vehicle is intended to tease a vehicle that is already in development. This gives the designers an opportunity to better encapsulate the vehicle’s aesthetic, effectively building a show model that looks more like the initial sketches of the car than it does the actual production version. This is what Pontiac did with the Aztek. 

The production vehicle was well into development, with most of the proportions and design elements all but set in stone. Pontiac wanted to get people excited about the idea of the Aztek, so they introduced the Aztek Concept to the public. The reaction was expectedly positive, and GM was quick to reveal that a production version was, in fact, in the works. As is common practice, GM was very secretive about the development of Aztek, revealing very little to the general public in the way of details regarding the final product. Unfortunately, the transition from show car to production car wasn’t exactly seamless.

You know that feeling of second-hand embarrassment that bubbles up when you witness a person making a decision that you KNOW they will immediately regret? Well, General Motors witnessed entire groups of people have that ‘oh, that’s gonna hurt’ visceral reaction to being shown the as-yet-released production Aztek. Folks just couldn’t believe that it wasn’t a joke, that General Motors, the largest car company in the world, would think that this THING was something that people would want to own. Market research group after market research group reacted negatively to the end product. One person said, “Can they possibly be serious with this thing?! I wouldn’t even take it as a gift.”  The Aztek literally scored the lowest possible rating among market research studies. It was universally derided. It was the movie Waterworld. It was New Coke. It was Art Garfunkel’s solo career.  

So, in light of this less-than-great focus group feedback, what would a sane company do? Take a step back, perhaps? Start asking difficult questions to themselves about where things went awry? Consider some other styling directions for the car? HELL NO! The GM board of directors, in their infinite wisdom, IGNORED what all of their market research data indicated and chose to sally forth as planned. The thought within GM went something like this; “What the hell do these assholes know about building cars anyways?!” The Aztek is a prime example of what was wrong with General Motors, and much of the American auto industry as a whole, during the years prior to the 2008 Recession.

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The REAL concept for the Aztek dates back to the mid 1990s, when GM designer Tom Peters imagined combining the elements of the Pontiac Firebird with the GMC Jimmy compact SUV. The resulting sketch by Brigid O’ Kane was internally named the Pontiac Bearclaw. She took Peters’ idea and turned it into a somewhat high-riding 5 door hatchback with a swept tail. In today’s automotive marketplace, this doesn’t sound strange. BMW has been building this type of vehicle, in the form of the X6, for years now, and nearly every manufacturer is taking their stab at a Coupe/SUV hybridization. But, this was the middle of the 1990s, and SUVs were still meant to look, feel, and act like the trucks they were usually based on. It would still be a few years before Lexus turned the idea of the SUV on it’s nose with the release of the Camry-based RX300, what would now be considered the first Crossover. Even the now commonplace idea of an SUV being built on a unibody platform was fairly unusual at that time.  

Tom Peters’ idea of the Aztek targeted active lifestyle Gen-Xers, who at this point in time were now adults with kids of their own, and wouldn’t be caught dead behind the wheel of a conventional people-mover (i.e. station wagon, or minivan). The Aztek Concept was pretty badass. There were people at Pontiac who thought it was too aggressive, but overall, it excited anyone who laid eyes on it. The styling was certainly unusual, but that was part of the draw. It was designed to be something new. The idea of the Aztek, a Sport Utility Vehicle that drove like a sport sedan, with equally unusual styling, was unheard of at the turn of the millennium. Sporty cars were sporty cars with tiny back seats. Family cars were FWD three-box sedans, and Sport Utility Vehicles (SUV) were tall, square, and designed to focus on off-road competence.

That was the Aztek Concept, though. And if there was anything that you could rely on from General Motors in the 1980s-2000s, it was their ability to take a great idea and translate it into a compromised, awkwardly proportioned loose facsimile of the original concept. What’s that? You’d like some examples of this? Ok, how about Fiero, Citation, Aurora, Tran Sport, Allante, even the Corvair back in the 1960s. It was GM’s special little gift to be able to totally ruin otherwise great concepts. 

So, it’s 1995-ish, and Pontiac’s design team has this neat idea in the Bearclaw, but didn’t expect it to go too far. GM generally wasn’t in the game of pushing the boundaries of what is accepted in the fringes of automotive culture. There were the odd exceptions, like the Fiero, Buick Reatta, and Cadillac Allante, but otherwise, General Motors was largely Blandsville, USA. GM didn’t like gambling it’s money, but Pontiac was pleading for something special to set the brand apart. Fortunately for Pontiac, the GM Board had determined that it needed to take more chances with their product lineup. They went as far as to dictate that 40% of all new products be ‘unique vehicles’, whatever that means. 

So, surprise of surprises, the Bearclaw concept gets the green light. 

However, there was one caveat: this new model HAD to be built on an existing model platform. Unfortunately, there were not many platforms that were viable to underpin the Bearclaw Concept. The only option GM ultimately offered for the basis of the Aztek was a shortened version of it’s minivan platform. This chassis was the foundation of the 2nd generation of GM’s fwd minivans, the Chevrolet Venture, Oldsmobile Silhouette, and Pontiac Transport/Montana. These vans, even when new, were quite forgettable compared to offerings from Ford and Chrysler. Pontiac had to use this loser of a platform to build the Aztek. 

There was an upside – the designers and engineers wouldn’t have to work too hard to make the new vehicle comfy for 5 passengers and provide enough room for their stuff. If there’s anything that a minivan does well, it’s holding people and their associated junk.  

Back to the downsides. the design team was limited by a number of structural hard points that would give away the Aztek’s minivan roots in a hearbeat. Next time you see an Aztek (or it’s sub-platform mate, the Buick Rendezvous), notice how far forward the base of the windshield is, and how tall it is. GM tried to hide this by designing a hood that sits far higher than it needs to, in an effort to give the Aztek a front end that was more SUV than minivan. Another aspect of the design that gives away it’s base platform is just how low the floor is in comparison to how tall the vehicle is overall. In an SUV of that period, you wanted tall, but you also want the vehicle to at least appear that it rides high off the ground, lending to the owner the feeling that the vehicle can go anywhere, and tackle anything (even if the model they are driving is a bare-bones Front Wheel Drive rental lot special). A third giveaway, which is linked to the previous design element, has to do with the rear end of the vehicle. One of the key elements to the design of the original Bearclaw was the incorporation of a sloped rear window, similar to what you may find on a sports coupe of the time. BUT, being built on a tall, blocky minivan platform, the designers had a difficult time incorporating this element into the Aztek’s styling. What resulted was what you would expect, the clear shape of a blocky minivan rear end, with a sloped chunk knocked off the back. In a smaller structure, this styling element would work, as there is less of a perception of outright utility, and more of sporting character. However, by forcing the design on such a utilitarian platform, the sloped rump just looked like wasted space. Simply put, the original concept of the Bearclaw was envisioned to rest on a much smaller chassis. It’s easy to see why the Aztek was doomed from the minute the GM Board decided to throw it onto a van platform.

While the transition of concept to production for the Aztek was a dumpster fire of the grandest scale, the marketing of the Aztek was right on the money. One would hope so, considering just how much green was thrown at telling the world about the Aztek. Pontiac created a series of commercials, set to air during CBS’s reality-tv juggernaut, Survivor, aimed smack at their target demographic of adventure-seeking 30-somethings. The series of commercials touted the Aztek as, “Quite possibly the most versatile vehicle on the planet”. The spots all featured pairs of young adults going through a series of typical active-lifestyle checklists, with tasks  like, ‘Hit the Beach’, or ‘Make Some Tracks’, wherein the young couple would inevitably showcase the clever features of the Aztek. Watching these commercials 20 years later, the spots are a time capsule of late 90s- early 2000s videography style. In hyper-vibrant colors and jittery, fast-cut camera work, the Aztek is shown off as the perfect fun-mobile for any adventure-seeker. What I’ve always remembered from these commercials is how clever the car was in it’s small details. Regardless of one’s opinion, you couldn’t deny the effectiveness of the commercials. They were the source of discussions in break rooms across America – for the most part, this is because everyone thought it was ugly. I guess the old adage of ‘there’s no such thing as bad press’ applies here.

Starting in the summer of 2000, the Aztek went on sale. Despite the negative reaction to it’s styling in market research studies, General Motors had VERY high hopes for sales of the Aztek. In one way, I get it. Regardless of what the final product looked like, it is undeniable that GM had recognized, well before anyone else, what would become an incredibly lucrative vehicle niche – what we know almost ubiquitously as the Crossover. Pontiac initially predicted sales of the Aztek to be around 75,000 units per year, but as the models began to fill dealerships in earnest, and remained on said dealerships, sales estimates were quietly reduced to about 50,000 per year. It turned out that GM was STILL aiming just a bit too high with the Aztek. At the end of the 2001 calendar year (the first full year to measure sales) Pontiac had managed to move just over 27,000 Azteks, ⅓ of their initially targeted sales volume.

After these dismal initial sales, and equally poor public reception, GM rushed a slight styling update for the Aztek. This mainly consisted of new color options, wheels, and the option to have the lower-body painted to match the rest of the vehicle. Despite these changes, sales remained stagnant. 2002 would be the highest sales year for the Aztek’s short life, with just under 27,500 units sold. Sales started to peter out, and in 2005, only 5,000 models made it off the dealer’s lots. This would be the final year of the Aztek.  

Yet another problem to plague the Aztek at launch is GM’s apparent belief that it’s buyer base would largely consist of customers in their early 20s – people barely out of their teens. I was 22 once, and the idea of buying a brand new car was laughable, especially if that brand new car stickered at almost $30,000. In reality, the people that did nibble at Pontiac’s bait tended to be boomers, finding their homes and schedules suddenly wide open after their kids, GM’s ORIGINAL TARGET DEMOGRAPHIC, moved out of the house. The same thing largely occurred at Honda when they released the equally funky, but FAR better executed, Element.

There is one more issue that affected the Aztek’s sales at launch. GM was determined to get the production Aztek to market, and FAST. So much so that at the time of release, the total development time of the Aztek was 26 months, a record turn-around time for GM. Never before had a vehicle gone from initial sketch to production model in such a short amount of time at General Motors. Though it was impressive, this came with a toll. Aside from all of the above-mentioned cost cutting and design compromises, the Aztek went on sale before it’s Versatrak All-Wheel-Drive system was ready. So the ‘go-anywhere, do-anything’ Aztek Ess You Vee could only be purchased as a front wheel drive through much of its first year. You could get an optional TENT that turned the vehicle into a viable camping habitat, but you couldn’t get all-wheel-drive.

So, the Aztek was a flop. A big, sloppy, facepalm of a product. And it’s really a shame, because despite it’s glaring faults, what time ended up telling us is that the people that were able to get past the looks and quirks ended up SWEARING BY their Aztek’s. 

The bottom line was that, at the end of the day, the Aztek did its job pretty well. It held true to GM’s strange ‘Runs terrible forever’ reliability reputation. All of the clever little details, such as the center console that doubled as a removable cooler and the rolling loading tray became incredibly endearing to owners.

Even after the idea of the Crossover started to take off, the Aztek evaded any due-credit for being a trailblazer. Even years after it went out of production, people simply couldn’t get past it’s looks. There was one thing that made it cool – a starring role in Breaking Bad. In the show,  high-school chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin Walter White’s daily driver is a mint green, well-used, base model Aztek.  The car was a perfect choice as an extension of Walter White/Heisenberg’s character. At the start of the show, Walter has strong dad energy – he’s practicality-focused and devoid of cool. As viewers immediately learn, he’s also VERY resourceful, not unlike the Aztek. As time goes on, and Walter’s alter-ego, Heisenberg, emerges, the Aztek shows itself to not quite have the intimidation factor that Heisenberg demands. Ultimately, Walter’s green Aztek is replaced by a sinister black Chrysler 300 SRT-8, but not before multiple hit-and-runs, and assorted crashes. Walter’s Aztek certainly lived a hard life, but also proved itself to be a tough and reliable vehicular companion in his rise from obscurity to meth legend. 

Now, in 2021, the people that more or less define cool tend to find the Aztek endearing. It seems that many young people find a common ground with the unloved Aztek. In its infancy, it was neat and full of promise… but as it grew and developed awkwardly, it became uncomfortable and was unsure of what it’s place in the world was to be. It’s something that a lot of us can relate to. It makes the Aztek familiar, and in a lot of ways loveable. It bares its flaws transparently, unashamedly different. And while the Aztek hoped to be cool, the reality was that it wasn’t, and that’s ok, because it ultimately found its place and its people, who love it for what it is, flaws and all. It just needed 20 years to let the world catch up and allow it to fit in.