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.
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.
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.
Sadly, pretty much every new SUV/crossover/don’t-call-it-a-station-wagon makes the Aztek look good. How fugly can new cars get?
It’s hard to talk about the Aztek without talking about the Rendezvous and the Vibe, which used the same platform and similar styling on smaller one, respectively, and met with reasonable success. I think youth marketing of a car even those youths who found success straight out of college and could afford wouldn’t be interested was a factor – the Vibe cost half as much – as was the fact the Rendezvous had the third-row seating the Aztek’s steeply raked hatch ruled out.
I can only wonder what would’ve happened if instead of high they went low (cowl height) and built it off the W-body sedan platform. Would they have come up with the same sort of raised-and-ruggedized wagon that Subaru had already had success with in the Outback and Volvo in the Cross Country, and would Pontiac have had the same success, as they had with the Montana minivan?
The Vibe was a Toyota Matrix platform built at the NUMMI plant in Fremont, CA (now Tesla). It has nothing to do with the Aztek or Rendezvous.
I see I screwed up the opening line. I meant to say the Rendezvous used the same platform and the Vibe similar styling.
There were people who bought it because it was a Toyota with GM cash on the hood, but that doesn’t change the fact it looked like the finished design that the Aztek was the rough draft of.
I was thinking similar thougbts. I just recently discovered researching for my Enclave article that the Buick Rendezvous was relatively successful, so GM’s effort wasn’t a complete waste. Where the Aztek’s best year was 27k sales, the Rendezvous averaged about 60k a year for its first four years. I attribute that to its more mainstream (but still goofy!) looks and available third row. I believe the Rendezvous was only the second crossover type SUV to have a third row.
If the W body you refer to is the old Blazer / Jimmy platform, that would have been my thought too. It was a bouncy ride, so checked the sporty box. Put a V-6 in it and it would have been sufficiently powered. Probably about the right size too, and wouldn’t have needed the bulged hood.
W-body was the sedan, the GM10. Grand Prix/Olds Intrigue/Buick Regal and Chevy Impala.
“It was Art Garfunkel’s solo career.”
Ouch… not even pre-bankruptcy GM deserved that one.
Honda got it right with the Element, which checks all the boxes the Aztek meant to but didn’t succeed at. The styling is a little funky, but it’s rugged, reliable, and a vehicle for an active lifestyle and the adventurous.
From the wacky suicide doors to the clamshell hatch and attachable tent, I love the design of the Element. I plan to drive mine into the ground, which will hopefully be many years into the future.
I originally had a bit more about how Honda managed to do everything right as GM did everything wrong, but ended up pairing it back. It felt a bit Honda-biased when I read it back to myself. While I’m not a big Honda fanboy, I am a HUGE fan of the Element, so, yeah.
I never saw anyone young driving an Element – lots of retired people though.
My nephew owned one in his late 20s. It would be replaced by a Pathfinder.
Just about every dog walker in San Francisco has one. Easy to hose out. Also known as the Elephant.
The Element was really popular among 30s-ish people in the Pittsburgh area during the time that I lived there. In contrast, Elements seem to be nearly non-existent in South Texas, which is a sad thing.
My aunt bought one of these new and loved it. Of course she had only owned Bonnevilles
prior to this.
I wonder if GM had created the Buick RendezVous in an hurry might have been related to the Aztec failure?
From what I gathered in my research, the Buick was developed in an attempt to better absorb the costs of platform modifications to make the Aztek. It seems that the Buicks styling was a bit rushed, but in this case, that likely helped in the end. The Rendezvous had a comparatively clean simplicity to its design, which helped customers more easily realize it’s practicality.
I can’t say for certain, but didn’t the Rendevouz’s more upright rear roof allow for third row seating? Seems like that was a big factor in the Buick being more successful.
The Rendezvous also had a 4″ longer wheelbase, the same as used by the swb Venture and related minivans. The Aztek had a shortened version of that platform.
SpongeBob, what an incredible write up. Congrats!
I remember seeing my first Aztec at a conference I attended. It was on display and greatly hyped. It immediately drew a WTF out of me, and not the good kind. My cohort agreed wholeheartedly, which made me feel better that my usual anti-GM bias wasn’t showing through.
I’m glad the hipsters think the Aztec is cool. Every car deserves love.
I saw a Buick Rendevous yesterday. They’re pretty awkward too but it seems GM sold a lot more of them over the Aztec.
Thanks! This is my first content posted here, and I’m hoping to be able to have additional stuff seen here as well. The positive feedback means a lot!
Congrats- I really enjoyed it.
Very nice first post! I look forward to more.
I doubt it was intentional, but Dave’s mispelling of ‘Aztek’ as the proper ‘Aztec’ seems like yet another area where Pontiac dropped the ball. It’s like they were saying to potential consumers, “Look, you’re too dumb to be able to pronounce ‘Aztec’ properly, so we’re going to spell it with a ‘k'”.
Now that most things automotive are over-wrought and distasteful the Aztek fits right in.
Really nice detailed history of an interesting vehicle!
I also can’t think Aztek without thinking Walter White. The end of the Aztek late in the show was marked by an act of generosity, if you recall. Walter takes it to get repaired once again after his latest misadventure. The shop owner is admiring the car and Walt sells it to him for like $5. I thought it unrealistic at the time that anyone would lust for that vehicle, but I guess it was actually around the time it was just starting to have a bit of a cult following.
Thanks a lot! In an earlier draft, I went a lot deeper into the symbolism of the Aztek and it’s pairing to the character of Walter White. The green Aztek is, in my opinion, one of the best examples of automotive casting in TV so far. Someone, or a group of someones, spent a good bit of energy curating that potentially inconsequential detail for the show.
Yeah, it’s tempting to get too into the weeds in an article on a topic that you find fascinating but many readers may not.
As a fan of both BB and the prequel BCS, I’ve noted the producers are very purposeful in matching cars to every character’s persona. They hardly ever pass up an opportunity to have the car say something about the character.
Too bad GM didn’t market this vehicle to the French and totally ignore the hidebound wimps who live in American subdivisions and are terrified of stepping just one millimeter outside the bounds of conformity or uttering just one syllable of incorrectness.
Yet those same American hidebound suburban wimps often choose this:
I’ve never lived in a subdivision, but I thought it was pretty ugly at the time.
Luckily the French are resourceful, and made one for themselves. My Renault RX4 has some striking similarities to the Aztec, both in ugliness and practicality. Both were built very much on family car underpinnings (the Scenic, in Renault’s case) and did spectacularly well in predicting the soft-roader market, as well as missing the mark completely.
Main difference is that the RX4 has more serious AWD underpinnings. Unfortunately the gearbox is known for being somewhat fragile, which has killed the vast majority of them.
Citroen Cactus anyone?
Yeah, the poor Aztec gets no respect. I tested one for a week back in the for my radio feature and was impressed how practical it was.
Yes, styling was way out there. Makes me wonder what led to it be approved for production.
I got the use of an Aztek for a few days back in 2001 when it was first launched. My wife loved it and I was very impressed with it’s solid ride, crisp handling, and roomy and versatile interior. And the 185 hp V6 with aggressively geared 4 speed auto meant that it was able to move assertively in traffic. Coming from a traditional SUV, the way the Aztek and it’s space efficiency was a revelation. It sure did look ugly though, but I’m now staring at our 2021 Honda CRV in the driveway and it carries the same basic shape as the Aztek. If GM had toned down the front end styling, rounded off the back a bit, the Aztek could have been the megahit that Pontiac wished it was. It was just 20 years ahead of its time.
I think you touched on what was wrong with the Aztek, which was the execution. The blocky U-body minivan didn’t lend itself to this kind of shape. Not only that, the proportions and details were just off. People give the Aztek too much credit. I imagine that if Pontiac/GM *had* come up with something closer to the original X6 (or even ended up being closer to the concept, which itself was no looker), it might have been more of a success. To me, they’re very, very different ideas.
Yes, the lack of AWD at the outset was certainly not advantageous. Also I recall these being criticized for cheap build quality and interior materials, which probably didn’t help to lure people out of their Subarus.
The rear end of this abomination looked like some kind of weird appliance, toaster oven, pizza oven or maybe one of those all-in-one washer/dryer. Pop the lid open, throw in a load of towels and hit the start button. The rest of the vehicle was not any better. Of those supposed 27,000 built the first year I wonder how many were sold to rental fleets, 70%???
I do agree that the front of the thing does fit in with the current styling trends but if you show up 10-15 years early you better nail it or you are going to be laughed right out of the party.
It’s funny – I feel the opposite way: The rear end has a bit of the Gen II Prius vibe about it, which, while dated now, was a unique design that other designers tried to ape (Insight, Volt, etc). The front end is the wacky part in that it looks like someone tried to Frankenstein a couple of different 90s Pontiacs together. It sort of lacks a face, or looks like two faces rather than one.
The Aztek’s rear end was right off the (equally abysmal) Pontiac/Daewoo LeMans hatchback
Funny that you bring up the appliance angle – the Aztek was used as a punchline for design by committee in a 30 Rock episode…or was it actual footage of a meeting of the minds at GM, you decide: https://trailers.getyarn.io/yarn-clip/732bd3f4-b532-472f-a094-34a4662ef8dc
As someone in their intended demographic at the time, I really wanted to like this, but I just couldn’t. I ended up with a 3rd gen 4Runner instead.
Nope, it’s still ugly. A 4wd Trans Sport or Montana would have been a better choice.
How is it in the world of automotive geniuses, one vehicle company will produce something which appears to have been beaten within a shred of it’s life such as the Avalanche or the Aztec, armed with UGLY sticks from Hell ? And another car company will produce sensuous, flowing lines with embellishments which produce lust from nearly any sector of mankind…… such as Ferrari or Porsche ? (If comparing SUV equivalents, consider the bland yet pleasing persona of an Excursion, Sequoia, Durango…… or Cayenne.) Yet GM comes forth with an object of poor design and foists it upon a public which should have shunned it from the beginning. I would have been surprised if more than 100 were sold each year. To sell more than 20,000 a year is revolting. Unless you have a penchant for Eastern European philosophies born out of necessity which seem to combine function above all else with anything found lying about in the neighbor’s back yard scrap-pile.
Just look at it. It is freakin’ hideous. Nothing blends with harmony from one panel to the next. It juts onto the landscape appearing as if assembled from discarded widjits at a factory run by imbeciles……
There are always people who will love the ugly duckling. This is the AMC Pacer of the early 21st century.
While the looks and lackluster execution didn’t help matters, selling it as a Pontiac was the final nail in the coffin. By the early 2000s, the Pontiac name was largely associated with cheesy plastic cladding and the rental-car-grade Grand Am. Pontiac was two steps behind Oldsmobile in the journey to the brand boneyard. The Aztek did nothing to slow down that journey.
Very good article! Yep, GM being GM.
Had it sported a German badge it probably have been a success.
I always wondered where they came up with the spelling of the name.
Aztek instead of Aztec.
I imagine 99.9857% of Americans wouldn’t have realized the difference anyway.
Aztek…biggest synonym for loser since the Edsel.
I would counter that if it had been built by a German company, the quality of interior materials would have been a bit better.
Examples probably wouldn’t have soldiered on, rattling and squeaking, for the next 20 years quite as well as the Azteks of our reality seem to do.
GM. Runs Terrible Forever
I recall spelling Aztec as Aztek was partly just to be different, and partly because the marketing folks thought it evoked technology… since technology was abbreviated tek (as in hi-tek) often in the 1990s. Ironically, I think people’s use of “tek” as an abbreviation collapsed in the 2000s, just as the Aztek hit the market.
Well, if they really wanted to go that route, maybe they could have spelled it ‘Aztech’. Of course, now it’s getting way to close to ‘Asstech’. As it was, ‘AssTick’ was another slang term.
Frankly, a different name, altogether, probably would have been better. Hell, even the original Bearclaw might have been a more preferred choice.
For comparison purposes, the Aztec’s Buick cousin. I cheated a little by finding one that’s all one color. They always seemed a little too tall for their width, but I thought they looked pretty good in general and carried a bit of Buickness in their looks. And as has been pointed out here, apparently buyers agreed even if the Rendezvous lacked the Aztec’s clever bits.
At least the Buick has a more practical shaped rear section than the tall fastback Priuslike Aztec. Slicing off a bunch of cubic feet in back defeats the purpose of the vehicle, just like with the BMW X6, which no doubt has the old time Bauhaus German crowd flipping in their graves (along with everything else about current BMW style).
Great write-up of the vehicle that is generally considered the one that put the final nail in Pontiac’s coffin. Something forgotten about the Aztek fiasco is how Chrysler management did almost the exact opposite with the introduction of the similar-in-concept PT Cruiser released for the same 2001 model year.
It seems that, unlike the Aztek, Chrysler’s marketing told them that the PTC would be a big hit and to plan for high-volume sales. Unfortunately, just like GM, Chrysler management ignored the marketing and planned a very conservative production schedule. As everyone now knows, while Pontiac had lots of 2001 Azteks languishing on dealer lots (they were almost immediately slapped with incentives in a vain attempt to unload them), PT Cruisers were in short supply as Chrysler had to quickly ramp-up production to meet the exact opposite demand for their retro crossover.
Regardless, the Aztek comes off in many ways as a virtual repeat of the Edsel in how, if there was a wrong decision to make on a brand-new vehicle, GM did it with the Aztek. If someone were to list each of the Big 3’s biggest bombs, it might be Edsel, Aztek, and the 1962 downsized Mopars.
And, speaking of Chrysler, the Bearclaw concept rendering looks remarkably like one of those wild Plymouth musclecar cartoon magazine ads from the sixties.
I worked with someone who had an Aztek. He loved it at first. Transmission number one died with not many miles on it. Transmission number two died stranding his family in a very dangerous situation. Electrical problems were beyond the ability of the dealership to fix with any permanent solution. When transmission number three exploded, nearly killing him, the dealer offered him a lemon law exchange. He chose a Pontiac Vibe because Toyota built it. He never bought GM again.
You know where else Pontiac/GM screwed up? Not bringing the RAGEOUS to market. I remember seeing this in an auto rag in ’97. It would have been brilliant, but instead, I ended up hauling instruments in a series of three-door Saturns.
A decade ago, there were a dozen Rendezvous at my dealer and as a dealer car, I had a couple of them for a few days while our van was being serviced. Try as I might, and needing a replacement for my small car – the Rendezvous was too awful to even logically become a second car. It was horribly boring, filled with tacky electronic gadgets that seemed cheap and useless, but worst of all – no space for things. Why would I want a GM minivan with all the drawbacks, but with none of the space benefits?
As to the Aztek, it was immediately awful. It was an obvious minivan beaten with an ugly stick and had its tail bobbed into uselessness. That Pontiac plastic style had jumped the shark a few years earlier and the interior was cheap – cheap – cheap. Again, why would I want a GM minivan without the van part?
The Rendezvous was popular for seniors who couldn’t enter and exit the lower sedans Buick sold at the time. I saw many of these vehicles driven by seniors who had mobility problems.
no space for things
Whadda mean? there was a big tray under the console for your handbag.
I drove a used Rendezvous with the 3.6 DOHC engine. It completely changed the feel of the car. If it had had the 3rd row and ultraseude seats, I’d have bought it–and probably had timing chain failure. Liked the high seats and low floor (though they needed more rearward travel). No one does that now.
I vividly recall Buick using Tiger Woods (who was at the height of his career and popularity) in Rendezvous commercials. I’m positive that didn’t hurt sales one bit, particularly with the older, golfing types. Maybe not as inspired as some past celebrities who sold cars in commercials, but it still worked well.
I don’t remember Pontiac having any kind of celebrity to sell the Aztek.
Let’s say this about the GM minivans – GM spent billions trying to build a popular minivan and failing repeatedly. That minivan cost them a fortune. It only makes sense for GM to try and recoup its losses by using it as often as possible for more than one purpose.
I had a Saturn Relay 3 and it was originally designed to be an Oldsmobile. It had an attractive Volvo-style front end and the proportions were good for minivan – if a little narrow. That said, it was a nice van that suffered under typical GM engine problems and transmission problems. That three speed automatic was an embarrassment, but it was half the cost to replace compared to the ridiculously overpriced Odyssey and Toyota Sierra. No one wanted the Saturn vans and ours was one of the few sold by our dealership in our area. It was easily $10 grand less to buy that the Honda or the Toyota and with the exception of the $1700 spent on a new transmission – a good van.
I remember Motor Trend and others liked the front of the concept at the time.
I’m surprised sales didn’t pick up when most of the cladding became body-colored, but its reputation was already shot. Early Elements, with the black plastic rears, looked pretty bad, too.
By the time Pontiac got around to getting rid of the body cladding, the damage had already been done. No one (other than oddball geeks who didn’t care) wanted to be seen in a loser-mobile like an Aztek. It’s not dissimiliar to Studebaker’s last years.
My biggest problem with the Aztek wasn’t really the polarizing styling. It was that none of the clever features were all that clever or useful. For example, I really liked the ‘mid-gate’ feature of the Chevy Avalanche. The Aztek wasn’t close to anything like that.
Great write-up. It’s hard to imagine failing with a crossover in the 2000s, but somehow GM managed it. I almost wonder what would have happened if the Aztek had be released a few years earlier… as in before the Lexus RX made crossovers mundane. I bet folks would have been more receptive to the concept in, say, 1997, when it still would have been considered rebellious. Instead, it just screamed of GM’s terrible combination of trying too hard with too little.
I had forgotten about the tent accessory, but your image reminded me: I recall reading an interview with a Pontiac dealer who said something like “I can only move an Aztek off the lot by selling a customer that tent attachment at full price, and then throwing in the Aztek for free.”
I recently saw a really clean Aztek in the junkyard. It had been hit hard in the rear, but other than that the interior was very clean. I snagged the center console/cooler out of it just cuz it was a nifty little feature.
I lived in Southern Michigan within earshot of relatively reliable scuttlebutt when these eyesores were released. Word was GM were heavily incentivising employees to drive them, to get them on the road and create an illusion of market acceptance. An illusion for whom? I’m guessing mostly for 14th-floor types to reassure themselves everything’s fine by gazing out upon car parks full of (registered) Azteks.
To me they looked (and still do) like a scale-model garbage truck.
I know of not one poor soul who put down money to buy an Aztek. If I had, I’m sure they would have been back at the dealer a year later to trade it in. On anything.
To me they looked (and still do) like a scale-model garbage truck.
One of the Aztek jokes was it looked like the offspring of the Daewoo Pontiac Lemans and a garbage truck.
“You could get an optional TENT that turned the vehicle into a viable camping habitat, but you couldn’t get all-wheel-drive.”
But….the TENT was its best feature!
Excellent article, and I look forward to reading your future posts. I love how you weave a fairly detailed story of the car into its pop culture references.
Oh, and I agree with everything said here about the Element. I would have bought one of those if it had been available at the time that I was in the market for vehicles (its relatively short run precluded that). And I did know youngsters at the time (20 somethings now) for whom the Element was their dream car. I think it appealed to what has become the van life crowd. Somehow, the Aztek managed to miss that moment.
One of the Aztek jokes was that the problem with the tent option was it covered the wrong end of the vehicle…
The Aztek is sadly typical example of GM hatching a good idea and failing to execute well. While the Aztek became a laughingstock, Honda executed the same basic concept with the Element and produced a long running success.
GM’s Edsel. Not a bad car, but the styling was so polarizing that people just could not get past it. That slanted back had zero logical reason to exist. I always thought they should have simply used the Buick version on the “Ass-Tech”. It’s no surprise that the car has plenty of reverse snob appeal today – again, just like the Edsel. As a 20-year-old, it can be all kinds of cool and ironic. But boy did it have a “kick me” sign on the back when it first showed up.
In 2004 I was in the market for my first brand new car and I desperately wanted an Aztek but I could just not swing the price. So I went with my second choice – a new Malibu Maxx. I had my Malibootie for 10 years and loved it the whole time, but I never gave up wanting that Aztek. I really had a thing for unloved GM products…
I thought the Maxx was a cool car. The GM version of a 1st Gen Camry five door.
The Maxx, to me, seemed like an ‘Aztek-lite’. While not nearly as goofy as the Aztek, the styling of the front end of the Maxx left something to be desired. Too bad because, otherwise, the Maxx could have been a contender.
To that end, the vehicle that really resembled a smaller version of the Aztek was the Dodge Caliber. Chrysler got away with that one because the front end of the Caliber was much more conventional. In fact, if the Caliber had had a front that looked more avant-garde (like the Aztek), it might have actually worked since the Caliber was more in keeping with the smaller size and price of the original Aztek concept.
I guess I don’t see the weird in the Maxx’s front end. Seems innocuous to me. Plain, like the Gen5 Accord:
Me too. I prefer hatchbacks to wagons, but otherwise loved the Maxx. Unfortunately it came out between my “buying cycles” so I wasn’t in the market and didn’t sell very well, by the time I was, used ones were either ratted out or scarce (or both). But I would go further back and say it was kind of a latter version of the Chevy Citation 5 door (or similar X body) but hopefully a little better developed; the Citation could have been the Camry 5 door 3 years earlier if they hadn’t made all of us beta testers for something not ready for prime time.
This seems to be a common problem for me, in that I have very long (20 year) buying cycles, I try to buy the car that most fits my needs at the time. The problem is that I like “unpopular” vehicles like hatchbacks and wagons and often these are the models that are withdrawn after short periods of offering due to slow sales. This was the case with the Maxx, but also more recently the Cruze hatchback and even the Buick Regal Sportback. I wasn’t crazy about the turbo in the latter 2 (I’m kind of a luddite especially for GM, would prefer the V6 of the Maxx) but that they even offered the hatch or wagon put them on my list, as there are fewer of these offered by any manufacturer. Of course they seem to be indicating that I should consider an SUV in lieu of a hatch, but I don’t really want one, prefer to buy something designed for one axle drive (don’t need or want AWD) trying to eschew complexity for something I don’t require….and resent the space waste if I go for FWD (or RWD) only, seems to be a compromise in space use.
Back to the Aztek, one of my (ex)neighbors bought one new; he seemed to have a bit of an odd taste in cars, he previously owned an Isuzu Impulse which was a neat car but not too mainstream. Have to be a bit careful as he bought the same model tract house that I own, my Father owned at least one odd (by today’s standards) car, a 1968 Renault R10 he bought new. I didn’t care for the forced styling and the Pontiac cladding, but that wouldn’t have put me off if I otherwise liked the vehicle, but again it came out the year after I bought my current car. The lack of AWD to me would have been a positive, but I’m not exactly the normal target for this type of vehicle, but being car based to me is a plus….I enjoy more of a “sedan” ride than a “truck” ride especially in my advancing age….my days of stiff suspension in my former GTi are long gone. Probably the ideal car for me would have been a full-sized domestic wagon (an old-fogey mobile) with the higher seating height, but not such that you have to climb up into it…but now that I’m “that age” they no longer make new ones for sale. Style for me is way secondary to function in terms of my choice of car.
The Aztek reminds me of the 1934 Chrysler Airflow, another innovative car that was derided as ugly in its day, sold terribly, yet completely predicted where car design was going. To modern eyes, it looks alot like a typical 1940s car, but it looked weird compared to the classically squared-off look that defined anything-but-streamlined 1932 models that were on the roads then.
I am late but had to comment on this one – what an enjoyable read! I had never really thought about the Aztek and its legacy as a (flawed) pioneer, but you have nailed it.
I suspect that if GM’s stylists had not been in their “aggressive ugly” phase, this car might have had a decent chance at success. Then there are the counterculturals and contrarians who loved these – one of my sons loved Azteks. But then he couldn’t get enough of the 1962 Dart, either.
Azteks is no doubt a polarizing vehicle. Around same period we also had BMW 5GT and Honda Elements, they aimed at the same goal, vehicle for every people, every purpose and every time. But thing is not that simple. After few years, they were all gone. My question is how the lower management teams were able to bring these types of vehicle up to the upper management and the board and got approved. Hope someone could reveal more details how GM board approved its products in the past.
I love an Aztek. And if these things are supposed to be so unpopular why are the prices so high? Honda Element? The Element is the UGLIEST freekin vehicle I have ever seen, reminds me of a casket. What’s so ugly about the Aztek? Looks like a Ponitac to me. Maybe people on this site hate it because it’s an American vehicle, because there is a lot of Japanese and European car boot licking on this site.
I remember seeing an Aztek with a personalized license plate that read: YESITIS. That was an Aztek owner with a dose of humor…and reality!