Soon, I plan to share the story of the reviled Pontiac Aztek with you all. Like the AMC Pacer, the Aztek has come to be immortalized in pop culture and is enjoying a degree of popularity (infamy?) it never received when new. The car was truly an abject failure for GM, however you’d never know it by visiting Detroit.
Detroit is, understandably, full of domestic cars. No matter how obscure a Big 3 car – Saturn Astra, Pontiac Bonneville GXP, Chrysler Crossfire – you’ll find one here. But the Aztek seems to be as common as more successful domestic products like the Chevrolet Malibu, and my friend Jason and I saw Azteks of all years and all colours. Does it hold some kind of regional appeal or are Aztek buyers happy with their ungainly crossovers?
That statue peeking out from behind the Aztek is The Spirit of Detroit, a work by Marshall Fredericks that was installed next to the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center in 1958. While the Aztek’s styling is no longer as offensive to me as it once was – perhaps due to the subsequent arrival of similarly ugly crossovers like the Mercedes GLE Coupe – I think we can all agree Fredericks’ statue is a much more beautiful creation.
A few tweaks to the styling, including larger wheels, and a 3800 instead of the 3400 would have changed things quite a bit.
Even a 5 or 6 speed automatic would be a huge improvement. That big gap between 1st and 2nd lets the little 3.4 go from okay, to meh.
(I own a 2004 Buick Rendezvous)
it really does need larger diameter wheels/tires, Not rubber band tires, but maybe taller sidewalls.
Wouldn’t bigger/taller wheels and tires have been heavier, thereby making the Aztek (feel?) slower? I would also think it would make the transmission’s performance worse. Though I could be wrong about that point.
I’m guessing it’s the Aztek’s all-wheel drive that keeps it popular in Detroit.
Possibly, but that system is a bit flaky, and requires some expensive juice in the rear end.
Like light beer, an acquired taste. But there are some fans – I think Geozinger has had at least two of them.
Well, actually I’ve had three. If I ran across another one, it would be in my fleet. Until I get into another house, though, I have to keep all of my cash liquid. Ugh.
I never thought that the front end was too bad, it’s just that the rear looks like a trash dumpster. I’ll bet there were a lot of “attractive” pricing deals that went on to clear the inventory.
One of the (many) Aztek jokes was it was the offspring of an unholy mating of a Pontiac (Daewoo) Lemans and a garbage truck.
At one point, two different uncles each had an Aztek concurrently, one in blue, the other exactly identical to the one featured here. Both of them purchased their Azteks new for very low money. Between the family GM retiree discount they were able to access and the thousands on the hood, my recollection is that they paid something like 17k for a brand new one back then.
Turns out they’re actually really squirrelly in bad weather. Icy roads plus high winds nearly killed my aunt when hers spun and flipped. The other Aztek, though, was on the road as late as last year (hell, maybe the one in the photo is that one!). It survived being the family truckster until 2011, then survived five years more after they gave it to my dipshit cousin to be his first car. He just traded it in on a Malibu earlier this year.
I dunno, they weren’t stylistically great, but no worse than a lot of other GM vehicles, and they fit right into the Pontiac family at the time of release. The cladding and other Pontiac style cues from that period made a lot of horrible looking GM cars and this crossover/van thing. With just a few minor tweaks, they became a fairly good looking SUVish thing as the Buick Rendezvous. Now that everyone speaks ill of them, pricing is cheap, thus they make good value used cars. Thus, you see them in use, and quite a few of them.
I have warmed to the Aztec over the years, much as I have warmed to the 61 Plymouth, to the point that I would consider driving one if I found a good one (and was tutored by someone schooled in these as to what to look for).
As a lover of the ’61 Plymouth, that’s a great comparison.
As has often been told, the Aztek’s problems were many, with one of the root problems being how the vehicle was changed from the not-so-bad concept to production. There were compromises made to the Aztek’s styling when it was moved to the minivan platform, yet that very same styling eliminated a core requirement for a minivan: the third row seat. The larger minivan size also moved the Aztek out of the price range for the demographic it was originally intended.
One of the most interesting comparisons was the other crossover that came out at the same time, the PT Cruiser. What’s fascinating is how GM and Chrysler both ignored the focus group recommendations. For the Aztek, marketing suggested a much more restrained production, while Chrysler’s said the PT Cruiser would be a big hit. The companies, instead, did the exact opposite, with Aztek sales predicted to be wildly optimistic, and Chrysler severely underestimating demand for the Cruiser.
Speaking of Chrysler, I always thought if the Aztek had stuck to the smaller concept, it would have came out not too far from the Dodge Caliber which, to my eyes, is just as repugnant as the Aztek. Yet, the Caliber, even as ungainly as it was (with an interior where cheap, hard plastic abounds), managed to sell well enough for Chrysler to keep it around long after the Aztek was history, and I would bet it was solely due to a much lower price.
I always thought of the 61 Plymouth as the natural evolution of a 59 Buick.
Just Googled the Aztek concept. MUCH better!
Wanna see something even sadder? Look up the 1998 Dodge Charger concept (the orange one) and compare it to what eventually arrived on the market.
Yeah, Daniel. If only…..
The one with skylights for rear door windows?
CC Effect: 24 hours later I saw the subject car’s twin parked on a courthouse square in Danville, Indiana.
I just imagined all of the jokes that you could come up with if you found one of these for the 24 Hours of Lemons. The Aztek Mummy, Fools Gold, etc.
I’m trying to think of a theme to go with racing one complete with tent attached to the back.
I worked with a guy who bought an Aztek new. He loved it, for a few months, then everything went downhill from there. Electrical nightmares of epic proportions started occurring, too numerous to mention. It ate it’s first transmission before 10,000 miles, it’s second before 25,000. The third transmission locked up and exploded nearly causing an accident. GM bought it back under the lemon law and offered him a new Pontiac of his choice. He picked a Vibe because he knew that GM didn’t build it.
With today’s ugly looking cars (such as the already mentioned Benz product and most of Nissan’s current line up (especially the Puke….er….Juke) ), I think the Aztek was just too early on the automotive scene.
I think that is why so many folks seem to have reassessed the Aztek’s looks as there have been so many ugly cars since then so the Aztek is not so odd looking. Plus the later ones(like the one in the picture) without the cladding look so much better then the ones with it.
I will admit right here that I have always been a fan of the Aztek.
As for why folks in Detroit like them, despite the odd looks, they are very practical vehicles. They are roomy inside and have great visibility(especially out of the rear window) The tailgate is two parts with upper part opening like a hatchback and the bottom one opening like a pickup truck. The bottom part of the tailgate has seat like depressions in the plastic panel for sitting on the tailgate. It also has cup holders in the panel so you can use it for a outdoor event.
There was a tent option for the Aztek which was of good quality. The center console could be removed and used as a cooler
I actually almost bought a 2003 Aztek a couple of weeks ago. It was being sold by the wholesaler that deals with the dealership I hand out at. It was bright yellow(like the one in the pic above)I reluctantly passed on it when I came across a Pontiac transport van I liked better(and got from a family friend for $500)
If the OP thinks there’s a lot of ‘Teks in Detroit, come to the western side of the state. People in GR love a deal and at the end, GM and the dealers were cutting the prices on these things to get them out the door. My ’01 was a special lease deal, was zero down with a low monthly. Also, like others noted, GM had all of their company car eligible folks driving these, too. I still see tons of these things plying the street, 16 years later.
I once spoke to a guy at the dealer management level about Pontiac’s reputation; he told me that Pontiacs were only really popular in Canada and the northern tier of states. Especially Michigan. But, it wasn’t enough to keep the division alive, especially after the Automotive Task Force decided it had to be cut…
I thought Walter White’s green one was just perfect.
As a utility vehicle looks were not too important. I thought that it was ugly while the Rendezvous was acceptable, particularly in comparison. GM expected sales of 75,000 per year and needed 30,000 to break even. The Rendezvous was expected to sell about 30,000 or so, but did much better, so perhaps both vehicles broke even cost wise. Aztek sales were 120,000, while the Buick sold 340,000. Style probably matters.
One big difference in usability – the Rendezvous offered seating for seven, the Aztek’s sloping hatch precluded a third row.
Yes, the sloping rear roof killed a lot of utility in those cars. When our mountain bikes didn’t have 29″ wheels, they easily fit with the front wheel removed. After that, no dice. Big stuff, like TVs or dishwashers, etc. were a travail to get into those things.
Seems like I see one tooling around about once a month. Hard not to notice them. Saw one at a car show too.
I lived in Ann Arbor when these turds bellyflopped onto the market. Scuttlebutt at the UM Engineering School, fuelled by voices of people well positioned to know what they were talking about, was that GM all but gave these dumb cars to employees en masse to create the illusion of market acceptance and popularity.
I expect this is correct. I’d also heard that GM higher-ups were required to take Azteks as company cars. Either way, a much higher than normal percentage of production likely ended up in the Detroit area.
My brother in law has one, and told me the “GM Employees were forced into Azteks” story. If true, the midwest resale market would have been flooded with company car returns, which would have then made their way onto the streets. The large number of Azteks in his area (South Bend, Indiana) is evidence in support of the rumor.
As for my BIL, he’s a non-car guy, and a contrarian, so the Aztek fits his needs perfectly. For him it’s a practical ride that helps cement his non-establishment credentials.
I rented a car in Detroit about that time, and they practically begged me to take a Rendezvous. Not sure if they overbought or were somehow trying to increase the car’s numbers on the road, but I stuck with my LeSabre.
Came here to post this. I remember reading after the launch that it was such a sales disaster, that GM forced the cars upon employees as company cars. This gave the illusion that they were selling well, and since GM corporate office is in Detroit I’m guessing that because of this there is a higher concentration of them there than anywhere else.
Found an article referencing this: http://www.motortrend.com/news/pontiac-aztek-in-the-beginning-301/
I do see quite a number of them running around San Diego. They aren’t super popular, but enough are here to notice them. Some of them are pretty ragged, but others will still look showroom new. I still see quite a few of the post-facelifted models without all the gray cladding on the sides.
I like the *idea* of the Aztek, but the execution….ugh.
Wrong kind of platform (minivan), unfortunate styling aimed at a demographic that considered that important, and just plain 90s/00s GM corporate blandness all made it a missed swing for the fences.
2 years ago, I looked for a nice used Aztek, thinking their unpopularity would keep them cheap.
Not to be. They seem to be cult classics, and, like the Pacer, popular in their notoriety. All the Azkeks I found were expensive and high mileage. So someone is buying them. Not me, thought. If I want notoriety, I’ll get a Fiero.
If only the Aztek wasn’t so damned ugly. It has been pointed out by other posters how other, newer vehicles are just as ugly so the Aztek doesn’t stick out for its lack of attractiveness as much as it once did. But it’s still an un-attractive vehicle.
I think of it like the ’58 Edsel. I still think that car’s ugly; just not ~as~ ugly because it’s been almost 60 years and plenty of other vehicular eyesores have come down the pike since then.
The actual shape and proportions of the Edsel aren’t that bad. The problem is with the overwrought details.
Now if the Edsel had been done on a minivan platform (if such a thing had existed back then), that would have been really bad. Kinda like an Aztek…
I think you are describing a Subaru Tribeca B9.
I Googled the images of a ‘Subaru Tribeca B9’. The front end is rather ‘Edsel-ish’ with that nose-looking thing in the middle. I looked up some images of the Nissan Juke as well. I don’t know what to make of that Juke. Is it a car? A baby version of an SUV? I dunno.
Looking at images of Azteks, Tribeca B9’s and Jukes makes me appreciate anew the appearance of the Falcon perched in my carport.
“Nose” isn’t the usual and customary anatomical comparison on the Edsel’s front end.
Was it Car and Driver that pointed out B9 (=benign) wasn’t the most appropriate description of the Tribeca’s styling?
“The actual shape and proportions of the Edsel aren’t that bad. The problem is with the overwrought details.”
Agreed. When FoMoCo toned down the styling a bit, It actually was a fairly good-looking car. The 1960s were the proof. Sadly for Ford, the damage had been done two years prior and the marque was toast by November of 1959.
The Pontiac Aztec’s ugliness pales next to that of the Nissan Juke and Subaru Tribeca.
I’ll have to Google a picture of the Juke and the Tribeca. I don’t know what they look like.
I won’t argue that the Juke is not ugly, however there is sort of an organic flow to its toad-like looks. The Aztec’s disjointed styling, on the other hand, looks like a four-year-old’s drawing of a toad.
Tribeca looked completely normal once they fixed the nose. Still didn’t sell though. (I have a theory that Subaru customers are the outdoorsy types who don’t want to be seen in a “gas-guzzling SUV”.)
The reason it’s a turkey is because it has two apparently conflicting
styling themes and the details are poorly resolved: it’s not even half-baked.
I’d love to see an “All Aztek Demo Derby”!
To my eyes, the Aztec looked like they took a Grand Am and then dropped a Sunbird on top of it.
As others have pointed out, the later models without cladding do look a lot better. The yellow one in this post looks kinda tasty.
To my eyes, the Aztek looked like a mini-scale garbage truck. Still does.
Our local used car dealer bought one at auction. It needed a rear wheel bearing. He found out he’d have to buy the whole hub assembly for $500 or so. Back it went to the auction.
Must have been before the aftermarket stared building that bearing-
Rock Auto lists them in the $ 35-70 range, with 5 or 6 suppliers offering the part.
Since it was brought up, I don’t understand why the Aztek is so reviled while the Rendezvous is hardly ever mentioned. To me, both vehicles look like they are hunchbacked.
And, when you park Azteks among other Pontiacs of the same vintage, they all look pretty ugly.
I often wonder if some of the cars and/or trucks that have surprisingly good longevity is really a case of owners being stuck. I have seen no Azteks, lately, Rendezvous are about as rare, but I’ve started noticing more Contours and Mystiques on the local Craigslists.
It had to do with the front end of the Aztek. The front end of the Rendezvous looked good and flowed with the rest of the body. GM also decided to offer it with 3.5 and 3.6l V6 engines starting in 2005.
The Rendezvous was considered a sales success for GM and the vehicle was very popular. I am guessing that most folks held on to the vehicles until the wheels fell off(not because they had to but because they liked the vehicle.)
Most folks I have run into with the Rendezvous or Aztek, love their trucks and will not get rid of them. My watchmaker(I collect watches) has several of them to move clocks around. He loves the things.
As I mentioned before, the whole sale guy at the dealership I hang out with had a bright yellow 2003 Aztek for sale for $1000. It had high miles (250,000+) but other then a small tear in the driver’s seat and needing 4 new tires, the vehicle ran and sounded fine. It was well taken care of.
He had 50 calls for it in 2 days before it was sold.
My senses are much more offended by Boss 302 style stripes being applied to a CREWCAB PICKUP TRUCK in the background!
The worst part about the Aztek, besides it’s stupid GM spelling of Aztec(and Cruze), is that the concept looked kind of awesome in 1999, while the production version looks like a cladded up minivan. There have been much uglier designs since, this Walmart BMW ain’t got shit on the Bangle butt BMWs, or even BMWs made today(the i3 looks exactly 1,000,000 times more stupid than the Aztek ever did).
That BMW i3 hurt my eyes at first, mainly due to the big notch in the beltline, which is just silly. But now that they’re getting pretty common around here, I’m getting used to them. Likewise with the new Prius, which looks like it came out of a Godzilla movie. Aztek? Never. Rarely seen in Oregon, this is Subaru country.
A work friend who races a Honda has an i3 and loves it.
And the BMW X6, which I maintain is the ugliest auto made in my lifetime. The Aztek at least got the proportions right, even if the details and cladding were wrong. Had Aztek come along about five years later, I don’t think people would have panned it like they do now. Trouble with going first, though, I suppose.
I remember the whole idea was that there were meant to be all of these lifestyle packages for the Aztek, including the camping one that I think saw brief production in the first year. Shame the rest of them never saw the light of day-having something to market it on (and having the all-wheel-drive version ready from Day 1) might have helped save it.
Sorry, when they first came out I said I had finally met the car that would make me walk before being seen in one.
All these years later…. hasn’t changed and neither has my opinion!!
Jason Schafer is close, I’ve had three. An ’01 1SC FWD and two 1SB ’04 Rallys, also FWD.
The ’01 was Steel Blue, with the light gray body cladding, it was double ugly. The inside was nice, it had a lot of nice features and plenty of room for the kiddies. Even though GM was pushing the incentives hard at that time, we leased the car instead of purchasing. The dealer was great, one of the old family owned stores left in the area. They took very good care of us, with regard to warranty and service. We even had an hour long class familiarizing ourselves with the car and the service schedule. Sadly, shortly after,they were bought out by a “megadealer”, it’s never been the same since. The ’01 had some issues with the BCM (body control module), but not a whole lot more.
In 2004 Pontiac introduced the Aztek Rally, named after the famous Aztek Rallies that were held all over the country. My wife saw the Fusion Orange one and had to have it. We turned in our 2001 early and leased another Aztek. This was the Aztek from Hell, not to be confused with the Corvette C5R-based show car. The first year was just fine, better than the ’01 with no problems whatsoever. Year two was different. Way different.
It started with a leaking sunroof. One of the drains had clogged water got underneath the headliner, creating one hell of a mess. Try as they could the mechanics could not get the drains unplugged. The Aztek’s air conditioning condensor was exceptionally prone to road damage, everyone one I knew had the same issue. Then the engine developed a head gasket problem. Then the transmission dumped the entire contents of it’s oil on my driveway. Then a front wheel bearing went bad. Then the automatic rear axle leveling system went bad. Then the CD player system ate our CDs. All of this happened within a year.
Somehow I’d had the sense to purchase an extended warranty and it came in extremely handy. Each incident was $100 but we got a rental car each time and it came back fixed correctly. I estimate that all of the repairs would have cost me at least $3,000 or more without the warranty. Even though the dealer took good care of us, I couldn’t continue on with the car. As soon as I could get early lease return, I got a Chevy Malibu Maxx that was virtually trouble free.
In 2013, I needed a new car for myself, and found another Aztek Rally. It was a rather used car, but functioned fine. My biggest complaint were the cheap-o Wal Mart tires that were on the car, they were noisy and held the road like wet snot. This Aztek had some minor issues that any 10 year old car would have, but nothing fatal. I rather enjoyed driving it, up until the moment that a deer decided to jump out in front of me; the wet snot tires just slid and I ended up punting the deer down the road. And trashing the front end of the Aztek. It was drivable and I drove it around town until I could find it’s replacement, a minivan.
I have neither driven nor ridden in an Aztek. But I have heard that they drive really well.
Here in urban Detroit, Pontiacs of ALL sorts are everywhere.
Yes, I love Detroit! Maybe not all of it. But Michigan in general is a great place for car spotting. I see stuff on the roads up here I never thought I would see. I particularly like driving US 23 down to AA and Toledo, about any time of year I see test mules and new cars that I’ve seen in spy pix.
I really liked the way the Azteks drove, I thought it was a nice sized exterior package with a good amount of room on the inside for passengers. It was like a tall mid-sized car with a hatchback, but with a high seating position, which is about ideal for me. The Maxx that replaced my troublesome orange Rally was largely the same, but at a regular sedan’s ride height.
My friend David and I were jolted the other day in our daily endeavor of counting Bentleys here in Naples, FL (usually 8-10) when I spotted a deep maroon Aztek sitting at a stoplight surrounded by very ugly, overdesigned new Mercedes and BMWs. I knew it was an Aztek immediately. David thought it was a new BMW SUV. I’m not sure if that vindicates the Aztek or condemns the X6.
Who says it has to be either/or?
Maybe they’re still in Detroit because dealers refused to take delivery and GM had to dump the ones they made locally. I feel like the passage of time has validated the concept of the Aztek, but elements of its execution prevented it from being accepted.
That’s a very good summation of the Aztek. The timing was okay and the market was there (as it is today). Indeed, later similarly polarizing vehicles weren’t rejected nearly as out-of-hand.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the Aztek would have had a chance as it was originally released, regardless of when that might have been.
Just want to make it perfectly clear that this Pontiac did NOT start out as a Holden! 🙂
Of course not Pete, that would imply it was halfway decent.
This we never got in the EU – I think GM and the grey importers knew better than to bother. To me it looks like something a Russian car manufacturer would have come up in the 90s, desperately trying to update a hopelessly out-of-date product – and failing. What were they thinking.
But maybe, like the Trans Sport 3.8, good ones are extremely reliable.
The only thing that can improve an Aztek’s looks is putting one in the crusher. The Aztek is by and large Pontiac’s monumental festering lesion. To think of what Pontiac once was many decades ago and then succumbing to their wide range of plastic cladded, egregiously styled, insipid fleet of clunkers that nobody wanted. Well, Pontiac is long gone and the writing was on the wall quite a while ago.
I love an Aztec, and have found a silver one for sale local. I don’t have a problem with its looks. And if you want to talk ugly, look no further than Kia Soul, Honda Element, and a little ugly Nissan who’s name escapes me, some boxy nasty thing ( not Juke). But then Pontiac is an American nameplate, which will always be put down by reviewers, while they suck up to Japanese and European cars that are ugly as sin.
The Element was a very good looking car. As is the Soul. Clean lines and design, and the Element was infinitely useful besides.
Seriously, you’d try to suggest this this:
Your comment reminds me of this commercial:
Neither one will win a beauty contest anywhere.
Is on the level of this?:
The comments about GM employees having to take unsellable cars is largely true. When I worked for Chrysler during the late 70s, the Omni/Horizon was an instant hit and of course all of the folks eligible for lease cars signed up for them. Then the 79 energy crisis hit. All of those same folks were required to turn in their fuel efficient and easy to sell cars for a gas guzzler type car (360 V8 large cars) that weren’t selling. Most were not happy.
I never really warmed up to the Aztek though I’ll admit that the later monochrome models were an improvement. What bothered me most about the gray-cladded cars was the way the body color peeked out between the cladding panels. Sloppy and cheap-looking.
After seeing the recent New York Auto Show CC, I thought some of the US designs were better looking (or at least less ugly) than most of the new ‘foreign’ vehicles.
OTOH, I think a ’60 Falcon is better looking than most new vehicles!
Happy Motoring, Mark
I’ve heard it referred to as Poncho Ass-tek by some.
So many purposely ugly cars–prius, element, xb, soul, cube, smartcar–have indeed diluted my despise for this hideous crossover!