Curbside Classic: 2001-05 Pontiac Aztek – Perhaps The Best Decision Made By Walter White?

(first posted 9/29/2017)        It’s tempting to say the story of the Pontiac Aztek is one of unbridled hubris by General Motors. But the story of the Aztek reveals surprising pragmatism and prescience, and the passage of time has, in a way, vindicated the maligned designers of the Aztek. A certain TV show has also made the Aztek cool in a way it never was when new.

First thing’s first: the production Aztek didn’t look as good as the concept car. That seems to be a universally accepted fact. The Aztek started off as some sketches in the mid-1990s, nicknamed Bear Claw, which looked muscular and aggressive. But GM executives insisted on using the U-Body minivan platform, which messed with the proportions even if it did improve economies of scale.

Although the 1999 Aztek concept looked more muscular than the production model, thanks largely to a widened track, it had still been built on the U-Body platform. However, the production model ended up highlighting the platform’s high cowl and narrow-width, the end result looking much more awkward than the concept.

But the outrage at the Aztek’s styling at the dawn of the century seems almost quaint today. Against a backdrop of conservative SUVs like the Ford Explorer and Toyota 4Runner, the slanted, cladded Aztek was a wild departure. Today, however, the market is overrun with daringly styled crossovers like the Nissan Juke and Toyota C-HR.

And some of the Aztek’s styling elements have turned up elsewhere. The split-level headlights of the Aztek? That cue is used on the current Jeep Cherokee. The high-riding fastback styling? The BMW X4 and X6. The abrupt hatchback rear? The Toyota Prius and Honda Insight. The excess of cladding? GM more successfully applied it to the Chevrolet Avalanche. Because of the normalization of many of its styling cues, the Aztek doesn’t look anywhere near as outlandish as it did in 2001.

While GM may have miscalculated with the Aztek’s styling – which, while ugly, was ahead of its time – they got a lot of the Aztek right. The car was full of clever touches designed to appeal to younger buyers.

Take the tailgate, for example. It was a split-level opening, which was neat enough, but the lower section had two indentations for seats and two cupholders built into it. Rear-mounted speakers with controls were also available for the load bay of the Aztek, as was a tent and air mattress to allow you to comfortably sleep in the back of your Aztek. The tent even had little zip-out windows. You could remove the rear seats entirely and, if you so desired, put them on the ground underneath the tent awning and hang out at your campsite.

Or try the center console. It was actually a cooler that could also be used for CD and coin storage and could be lifted and taken out of the car. The Pontiac logo was actually the clip that locked it in place. Neat!

The cargo floor had a large tray which you could slide out and store your tent and air mattress in. That tray could also be removed entirely and even had wheels on it in case you found it too heavy to carry.

There were also the usual storage compartments you’d find in a crossover or SUV, but the Aztek had one final unique feature: windshield washers that were actually built into the wipers. Clever!

The Aztek’s designers actually sweated the details, and you can understand why Aztek owners tend to be a loyal bunch. But, controversial styling aside, there were other reasons that caused the Aztek to fall drastically short of its projected annual sales of 70,000 units. Like the price.

At launch, a base Aztek cost around $22,000. That was almost $4k more than the hot-selling new Ford Escape. The Escape’s shrunken Explorer styling was handsome and youthful all at once and better captured what buyers were after in this new-fangled crossover segment. If you optioned your Escape with the V6 engine, the gap in price between it and the Aztek shrunk but you were still looking at a saving of almost $2k for a much more attractive vehicle. Adding options to the Aztek, like all-wheel-drive ($2000) and the rear cargo tray and speakers, pushed the Aztek uncomfortably close to $30k.

GM made a big splash with Aztek promotion, desperately trying to appeal to 20- and 30-something buyers by giving one away on Survivor and airing commercials touting the Aztek’s neat features. The passage of time may have made the Aztek seem more desirable but it hasn’t made those commercials any less shrill and irritating. Apparently, market research during the Aztek’s development showed people had serious reservations about the car but GM plowed ahead. One wonders how the same focus groups reacted to the cringe-worthy TV commercials.

Underneath all the wild styling and clever interior features was the U-Body platform of the humble Montana minivan, the wheelbase shortened by 3.7 inches. Despite the shorter wheelbase, the Aztek was still plenty spacious—it had 94 cubic feet of cargo room, 14 more than a contemporary Ford Explorer. And far from being oversized and cumbersome, the Aztek was 8.6 inches shorter overall than the Explorer. That U-Body platform made for a fairly smooth ride but some pretty unexciting dynamics – although certainly no worse than most SUVs of the era – and the Aztek comported itself adequately with a kind of bland competence.

Photo courtesy of William Rubano

Bland competence also describes what was under the sloped hood. A four-speed automatic was the only transmission available but it was a smooth-shifting unit. The 3.4 V6 engine produced 185 hp at 5200 rpm and 210 ft-lbs at 4000 rpm. Consequently, it wasn’t very sprightly as it had to battle against 3900 pounds of Aztek.

This is where the Aztek’s rough edges really start to show. The Pontiac may have been as economical as a V6 Escape but it produced less power and weighed more. Even though it was a crossover and hardly the car of choice for the stoplight Grand Prix – you’d be better served with, well, a Pontiac Grand Prix – a 0-60 time of 10.8 seconds in a car from GM’s excitement division was somewhat underwhelming, as was the car’s innocuous handling. And while the Aztek’s platform-mate, the Buick Rendezvous, eventually received GM’s new DOHC 3.6 V6, the Aztek offered only the 3.4 until the end.

Then there was the interior. It wasn’t drastically worse than domestic SUVs of the time, nor was it any worse than contemporary Pontiacs. It was a bog-standard, overstyled, plasticky 2000s Pontiac interior. But while it may have been cheap, the interior design’s saving grace was that it did look modern and did fit in with the exterior styling to some degree. Faint praise, yes. Visibility was also better than expected thanks to the use of glass on the lower section of the tailgate.

Slow sales and a higher-than-expected average buyer age caused GM to rush revisions for 2002. No major changes could be made but GM started painting the cladding (no, they didn’t get rid of it, they actually painted it). Wheel designs were more conventionally attractive. The up-level GT models were axed, although many of the GT’s features were made standard on the regular Aztek or moved to option packages. Most importantly, Pontiac slashed MSRPs by a grand.

The rest of the Aztek’s run saw minor tweaks each year, ranging from additions (sporty-looking Rally trim with lowered suspension) to subtractions (ABS and front side airbags optional in FWD models from 2003). But the car’s sales slide proved to be irreversible. Far from achieving GM’s projection of 70,000 annual units, the Aztek peaked at 27,793 in 2002. Not only was the Ford Escape outselling the Aztek, the Escape’s twin, the Mazda Tribute, was too—and Mazda had a lot fewer dealerships in its network! If there was any solace for Pontiac, it’s that the Aztek consistently sold around 27k units each year for most of its run instead of continuing to nosedive.

When people discuss the Aztek, one of the most commonly asked questions is, “Who signed off on that?” Bob Lutz, who became Vice Chairman of Product Development for GM in September 2001 after the Aztek’s launch, placed the blame squarely on GM’s management culture. He said, “At the time, GM was criticized for never doing anything new, never taking a chance. So Wagoner and the automotive strategy board decreed that henceforth, 40 percent of all new GM products would be “innovative.” That started a trend toward setting internal goals that meant nothing to the customer. Everything that looked reasonably radical got green-lit.”

Lutz was also critical of the tone-deaf management style of product lead Don Hackworth, who allegedly discouraged any negative comments about the product. Apparently, he told employees that if they weren’t going to be supportive, they could leave the project.

After the Aztek was axed, Pontiac launched the Torrent—a rebadged Chevrolet Equinox. Spokespeople seemed to ret-con the Aztek, calling the Torrent “Pontiac’s first SUV” and claiming that the Aztek wasn’t an SUV because it was based on the Montana.

‘Aztek’ had supplanted ‘Edsel’ in the minds of people thinking of bad cars. That’s not fair. The Edsel was an utterly conventional Ford product that happened to have an ugly grille and some wildly optimistic sales projections. The Aztek was an utterly conventional GM product that actually had some clever features and some wildly optimistic sales projections. It just happened to be, well, ugly.

GM was eager to distance themselves from a car that had become synonymous with failure, but that didn’t stop the Aztek from being the butt of jokes for a long time. Then, a funny thing happened. An Aztek was featured extensively in Breaking Bad, driven by the anti-hero, Walter White.

Aztek buyers had often been loyal and held onto their maligned crossovers. Now, there was fresh new interest in the cars they loved. Edmunds saw a surge in popularity for the Aztek among young buyers. Some of those millennials may have been drawn to the Aztek for its pop culture status and low prices, but it’s fair to say many of them would have also been impressed by those features Pontiac had advertised so heavily to young people in the early 2000s.

Hey, General Motors, you got those young buyers eventually! It just took over a decade and a fictional crystal meth producer to get you there.

Featured Azteks photographed in Times Square, Manhattan, NY and near Frida Kahlo’s house in Coyoacán, Mexico D.F, getting photo-bombed by a similarly controversial Montana SV6.

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