The Much Maligned Aztek

It seems hard to believe over a decade has passed since 1999 and all its associated mayhem with ushering in the Y2K era. Thank goodness it all proved to be a case of missing the mark, but there was another debacle that took place earlier that year in the automotive world.

The turn of the century saw America falling in love with a new acronym, SUV. The Sport Utility Vehicle was rapidly becoming the weapon of choice for the “young and upwardly mobile.” More accurately, it was the new station wagon. The family machine had a great deal more panache than the minivan, and looked nothing like your grandpa’s country squire barge boat on wheels, complete with woodgrain side panels.

With this new image in its favor and most models offering four wheel drive, the SUV became the fashionable yet practical choice for those who lived with harsh winters each year, and provided the ability to venture off road on occasion. Sport utilities could also handle the light towing chores of small campers and boats, along with the capability to get to the places where those toys were used.

With more comfortable and usable cabin space than pickup trucks offered, and more car-like amenities than the purist off-roading Jeep, the SUV flourished in the marketplace.

In 1999, General Motors Pontiac Division debuted a concept car called the Aztek. This concept employed elements of both the SUV and the sporty car by having a lower, sleeker, roofline. It boasted four wheel drive and the trademark Pontiac wide stance, along with an interior design with as much versatility as a Swiss Army knife. Folding seats, removable coolers, a rocking sound system and a split tailgate that doubled as a picnic seat, complete with cup holders.

pontiac-aztek-concept

The flashy yellow color along with the aluminum trimmed interior and its swelled wheelwells filled with stout tires made the sporty vehicle a hit with crowds, especially the younger group which was the intended market. First impressions would lead anyone to believe that Pontiac had a real hit on its hands, but as happens so often in the automotive world, projects fall prey to the bean counters and somewhere between the concept Land of Oz, and the real world of Kansas, the Aztek was forced into a deadly spin.

General Motors brought the Aztek to market the following year touting it as, “possibly the most versatile vehicle ever made.” In theory they were right, but instead of building the vehicle on a car based platform, they opted for sharing innards with the Pontiac/Oldsmobile minivan, as well as spinning off a Buick variant called the Rendezvous. Needless to say the production Aztek bore little resemblance to its concept forerunner, and instantly died in the showrooms.

The automotive press turned into a shark frenzy and the Aztek was a bloody lunch, making every publications list of “ugliest cars ever” and overshadowing the Ford Edsel as one of the greatest automotive blunders of all time. GM tried to refine the Aztek over the next four years with mild appearance changes and package upgrades, but in 2005 it was finally laid to rest.

buick-rendezvous-03

Oddly enough, the Aztek’s sister ship, the Buick Rendezvous soldiered on, and from my personal point of view I will never understand why. While the Rendezvous did offer a third row of seats, which are only fit for children or adults with no legs, I saw no other attributes over the Aztek. In fact, for all the verbal and printed abuse the Aztek absorbed about its looks, the Rendezvous is no runway beauty queen. In my personal opinion, the Buick reminds me of a seriously over dressed, overweight, homely dog only a mother could love, that also happens to be wearing a bustle. A homecoming dance wallflower at best.

A funny thing happened as time marched on, as it often does in the automotive realm, after all the ugly press moved on to other hapless victims, the Aztek finally found a following. In the underworld of used car shopping, the visions of the concept car are ancient dust and people see a vehicle for what it has to offer. Many discovered the interior was indeed as versatile as was foretold, and the Aztek draws a nice compromise between the minivan and its grossly expensive SUV cousins. For those who had little need of four wheel drive, the Aztek offered front wheel drive economy with traction control reliability in foul weather.

I’ll be the first to admit the introductory year model is a tough taste to acquire with its massive gray plastic cladding giving the appearance of having been dipped in a liquid rubber tank. The following years saw a more colorful appearance package, a rear spoiler and the addition of Pontiacs famed “sawblade” chrome wheels, which first appeared on the sexy Bonneville sedan. No amount of add-ons would ever make the Aztek look sexy, but the makeover made it look stunning compared to the  Buick Rendezvous.

I’ve had a soft spot for the Aztek ever since the 2002 model year. The vehicle reminds me of the mixed breed dog you find at a shelter, nothing pure or outstanding about her, but loyal, faithful and loving to a fault.

Aztek

We added a 2004 Aztek Rallye to our home stable last year, and she has been a welcome replacement for the Montana minivan we had before. I love the interior comfort, the sound system and its versatility is second to none of anything we have owned. We removed the seats and hauled cargo both near and far, loaded it with people and still had room for luggage. It swallows my mother’s wheelchair or walker with the greatest of ease and all the while delivers 20-25mpg like clockwork.

I first noticed while shopping for our Aztek that they are not plentiful on used car lots, and when one arrives it doesn’t stay long. I can only assume that others have discovered what I found out long ago, the Aztek is indeed a far cry from its concept father, but on balance it has blossomed into a versatile, workable, everyday vehicle in its own right. Spacious, comfortable and economical, but most importantly, a lot of bang for the buck, and that makes it a winner in my book.

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