The Pontiac Aztek Didn't Fail Because It Was Ugly. It Failed Because It Was Lazy
Of course, it was ugly too, but...
Breaking Bad, Doug DeMuro, Regular Car Reviews, Turn 10 studios, and tons of internet memes have created a cult around this horrible, ugly vehicle. Now its ugliness is endearing for some reason. But I think the charisma and good storytelling of the above-beloved characters have given us amnesia, because the Pontiac Aztek well and truly sucked, and not just because it was ugly. The Aztek sucked because it was lazy.
Kevin Williams is an author at Car Bibles, a coming-soon sister site to The Drive focusing on automotive adventures and DIY tips to help you get the most out of your car. But I promised my writers I'd let them air out their hot takes too, so you can expect more like this when the site comes online. Enjoy! — Andrew P. Collins, Car Bibles EIC
Let’s go back in time a bit to the distant past: the year 2000.
Crossovers as we know them had pretty much only just been invented. They were often called “car-based SUVs.” Automakers started to realize that a lot of drivers didn’t necessarily care (or want) their SUV to have a big ladder chassis, or body-on-frame design, or large V8, or a heavy-duty four-wheel-drive system. Back then, customers liked the sensible sedan and hatchback shapes that automakers were selling. But they also liked the “commanding” seating position and four-wheel-drive that truck-like SUVs offered. So more than one automaker figured “hey, why not meet in the middle?”
Besides the original AMC Eagle, you could say Toyota was the first—in 1994, the RAV4, based upon the Corolla chassis, was released. A couple of months later Honda followed up with its Civic-based SUV, the CR-V. Nissan also had one based on the B14 Sunny (Sentra) called the “Rasheen” but it never made it out of Japan. By and large, these crossover SUVs were insanely popular, almost overnight. All of a sudden it seemed like every automaker needed to have a car-based SUV in their lineup.
General Motors kind of tried to play this game and compete, but from the offerings it gave us early on, it’s clear the company didn’t really want to. GM half-assed it, insisting that the S-10 Blazer of the 1990s was a competitor, though it was bigger, thirstier, and more expensive. It also rebadged the Suzuki Sidekick as the Chevy and Geo Tracker but, those cars weren’t as refined as the CR-V or RAV4. The Sidekick, Vitara, and Tracker were body-on-frame, came with solid rear axles, and were rear-wheel drive. Those attributes made them generally more capable off-road than the front-wheel-drive, independent suspension, car-based SUVs, but most buyers didn’t care.
The head bosses at Toyota, no doubt inspired by the strong sales of the RAV4, and the success of Mercedes-Benz’s brand new ML-Class crossover, decided that maybe it should try another car-based sport-utility. What did Toyota do? Took the generally-good (and plenty boring) Camry chassis, tweaked it a little, put some big, blobby tires on it, and then sold it in two forms: as the Lexus RX in 1999, and Toyota Highlander in 2001. Those crossovers were immensely successful—in fact, I think their success was a harbinger of what we now call the “sedanocoplyse.” Suddenly, automakers realized they needed crossover SUVs more than sedans, and now they outsell sedans and hatchbacks.
Well, GM decided to take another swing at this whole everyday small-SUV idea. Here’s the thing though, apparently it didn’t really want to spend money on any new sort of chassis development. So, it used what it already had. In this case, it meant it took its U-body minivan chassis, used on the Chevrolet Venture and its four nearly identical siblings (pre-bailout GM was often a dark place) and cut a little bit out of the wheelbase.
The U-body wasn’t a great base to start on. The Venture vans had been known for playing second fiddle to the Dodge and Toyota vans through the late 1990s. Its design legacy was old; the U-body was first introduced in 1989 starting with the Chevrolet Lumina APV. GM claims that the whole U-body chassis was revised in 1997, but even still, none of the vans using this chassis got particularly good reviews. Yeah, we ain’t starting from a position of strength here.
GM took that uncompetitive platform and reworked it into a competitor for the Toyota Highlander and Lexus RX, both of which were based on a then-new and competitive chassis. The RX and Highlander are based on the Camry, but aside from a handful of parts and an engine or two, not much is shared between the vehicles.
The Aztek? Yeah, it shares a lot with the Venture van. Honestly, it shares too much with the Venture van, which was its main problem, because the Venture van wasn't good. The engine and transmission are the same, sure, I’ll let that slide. It doesn’t make any sense to create an entirely new powertrain for two models. And again, Toyota did some similar sharing with great success with the Highlander and Lexus RX. But the suspension members, that same solid rear axle on front-wheel-drive Azteks, came directly from the Venture van. Even the width and way the windshield cowl comes together with the hood is nearly identical to the Venture van. In retrospect, GM designers weren't happy about the Aztek being forced to use the U-body chassis, either, according to an interview with Car and Driver in 2014.
Sure, the Aztek's unconventional bi-level front fascia, grey plastic cladding, and awkward rear don’t do the car any favors, but is that really why the car is so ugly? Nah, the Aztek’s horrible proportions are far more offensive. The Aztek has a tiny and short hood, like a minivan. The Aztek is boxy and slab-sided, like a minivan. The Aztek has tiny car-like wheels, like a minivan. The crappy proportions are dictated by the minivan chassis it's using. Alterations to that chassis to create a better-proportioned vehicle would have been too much effort for this lazily designed car.
Car and Driver said that its platform twin, the Buick Rendezvous, “looked and drove like a gussied up minivan.” Mhm, because it was a gussied up minivan.
The 3.4-liter pushrod V6 engine and four-speed automatic worked together well enough, but if you’ve driven a Chevrolet Venture or any of its umpteen platform clones, you’ve driven an Aztek or Rendezvous. And if you haven't, I'll spoil it for you, they don't drive very nicely at all.
OK, I know that I’ve spent most of this article slagging on the Aztek because it deserves it. It’s not a particularly reliable or well-made vehicle, and it’s horribly ugly and indifferently engineered.
Still, a lot of people like it, including my mom. Her Rendezvous is whisper-quiet. One benefit of that minivan chassis is that the Aztek and Rendezvous’s interior packaging is sublime. I don’t think there’s any modern crossover that has as much usable space in the same footprint that the Aztek and Rendezvous have.
Also, the tent option on the Aztek was objectively dope.
GM eventually did decide to dedicate real resources to creating an actual proper crossover and they introduced the Saturn VUE in 2002. Then again, I think it cheaped out on that car too, because they ended up ditching its own DOHC V6 and opted to use a Honda V6 engine for the VUE from 2003 onward. Oh, and GM had to pay a hefty settlement for the Saturn VUEs with CVTs because their transmissions kept exploding. OK, scratch that, GM didn’t spend enough money on the VUE’s development either.
Eventually, a few years and one bailout later, GM learned to get it right. Today it offers tons of crossovers in all shapes and sizes—a crossover for every purse and purpose, you might say. Pontiac's not around anymore but the playbook certainly is for turning car platforms into bigger people-hauling vehicles with plenty of space, decent gas mileage, and the up-high seating position that more and more buyers love. The next generation of electric cars that will lead GM to its gas-free future will be crossovers, too. In that way, the Aztek was a pioneering vehicle. It's a shame it fell down in execution so much.
Listen, I get why y’all like the quirky-looking Aztek. If you don't find its ugliness endearing, well, now you have even more reasons to hate it. But regardless of your position on the Aztek's look, let’s just not pretend that it’s a good car, OK?
Kevin Williams is an author at Car Bibles, a coming-soon sister site to The Drive focusing on practical tips and DIY advice to help you get the most out of your car. Look for a freshly redesigned Car Bibles in early 2021. Meanwhile check us out on Twitter, IG, and Facebook. Actually LinkedIn too, if you're on there.