Motoramic

First Pontiac Aztek’s sale highlights the long half-life of ugly

Justin Hyde
Motoramic

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Like a bad meal from an all-you-can-eat crab shack, the first Pontiac Aztek has come back up. Noteworthy only for its numerical notation, a Texas dealer has made the über Aztek available to the world once again for just $17,000, a daunting figure even for a 2001 model year car with just 7,743 miles.

I'm a fan of odd cars, and I have to admit the Aztek holds some sentimental value for me from my earliest days writing about the auto industry. I know a few Aztek owners who swear their allegiance still. But the Aztek isn't a typical piece of car nostalgia that's gaining popular currency, what with a few "Breaking Bad" appearances and dimming memories. Unlike most misbegotten models to emerge from an automaker's factories, the Aztek's wretchedness has grown worse with time. And it's worth noting exactly what made the Aztek turned out so terrible, lest it happens again.

It's one thing to say a car's ugly. But the Aztek reached a singular pinnacle of failure because it wasn't so much styled as tortured into existence — the four-wheel example of how a camel is a horse designed by committee.

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The original idea for the Aztek made sense: a roomy, beach-worthy, smooth-riding SUV that young people could have fun with. The concept fits a space that's still empty today — something less rugged than a Jeep Wrangler, but sexier than, say, a Jeep Compass. The reaction to the car gave GM's top executives the motivation to build it, and within a matter of months GM had revealed the production version. I was there, in October 1999, when GM executives took the covers off, and a roomful of reporters sat stone silent, awestruck by the premeditated murder of a good idea.

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In hindsight, someone inside of GM should have stood up and stopped the Aztek the moment the company decided the only way to build it was to use the chassis of the Pontiac Montana minivan. Instead, GM plowed ahead. Tight budgets and boardroom dominance of manufacturing over design meant the underlying bits of the Aztek were set in stone before stylists ever lifted a pencil; a wheezy 3.4-liter V-6, a frame that was about 15 percent too big, and no freedom for designers to alter any major components killed whatever visual appeal and sporty pretentions the original shape held.

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Start at the front; the massive bumper/plastic goiter that ended any sense of the car as off-roadable was necessary because of the minivan's low-hanging radiator. The angular beak that mostly worked on the concept car became a horror show of cladded vents and pinched lights on a wider hood. Pontiac marketers weren't alone in deciding in that era that unpainted rubber cladding equaled "sporty." On the Aztek, this was supposed to make it seem tough — but the jarring execution only added another plate to the buffet of failure.

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Hello minivan wheels. Hello, wheel well that's not only too large but misshapen. One of the design tricks that set SUVs apart from wagons and people movers is having the bottom of the sill ride higher than the centerline of the wheels. The Aztek rode slightly higher than the Montana, but not enough to matter.

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"Tumblehome" is the term car designers borrowed from boat builders to describe how far the side and top of a vehicle angle inward from vertical; in general, the more tumblehome, the sportier the look. The Aztek is the prime example of how a lack of tumblehome reminds everyone there's a minivan hiding under there.

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Since they couldn't do much with the exterior, Aztek designers went nuts on the interior and accessories, but also bumped up against GM budget-cutting. The result is this wild splay of fabrics, shapes, handles and surfaces, like a convention of attention-deprived scrapbookers.

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Yet the interior holds some of the few true innovations the Aztek deserves credit for. One was the pop-out cooler that served double-duty as the center console, something GM had to build itself after Thermos and other makers turned it down. Another was the tent that popped out over the rear hatch and a mattress connected to the built-in air pump in a failed, ahead-of-the-curve nod to "glamping." In its own way, the Aztek was a pioneer – one that showed where we shouldn't go ever again.

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