Rubbernecking the Pontiac Aztek

The last example of an automotive mudge that we looked at was the Ssang Yong Rodius of 2004. In comparison with the 2001 Pontiac Aztek, it’s almost good.

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As part of some other research I did a visual analysis of the Aztek. The quintet shows the car as it is, the vertically stacked confusion, the two conflicting  themes and a detail look at the shutline horror at the front. An interview I found with Bob Lutz revealed that prior to the Aztek GM had decided to ensure 40% of their cars were innovative. Without needing a degree in philosophy you can see how this kind of planned spontaneity is self-contradicting. 

2001 Pontiac Aztek: caranddriver.com
2001 Pontiac Aztek: roadandtrack.com

Here is the side view. The lower white arrows point to an attempt to make the Aztek look as if it has great approach angles. Instead those bumpers seem to hang extra low. The green lines show two slightly different window lines. The upper white arrow shows a frail little strip of body colour. The wheel arches are different front to back. And the shut lines for the wheel arch cladding distract from the vague flaring of said cladding.

Note the slight droop of the rear panel between the lights. The lights have a horizontal cut but as the line turns the corner a downward curve sets in. Here is a mild rework showing that small changes could have saved it. I think the rear wheel arch flair is still wrong in my version. It’s organic and sweeping while the front is square and not sweeping.

The rear wheel arch cladding is constrained by the fuel filler hole and should be higher and look exactly like the front. Both should be changed at the same time. These are the sorts of changes you would identify in a half an hour and might take six months to implement. Was the Aztek rushed? It would seem so. I was not able to change the rear bumper. It needs to be entirely revised and the tailpipe tucked away.

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So, what is it we experience aesthetically when looking at this? Is it because we know it could have been otherwise that makes it so offensive?

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

37 thoughts on “Rubbernecking the Pontiac Aztek”

  1. It’s certainly rough – but the front reminds me of the Nissan Juke (Joke, Puke – as some have called it) – that has sold in very large numbers.

  2. I don’t really find it offensive visually. Just slightly awkward. The only thing that grates is that it looks flimsy in places, probably because of some of the details you highlighted, and then some.

  3. In some ways it was ahead of its time. I’m sure that with some ‘flame surfacing’ and less rigidity it could be a bestseller in today’s marketplace.

    1. It would have bigger wheels as well, which would make a significant difference in perception.

  4. The Aztek was a super concept and also a realistic one: everything shown could have made it to production. The only exception would have been the front, which likely would have to be reworked to accommodate a substantial bumper level aperture for the radiator. This would have been no bad thing, as to my eyes at least the front end is the weakest part of the concept. Reworked but otherwise left as-is, I suspect it would have been a good seller for GM, if not the Juke-like hit that Europe has enjoyed/endured.

    1. Well, like a number of Nissans the juke looks rather, um, cartoonish. Nissan isn’t alone in designing cars that look like they came out of manga, GM did it with the Camaro.

      Getting back to the Aztec, compare it with its twin the Buick Rendezvous. The Buick is much cleaner, still has awkward proportions.

    2. Richard, it’s the fact that it is a controversial looking car that sells so well even though it is quite small inside and only drives OK that baffles/ bothers/ intrigues me about the Juke. It’s worth a thesis all on its own – I’d love access to Nissan’s empirical customer resesrch/ feedback from owners as to why they bought the car as there is something quite unique in car buyer behaviour going on here. Think of all the excellent but slightly oddball looking cars people on this site love and admire but have failed due to divisive looks: what makes the Juke such a seller?

    3. By the way, I would not have compared to Juke to the Aztec, that would be unfair – the Aztec (and the Rodius for that matter) is just grotesque and looks like a series of poor work and mistakes put together by a committee. The Juke is not my cup of tea, but is skillfully executed, even to my untrained eye.

    4. The Juke actually offers a rather pleasant drive, not just OK. But the whole packaging is appalling.

  5. The Juke does have its detractors, including me. But at the same time I can see the appeal, both to buyers and to Nissan: it stands out. In a car market defined by conformism, ubiquitous quality and buyer disinterest (we could perhaps call this “Camryfication”), the Juke, alongside the similarly cartoonish US Murano and Maxima, offer styling that cannot be confused for anything else.

  6. In the early years of this century, was there any concensus about how an SUV should look?

    Range Rover excepted, I’d suggest not. On one side were the utilitarian offerings from Land Rover and Jeep, and various pick-up derived contraptions. On the other extreme came what were effectively tall high-riding luxury estate cars: X5, XC90.

    The century was barely three years old when the Cayenne and Murano arrived, greeted with a mixture of contempt and bewilderment. Standing where we are now, I think these were the true progenitors of the concensus SUV; Audi Q series, Nissan Cashcow, numerous GM products, Mazdas, Jaguar F-Pace. The list goes on, validated further by the rather fine Lincoln MKX at one extreme, and various Chinese clone cars – Ghoul MG GS, Ghoul Borgward BX-7 – at the other.

    Over a decade on, the Aztek, and its sparring partner in wackiness, the Honda Element now seem to represent a lunatic fringe, which failed to recognise the reality that an SUV is a rather conservative purchase, readily justified on grounds of safety, enhanced mobility, and the demands of modern family life. They aren’t going to go away, and for the most part they will follow a closely defined orthodoxy.

    1. The wackiness of the Aztek isn’t the problem. It’s that it was appalingly badly executed. The Honda’s detailing made sense while GM’s production engineers crucified the concept, pushing the shapes of the concept onto a frame they didn’t match. Porsche got away with their vile Cayenne because it was a) convincing at the detail level )well-made c) very capable and d)a Porsche. It is like the Aztek a theme stretched over the wrong architecture.
      Is it okay to like the Murano? I think it’s quite good and I hate SUVs.
      Agreed: there was some variety in the SUV landscape yet Ford’s Maverick and the Opel Frontera fitted the bill shapewise by 2000 and 1998 respectively.

    2. “Porsche got away with their vile Cayenne”

      Vile? Really? Do you really mean it or are you just playing up to the gallery?
      Just like the Murano, the Cayenne MkI is actually a lot more restrained than initial reactions suggested. I actually saw not one but two Muranos on the road today and it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. Both cars have withstood the test of time equally, which surely is a sign of competent design, not just mere acceptance.

  7. I noticed that the fake and very wide groove “C” is not a split line. It’s a styling line with no technical necessity that emulates a bonnet-bumper panel gap with the overslam condition. It’s a fake panel gap [exclamation mark].

  8. Maverick and Frontera? I’d raise you the Honda CR-V from 1995. The Mazda/Ford and Isuzu/Opel were decent enough clones, but the original CR-V was a fine thing indeed. On the back of the first generation, the CR-V was the world’s best selling SUV for many years, and may even still be.

    Even the current model makes a good case for itself, but Honda are not immune from that special Japanese talent of making each generation of an originally good product better on paper and in fine detail than its predecessor, yet losing its soul.

  9. I would argue that the Toyota RAV4 and Landrover Freelander were the real trailblazers as far as defining CUVs as we now understand them. Whilst Ford/Nissan and Opel were downsizing SUVs, complete with a ladder chassis, crude floaty handling and massive suspension articulation, the RAV4 and Freelander offered monocoque chassis and car-like handling. The formula wasn’t quite perfected: it took a while for the rear mounted spares to disappear, and both offered half-arsed three door “lifestyle” versions.

    Whilst the RAV4 and Toyota were good examples of simultaneous invention, the CRV by contrast was a direct crib of the Freelander. That the CRV went on to dominate is a testament to Honda quality and, in the case of the first Freelander, the almost total absence of it.

    1. The closest was probably the Jeep Cherokee, which I gather is also a monocoque and was in that respect way ahead of the field. But in terms of sizing and intent, the Cherokee was closer to the Range Rover.

  10. What about the Suzuki Vitara (1988)? I’m not sure if it’s monocoque or frame, but I remember that it was often seen as an equivalent to the RAV4.

    1. I expressed similar views to a Porsche person a few years back, and was told that the profits from the Cayenne paid for better 911s.

      Should I be grateful? They’ve had 52 years to get the wrong-way-round sports car right. Is the world a better place because Porsche are able to come up with an all-new (Clarkson hyperbole) 911 every three years? Perhaps it’s time to give it up for a bad job.

    2. @ Richard

      you’ll have to explain one day what’s so awful or vile about the first gen Cayenne – without making reference to what Porsche should be about please, or indeed whether it should ever have built anything other than sports cars.

  11. The first two generations of Vitara and the first generation Sportage are both separate chassis, with longitudinal engines, and are RWD when operating in 2WD mode. The Niva has a proper unibody, and permanent 4WD.

  12. Sam: Porsche took the skin of the 911 and stretched it over the architecture of an SUV. It was like a cow wearing the skin of a gazelle. I don´t like the shape of the DLO and I don´t like the frail bars on the front bumper where it was evident they needed a lot of cooling but still insisted on keeping all the graphic elements of the roadcar anyway.
    Porsche can make whatever they like.I don´t have a problem with them making an SUV but they they chose to deploy the form language from another product type.

    1. Fair enough but I’m still surprised that you (of all people) would ever use that kind of emotional/emotive language. And while I agree that they could have tried harder to give the Cayenne an identity of its own, those 911 styling cues don’t look that badly integrated to me. I guess it helps that it reminds me of the 959, and particularly the Paris-Dakar version.

  13. Sam: If I was being emotive I didn´t mean to be. It´s only car design, after all. So, I´ll tone it down and say it was unsatisfactory. Porsche is heir to a strong tradition of considered automotive design and it seems for the Cayenne they didn´t have the presence of mind to find a Porsche way to do an SUV. Perhaps the customer clinics killed the better ideas.

    1. Indeed their styling has been far from inspired for the last 15-20 years, even for the 911, and the same applies to the Cayman and Panamera to varying degrees.
      Hopefully they are ready to move on now.

  14. Sam: the gradualism didn´t trouble me within the paradigm of the sportscar. Gradual evolution worked well when paired with what I assume is good, solid engineering. The Cayenne called for something else. I wonder what they would have done if someone else had asked them to do an SUV.

  15. I have no clue how I discovered this site, and I realize this is a very old post, but you should also realize that the Aztek was developed at the height of the 1990’s where GM had a lot of infighting. This car was developed on a shoestring budget with as much parts sharing as possible.

    The Aztek’s detailing is bad (the bi-level face, the hideous profile) but a lot of the Aztek’s grotesqueness are because of how bad the platform is. Instead of crafting and spending money and using a car chassis (Like the CR-V/Civic relationship, or more aptly the Toyota Camry/Highlander which was a direct competitor) they used an old Minivan chassis which was never really that special when it was introduced.

    Underneath, the Aztek (and it’s sister the Buick Rendezvous) were the SWB GM U-body chassis, sold as the Chevrolet Venture and overseas as the Opel Sintra.

    The Aztek is tall and slab-sided, with narrow and small wheels. The Aztek always manages to look terminally underwheeled and very narrow, like a van, Because, well, it WAS a van. The front Cowl and windshield are a dead giveaway that the Aztek/Rendezvous is nothing more than an Opel Sintra/Chevy Venture van underneath. In fact, I’m almost 100% certain that the windshields between the vans and the Aztek are interchangeable.

    Also, the Aztek was not a very good car either. It didn’t drive well, with mushy steering, mediocre accelration and economy, and a ride that was both crashy yet floaty.

    On the plus side, those minvan roots made the interior space actually really good. The Buick versions had a 3rd row 7 seat option, and the 3rd row actually fit real human beings (The Highlander’s 3rd row option was a joke). Also the wide tailgate with low load lip made loading the car up easy. Also the suspension wasn’t very complicated (Azteks had solid rear axles) and didn’t have much, if any, cabin intrusion.

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