Breaking Bad

The Pontiac Aztek… explain.

(c) autoevolution

If there is one car in the past two decades that has, above all others, defied rational explanation, it is surely the Pontiac Aztek. Launched in 2000, this vehicle, which can be described retrospectively as a mid-sized crossover, was met with gasps of amazement and incredulity by potential buyers, rival automakers and pretty much everybody else not directly involved in its development.

There was nothing much wrong with the concept of a crossover and, in some ways, the Aztek was ahead of its time, but why General Motors decided to style it to resemble a garden shed is worthy of investigation, and that is what we will attempt to do today. Bob Lutz, who rejoined GM in 2001 following the Aztek fiasco, was interviewed by Car and Driver magazine in 2014 about the circumstances surrounding its development. What follows is based partly on Lutz’s account, augmented from other sources.

In the late 1990’s GM was in a state of drift. Its products were largely homogenised automotive white goods, the sort of anonymized cars you see used as props in television advertising for other products. New models were introduced that were barely any different or better than the outgoing car.

The Vehicle Line Executives responsible for all aspects of the new models’ development were incentivised to produce them as quickly and cheaply as possible, with the maximum carry-over parts from the outgoing models. Chasing economies of scale, different marques were forced to share many visible body parts, so it became increasingly difficult to maintain distinctive marque identities, other than by using rather crass decorative tropes.

Rick Wagoner, CEO of GM, recognised that there was a problem. He concluded that an overly cautious approach to design was leaving potential customers bored by the same again look of many models. Wagoner and the GM Automotive Strategy Board decreed that 40% of the company’s new models should be innovative, without much elaboration as to what was meant by that term.

The head of GM’s North American Car Group, Don Hackworth, had a reputation as a forceful and hard-driving manager who got the job done, but was intolerant of any dissent. He took Wagoner’s instruction literally and pushed the designers to come up with radical proposals. One of those designers was Tom Peters, a GM lifer apart from two years spent at Texas Instruments in the early 1980’s. Peters has an impressive portfolio that includes the 2004 Chevrolet Corvette C6 and 2013 C7, the 2009 Camaro Mk5 and the 2003 Cadillac Sixteen concept, so he is a designer not without talent.

1999 Pontiac Aztek Concept (c)

Peters designed an Aztek concept that was unveiled in 1999. It was certainly a striking and polarising design, but considerably sleeker and more dynamic looking than the production car that would follow less than a year later. Why did this happen?

The answer to that question seems to lie in the fact that GM found it hard to break its old recycling habit, and the Aztek was forced to adopt GM’s existing GMT200 minivan architecture instead of the S-Series truck chassis originally envisaged. This upset its proportions greatly, making it look tall and frumpy. Attempts to lower the apparent height of the Aztek with copious amounts of unpainted grey ribbed plastic bodyside cladding just made it look cheap and disjointed.

When the production car was shown to potential buyers at product clinics, the reaction was universally negative: “Can they possibly be serious with this thing?” and “I wouldn’t take it as a gift.” were pretty typical reactions to the Aztek. Instead of taking this on the chin, the design group went into denial and rejected the research in favour of the groupthink that it would be a success, from which no deviation was tolerated by Hackworth.

The Aztek was launched at the 2000 Detroit Auto Show. Stupidly, the relatively less ugly looking concept was exhibited alongside the production model, as if to emphasise just how bad the latter was. It immediately became an object of ridicule for comedians on hugely popular TV shows like Saturday Night Live. Even those who had zero interest in matters automotive knew all about the Aztek, for all the wrong reasons.

2000 Pontiac Aztek (c)

Underneath the weird exterior was a largely conventional mid-sized crossover. The Aztek was powered by a 3.4 litre V6 engine mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. It was available with either front or four-wheel-drive, the latter using a full-time automatic system known as Versatrak which could handle adverse road conditions and had a degree of off-road capability. It was also a practical and capacious load carrier. With the rear seats removed, it could carry standard 8’x 4’ sheets of timber or drywall (plasterboard) flat, according to the advertising.

The Aztek could be used for camping trips with an optional tent, inflatable mattress with compressor, and removable cooler. The split tailgate provided a place for sitting and different roof racks were available for surf and snowboards, bicycles and canoes. None of this mattered, however, as most potential buyers were repelled by its looks. Those that weren’t feared that they might become a laughing-stock for buying an Aztek.

Oddly, those independent thinkers who got past the looks and bought an Aztek were generally very pleased with them. The car scored consistently highly in J.D. Power and other customer satisfaction surveys, although it was still marked down for its appearance. In 2002, the grey side cladding lost its horizontal ribs and was painted in body colour in a futile attempt to make the Aztek look more conventional. Otherwise, changes were limited to minor trim and model designation adjustments.

2002 Pontiac Aztek. (c) autoevolution

The Aztek, together with its rather less weird looking sister, the Buick Rendezvous, were built at the GM plant in Ramos Arizpe, Mexico. Production of the Aztek continued for five years, during which time a total of just under 120,000 units were built. The Rendezvous outlived the Aztek by two years and a total of just under 350,000 were built. Strangely, over 400 Azteks were sold in 2006 and 2007, the years after it went out of production. Perhaps existing owners liked the Aztek so much that they just had to have another and scoured the dusty back lots of Pontiac dealerships to find them?

2006 Buick Rendezvous (c)

The Aztek enjoyed a strange afterlife as the car driven by Walter White in the hugely successful 2008 US television series Breaking Bad. White, the (anti)hero of the series, was an impoverished middle-aged chemistry teacher suffering from terminal cancer. In order to provide for his family after his impending death, he turned to the illicit production of methamphetamine,  colloquially known as Crystal Meth.

White’s beaten-up Aztek was in a dreary beige colour, a visual metaphor for his sad and unfulfilled life. Ironically, White, before he got into his illicit drug activities, was a middle-aged, middle-class, middlebrow conservative, the very antithesis of the Generation X customer at whom the Aztek was aimed.

As for the Aztek, it was just another painful episode in the long-term mismanagement of the Pontiac marque by GM. Peters survived the Aztek debacle, but Hackworth retired from GM in 2001. Pontiac however was killed off in 2010 as part of the deal for the US and Canadian government recapitalisation of GM following its bankruptcy in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

40 thoughts on “Breaking Bad”

  1. Good morning Daniel, and thank you for the insightful article.
    The Aztek, much as the similar contemporary -wtf moment- PT Cruiser from the equally indifferent and troubled Chrysler, was a badly calculated attempt of innovation and rebirth of the Pontiac brand, which was marketed as a youth and sporty brand for decades. The ideas incorporated in the design were indeed fresh, but the execution lacked logic and aesthetics. The PT Cruiser avoided provocation, trying to bring 1930’s design language to the millenium, failing miserably.
    On the other hand, both were robust and reliable, at least at the oily bits, with good consumer ratings throughout their production, and enjoyed a somewhat rare loyalty, at least from the initial owners. Both were targetted at the same demographic, although the Aztek sold better with the younger left field, and the PT with the more conservative senior population. The main advantage for both was easy ingress and higher seating at a compact (for US standards) body style.
    There was, however, a silver lining for both cars, after their legacy was sealed. During the 2008 recession, these -then 3-5 year-old used- cars provided a cheap second chance to many crisis-affected Americans, being dependable, affordable to buy, maintain and run, giving them the means to restart and rebuild their lives. For that alone, their place in history and popular culture has a special meaning, for the US citizens at least. Us Europeans never got the memo. We had our own miserable “innovative” econoboxes to rely upon through our dark moments.

    1. Good morning vkarikas. Thank you for your kind words and glad you enjoyed the piece. The Aztek really was a pretty decent car underneath its awful skin, attested to by the fact that the more conventional looking Rendevous outlived the Aztek and outsold it by a ratio of almost 3:1. As for the Chrysler PT Cruiser, I agree that it had a left-field appeal (though not the hideous convertible) and we have a piece on it coming up in the New Year. Stay tuned!

    1. The Aztek is in on a whole different plane than the Juke. While I concede the Juke is quite a statement, it is well executed. The Aztek is a mass of elementary design errors (and these aren´t matters of taste). I would call it the kind of work done by a 1st year automotive design student – right overall but wrong in too many detail points that are only learned through experience and collegial knowledge-sharing.

    1. Good morning Richard. I agree about the Rendezvous. That treatment of the rear glasshouse, integrating it with the tail lights in an unbroken arc, probably looked very nice in a designer’s sketch of a longer, lower vehicle but just looks a bit awkward in the proportions of the production vehicle. I wonder if the change of platform is the culprit here also? Here’s a better view of the rear of the Rendezvous:

      That crease from the top of the tail light into the rear door skin looks a bit half-hearted too.

    2. Here’s a 1998 Buick concept called the Signia that might have been the inspiration for the Rendezvous:

    3. Bloody hell! That Signia… my eyes! My poor set of eyes!

      Returning to the comparatively harmless Rendezvous (I bet this is among the more regularly misspelt cars!), it must be mentioned that thus rear side window/rear light treatment fad wasn’t restricted to the GM Tech Center’s output:

    4. Well, the pencils have slipped in more design departments than one might try to think.

    5. The Signia wins the record for the worst concept car by a mainstream manufacturer, unbounded.
      We really ought to be looking at the RenDezVous because of its subtler wrongness. The Aztek is a crater and we don´t argue too much. The ReNdezvoz has shades of Opel 1999 in the side surfaces (quite flat). The crease is a weak effort that doesn´t do anything except draw attention to the parallel lines and flatness plus it interferes regally with the curve defining the rear glass arean and fullwidth rear lamps. At the front oval lamps and and oval grille (the front grille, to be clear and not the side grille or rear grille or mixed grille) are pasted over the rectangular, block forms of the body.
      Despite the mediocrity of this it sold quite well though I think despite and not because of its styling. If the Aztek and Signia have redeeming qualities, it’s their stupid courage.
      Meanwhile, over in Europe Ford were finessing the Fusion and Opel were finessing the Meriva 1, two neat, tidy, professional, almost achingly correct cars straight out of the Rams style guide but with their own personas.

    6. The Signia puts me in mind of one of those car to hearse conversions. All it requires is a longer wheelbase, a roof rack (for wreath purposes) and a respray in black. Oh, and maybe a set of more ‘I’m sorry for your trouble’ wheels. While I’m certain well meaning people sweated over the details of this, did nobody take a step back and ask, ‘what the hell are we doing here?’

    7. Well, we seemed to have found a GM design (even if it’s just a concept) that is resoundingly worse than the Aztek.

      My work here is done!

    8. I’m minded to suggest a namechange – to Eternia perhaps?

  2. By coincidence, the December 2020 issue of CAR has a really quite entertaining feature on the Aztek.

    1. Thanks for that, Jonathan. Did you see that because you have a sub to Car or because you had a look on a newsstand? I have a glance now and again but never pony up and haven´t for a few years now. The last wad of car magazines is stacked under a bed propping it up (there´s a wobbly leg that is not wobbly enough to warrant effort to fix it).
      Funnily, I was at conference about aesthetics some years ago and talked about the ugliness of the Aztek to another participant. He smiled and said he owned one. What were the chance of that?

    2. Hi Jonathan. That is a coincidence, although I wrote my piece back in the summer.

      I can’t remember the last time I annoyed the staff in WH Smith by thumbing through a copy of Car Magazine, and it’s even longer since I shelled out the thick end of a fiver to read features on hyper-expensive supercars and gaudy wristwatches. I occasionally glance at the website, but rarely find much of interest there either.

    3. In response to richard and Daniel, I have a sub to Car. I hear and recognise the criticisms of it that are voiced in this place, but I still (just about) find enough enjoyable content to keep reading. Also I have a complete set and I don’t want to break the sequence.

    4. Jonathan: I know the feeling. Since 1993 I had a stack of Car magazines and didn´t want to stop the sequence. However, after more than than decade living in hope the next issue would be as good as a mid 90s edition, I gave up. Whenever I glance in I see nothing I want to read. The watch articles just don´t belong there – heavy watches aren´t a turn on for me and I don´t understand why Car includes this exact feature. Are there readers who feel Car´s USP is the half page of rubbish on the Holman & Regis Deep Diving Orologitech 5600 which can withstand water pressures down to 9000 metres and temperatures up t0 700 degrees.

    5. Car Magazine’s readership is relatively well-off men, in young middle-age; their advertising department will have persuaded watch makers that they’ll be able to reach a key demographic (as they say).

      I recall filling out a marketing survey for them a few years ago and quite a few of the questions related to my interest in watches / whether I would buy one. For a good proportion of readers, or enough, anyway, the answer to that question must have been ‘yes’.

    6. Relatively well-off men in early middle-age (is that 37-50?) also buy lawnmowers, barbecues, clothes, mobile telephones and so on. What´s with the specific thing about watches? Is it because of a close correlation between interest in flashy car and flashy watches? I guess I have answered it myself then. I started buying car in 1993 but reading it around 1990. Around then I wasn´t alienated by the magazine even though I didn´t have the buying power. Car seemed to be a magazine for people interested in cars for reasons beyond wanting to buy one soon. The current version´s inclusion of watch articles (very short ones) suggests their readers want to have a fancy watch soon. Such ostentation really doesn´t appeal to me. Are we to conclude that absent the fluffy articles on watches that Car would lose alot of readers? They might not mind seeing the articles but would the mind their absence?

    7. I suspect it’s more along the lines of flashy watches cost flashy money. Therefore there is plenty of money able to be spent on advertising them (compared to the other items you mention, Richard).

      I don’t suppose taking the ads away would alienate the readers of the formerly august journal so much as alienate the bank manager of said comic.

      Cynical? Me?

    8. The ads aren´t a problem – it´s the piddling little half page of snippets about new watches. They aren´t reviews of any serious type. They are supposedly news of interest to the readers. If I understand this right, the advertisers are more likely to take out a page if there is a some watch “news” in the magazine?
      I´m not in the market for a car – I just want to read about them from various standpoints. Car doesn´t really do that and it tries to appeal to the heavy watch crowd.

    9. I think Car have successfully cornered the market in making the link between expensive watches and cars, from an advertising revenue standpoint. Good luck to them. The articles on watches always strike me as being written very enthusiastically, as if to give readers a bit of a ‘push’. ‘Look at the pretty, shiny thing! Isn’t it nice!’.

      I’m not over keen on expensive watches, but they do seem to have become something of a male fashion item in the last couple of decades. Ironic, really, as all phones, etc, always have a clock. I stopped wearing watches at about the time I started using a computer for that reason. Further, my car displays the time, in at least two places, constantly. Plus, if I had an expensive watch, I’d always be bashing it on things and getting it wet.

  3. Definitely a car hobbled by the hard-points of the wrong platform and the last vestiges of GM designers not really understanding how to execute european or more sophisticated asian design cues (a la Honda CRV / X-Trail / X5 / Discovery / Espace) for the US market. Seems to me that between about 1969 and 2010 was the dark period for US car design where US-specific aspirational design (jet age etc) got lost and it took them 30 years to realise that what europe and japan were doing was not to be ignored, but embraced.

    The original concept sketches for the Aztek are interesting, and giant wheels notwithstanding, show more of what they were going for at the beginning of the process:

    1. Hi Huw. Thanks for posting those sketches, as they give a better idea as to what the designers were trying to achieve. Tom Peters must have been mortified by having his name attached to the production car (although his prototype is not without its issues).

    2. The missing link is the definitive rendering showing how shutlines and panel gaps would be arranged. These sketches are only suggestions. The proportion and detailing killed the theme.

    3. One of the common aesthetic failures in US cars was shutline management. I call it failure because I see it but it´s not a failure if you don´t see it. Maybe Americans have a different way of looking as do the Europeans and Japanese. The Aztec theme sketches don´t begin to account for how the thing is to be made. When I do a sketch I am always imagining the part break up and if that can´t be made to work I change the theme so it will.

    4. Hi Richard. My obsession with shut-lines is well known here, but even I can see that the production Aztek’s problems are way more fundamental! It could have no shut-lines at all and still look like a garden shed on wheels. Just sayin’…

    5. That first drawing is absolutely a bull’s head or a horse’s head.

  4. Dreadful car, dreadful show, dreadful story. But Daniel reveals that story very well, thank you. GM, the company who could do and get away with anything due to their size. I’m amazed this thing sold for five years and had a Buick sister, with, as you deftly measure, less weird looks, managed seven. Practicality over looks. Not all customers rate looks first. Take Eoin’s dip into that Nissan Thing two days ago.
    Can the next story have a more sunny disposition, please? Breakfast is most important …

    1. Best I don’t tell you about the piece I completed today then…

  5. The horrible Peugeot posted in the comments here I probably see every day. Even the horrific SsangYoung crossed my path several times, but funny thing is I don’t think I ever saw the Aztek or Rendezvous in person. Yet the Aztek is firmly cemented in the collective mind of the car enthusiast. It really takes skill to do that.

    1. Hi Freerk. I have actually seen the Aztek in the metal/plastic a few times in the US and they’re no better in reality than they are in photos. It’s difficult to spend too much time studying them because, should the owner return, you can hardly claim to be admiring it!

  6. There’s really no excuse for the Buick Signia. Even given the fact it’s a concept and is meant to push some boundaries, it’s terrible – not even amusing, just revolting.

    I asked an American colleague who worked in the automotive sector about the Aztek, and after she’d finished laughing, she said that many of the people involved were deliberately drawn from other industries and had never been near the auto sector, in order to get some fresh thinking. Still no excuse, though.

    Both the Aztek and Rendezvous remind me a bit of the Toyota Picnic – they all look as though their wheels are too small. That said, the Picnic is a better design.

    They ought to have done the Aztek as an SUV, which would at least be nearer to the original drawings.

    1. That´s not fair to the Picnic. It´s quite a cheerful car and I have no problem with the wheels. Compared to the baroque palaces we get to today, it´s almost as serious as an Audi (used to be).

  7. Hi Daniel. That’s funny. I’ve been to the States several times, but first time was in 2013, so the Aztek was already 8 years out of production, that probably explains it.

    1. Hi Freerk. In recent years, dreary strip malls on the outskirts of US towns and cities seemed to be the Aztek’s natural habitat (but not yours, clearly!)

  8. At the end of this day, I am feeling even less favourably inclined towards the Buick than the Pontiac. The shallow pressings witht the unconvincing grooves make me think of stripes on a plaster wall. They may as well have painted those forms on using a lighter shade of white. What a truly awful effort.

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