The Pontiac Aztek… explain.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.