How Pontiac Works

By: the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide

Pontiac Aztek

Pontiac made several changes to the highly criticized 1992 Pontiac Aztek,but sales still fell short.

"Offbeat" aptly described Aztek, Pontiac's response to the fast­growing popularity of sport-utility vehicles based on car platforms rather than trucks. An early 2001 debut, it was basically a short-wheelbase Montana reconfigured as an "active lifestyle" vehicle.

In line with that, Aztek introduced optional Versatrak all-wheel drive, GM's clever new way of adding four-wheel traction to a front-drive powertrain without adding complexity or weight. Instead of a rear propshaft and extra differentials, an electronically controlled clutch pack at each rear wheel could lock up as needed to redirect torque from the front. This also brought a bonus in the form of independent rear suspension to replace the twist-beam axle, plus rear disc brakes instead of drums. Antilock brakes were standard, as on Montanas.


Still, Aztek wasn't a serious off-roader. Pontiac rightly called it a "sport recreational vehicle," meaning it could haul up to five folks and their gear to activities not very far off the beaten path. Naturally, Aztek drove much like its minivan parent, with adequate acceleration and safe but ponderous handling.

Its biggest attraction was a versatile five-seat interior with many novel touches. Among them was a totable drinks cooler-cum-CD box that locked in between the front seats, and a slide-out cargo-area storage tray that could double as a table for "tailgate" parties or be folded out to make a wheeled cart. Also available were separate stereo controls and speakers in the cargo bay, washable seat covers, and a camper package with a fitted air mattress and a tent for slipping over the raised rear hatch.

Trouble was, these nifty ideas were wrapped in some pretty odd styling. Motor Trend described Aztek as "minivan meets creature from the black lagoon." The Los Angeles Times simply wondered, "Who let the dog out?" Said Road & Track: Aztek is trying way too hard to be hip. That's understandable if you're trying to hide its minivan roots, [but] Pontiac has gone to extremes. The overall length was shortened and the rear hatch chopped into a fastback while the hood was raised and sliding doors were replaced with conventional portals…The styling [is] ungainly [despite] hood nostrils that recall the Ram Air look of the Trans Am and enough body cladding for a fleet of surfboards." There were kinder, gentler reviews, but hardly anyone bought an Aztek for its looks.

Early sales suggested as much. Pontiac planned on moving 60,000 Azteks every 12 months, but managed just slightly over 38,000 for the 18 months of the extra-long 2001 model year. Beyond questionable styling, some faulted Aztek as too pricey for the younger buyers it targeted.

Pontiac addressed both issues for 2002. Body-color cladding without molded-in "speed streaks" cleaned up the exterior, and making some standard features optional allowed cutting base prices by a few thousand dollars to around $20,000 minimum. But the unforgiving public had already branded Aztek an unhip loser, and sales remained at well under half the original projection through 2004.

Pontiac made more price adjustments and added appealing options including satellite radio, rear DVD entertainment, and a sporty Rally Edition package with lowered suspension and 17-inch wheels. But Aztek couldn't be saved without a total redesign, which wasn't in the cards, so Pontiac gave up after '05 to avoid further embarrassment. Sales that calendar year: a paltry 5020.

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For more on the amazing Pontiac, old and new, see:

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