The Pontiac Aztek: Who\u2019s Laughing Now?

Everybody knows the story of the Pontiac Aztek, a vehicle widely considered to be one of the ugliest ever put into production—and a perfect example of an automaker bungling what seemed to be a great idea. Two decades after the apparently ill-fated vehicle’s debut, I’m going to offer a revisionist interpretation: The Pontiac Aztek won in the end. Moreover, its eventual checkmate was assured the moment it arrived in mid-2000.

Think about it: The Aztek played the clown perfectly, but while we were mocking its appearance, it was laying the groundwork for total domination. And like some sort of far-seeing comic book supervillain, many of its plans would only come to fruition after its death.

On paper, the Aztek was a slam dunk. Prescient, even: a car-based, high(er)-riding crossover with available all-wheel drive and “rugged” plastic cladding tacked on to the sides (as the photo above shows, this was swiftly scaled back after the 2001 model year). Does that sound familiar? It should—everyone’s doing it these days. Yes, even Mercedes-Benz. And for what it’s worth, everyone who has an Aztek (except for maybe Walter White) seems to like it well enough.

But most people just can’t get past the looks, to the point where most jokes about the poor thing’s appearance are totally stale. This is especially tragic because the guy credited with the Aztek’s design, Tom Peters, went on to pen the C7 Corvette; it’s not like he’s a hack. And if you look at the 1999 Aztek concept, you’ll see a vehicle that—while very much of its era—was a lot more coherent than what was eventually produced. Something was clearly lost in translation, which led to the model’s abbreviated production run. The Aztek lasted from 2001 to 2005, but its memory lives on in every half-baked “100 worst cars of all time” listicle cluttering up the internet.

Aside from the proliferation of the fundamental concept pioneered, if poorly, by the Pontiac, the Aztek has another ace up its sleeve: It spawned the Buick Rendezvous.

Both Aztek and Rendezvous ride on a version of GM’s U-platform, which also underpinned front-wheel-drive vans (and it’s still in use in China today!). In fact, both were built at the same plant in Mexico. Yet unlike some of the more shameless attempts at badge engineering, including some particularly egregious examples perpetrated by General Motors, the Rendezvous’ upfit … actually worked. Tiger Woods may have had something to do with this:

What the hell was that about? What was that pitch meeting like?

In retrospect, the close relationship between the two vehicles is obvious—I’m sure all of you sages in the Autoweek audience knew it all along. But it didn’t hit me until, oddly enough, I saw a stripped-out hulk in a field on Detroit’s east side a few years back. The half-picked-over skeleton was definitely a Buick up front, but the rear half, free of its slightly puffy-looking Rendezvous sheetmetal, was unmistakably Aztek. These two cars weren’t just platform-mates: They were brothers. And all things considered, the Aztek made for a mighty decent wingman for its upmarket sibling.

This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. While everyone was laughing at the malformed Pontiac, Buick was cashing in with the Rendezvous. The luxified variant sold fairly well, with over 300,000 units moved during its 2002-2007 model-year run.

Is the Buick an elegant car? Absolutely not. But I suspect that, with the goofy Aztek running interference, people were more willing to give the Rendezvous a pass. And arguably, the modest success of the Rendezvous (along with other significant factors, like Buick’s strength in China) put the marque in a stronger position to survive the Great GM Brand Winnowing of the Bailout Era.

I’m not trying to redeem the Aztek itself here, though others have attempted to do so at various times with greater or lesser degrees of irony. It wasn’t the right car at the wrong time or even the wrong car at the right time; it was pretty resoundingly the wrong car, delivered at the wrong time.

And yet there must have been something valid about the underlying concept that brought it forth, at least before GM’s bureaucracy simultaneously watered down and bloated up the production vehicle. Twenty years later, with everyone from Subaru to Lamborghini cashing in on the gawky car-based active-lifestyle vehicle craze, it’s clear that Pontiac’s strangest creation has made fools of us all.

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