8 September 2016

Pontiac’s much-mocked SUV-thingy, the Aztek, gets some respect. And Revenge.

Tom Moog likes telling people that his only new-vehicle purchase burned him. To be accurate, he and his family escaped harm after their 2002 Aztek burst into flames as they traveled to spend Christmas with relatives in 2003. A defective fuel tank filler pipe was to blame. The NHTSA did issue a recall for the problem, but Moog believes his was the only Aztek to immolate itself.

Despite that unfortunate incident, Moog still admires the Aztek and hopes to find a good low-mileage example, preferably in Caution Yellow like the one he had.

Car enthusiasts who believe that the Aztek rightfully earned its place on seemingly every “worst vehicles of all time” list can now pick their jaws up from the floor. And, know this: Moog is not alone in his affection for the Pontiac SUV thingy with the design that Automobile magazine called “gut wrenching.”

It turns out that a lot of people who bought Azteks new and those who own them today like them quite a bit. Moog can offer firsthand evidence of this phenomenon. He’s the voice-over actor you’ve heard if you watch “GearZ” on the Velocity Channel, and he’s also the founder of the Aztekfanclub.com website. There, you can find a very active community of Aztek owners and those hoping to be owners. (Yes, hoping.)

Moog bought his Caution Yellow 2002 Aztek new for its roominess, and he also liked the comfort. He in no way endorses its design aesthetic, although he admits it is part of the Aztek’s charm.

“When I first saw it, I said, ‘No way. It’s too ugly,’” he recalls. Although he adds that its cargo capacity helped sway him – it was spacious enough to haul all of the materials for the home studio he built.

As Moog has since learned, many Aztek owners bought for the same reasons. Beauty is indeed subjective, but many enthusiasts agree that the Aztek was beaten so hard by the ugly stick that the visual scars left behind could never heal. Yet, over the 12 years since Aztek died, several factors have cast this “failure” in a somewhat more favorable light.

The 2001-2005 Aztek was supposed to be a bold new move for General Motors, or at least, that’s what GM said. “Bold” in this case, however, resulted in a design that could frighten small children from 50 feet away.

It didn’t start out that way. In 1994, Tom Peters, General Motors’ head of exterior design for performance cars, wondered what would happen if he mashed up a Firebird with a GMC Jimmy, the popular compact SUV. The result, called the Pontiac Bearclaw, remained a sketch, but Peters had unwittingly predicted the rise of the high-riding hatchbacks that some luxury brands offer today as “crossover coupes.”

That’s not what GM built, of course. Peters got the OK to design the thing for production, but it had to be based on the front-drive Montana minivan. Predictably, the Bearclaw design suffered in the translation.

In 1999, Pontiac showed the Aztek Concept, which was really a prototype disguised with details that would not make the production version. Many carmakers use the same ploy. The production version killed whatever character the “concept” had.

Pontiac tried to break up the Aztek’s tall, slab sides with matte gray lower body cladding, with matching bumpers. That just made it look cheap. Given an olive green or camouflage paint job, the Aztek probably could have been passed of as an obscure Romanian military vehicle, albeit one with a Pontiac split-grille nose.

Calling the Aztek an “SRV,” which stood for “sports recreation vehicle,” Pontiac didn’t raise its suspension. In fact, it had just 6.7 inches of ground clearance, which was probably a good thing.

The “sports” was all in the owner’s activity, not the Aztek’s performance. The 3.4-liter V-6 made 185 horsepower and 210 lb.-ft. of torque, which was great for a 3,200-pound Grand Am but not so much for a two-ton “SRV.” The available Versatrak all-wheel drive system was a foul-weather friend.

But using a minivan platform made the Aztek much roomier than many SUVs, boasting a deep 94 cu. ft. cargo hold with the seats folded. Pontiac designed a range of packages for the outdoor lifestyle, including a Camping Package that gave you a tent that fit over the rear half of the vehicle with the hatch open. There was also an inflatable mattress and an air compressor to inflate it. The upscale GT model had a removable cooler in its front center console.

If the Aztek’s styling didn’t scare away the young “outdoorsy” types Pontiac thought would buy it, the $22,000 to $27,000 price did. Pontiac built fewer than 120,000 Azteks over five years, rather than the 75,000 per year it had predicted. In its final year, the Aztek found just 5,000 homes, and a few hundred loitered on dealer lots into 2007.

But one “customer,” Walter White, immortalized it. Played to perfection by Bryan Cranston, White was the frumpy chemistry teacher turned crystal meth baron in the acclaimed 2008-2013 AMC series, “Breaking Bad.”

Around the same time, the automobile market saw the arrival of several other oddball “crossovers,” some of which disappeared (Acura ZDX and Toyota Venza) and others that still linger. So sure, the Aztek made an impact, just not enough to save Pontiac. (Buick’s conventionally styled Rendezvous, based on the same bones, was far more successful.)

If you’re looking for more proof that the Aztek has achieved cult status, perhaps driving one on Germany’s Nurburgring racetrack could convince you. That would be a “virtual” drive. Released in early 2016, the “Alpinestars” car pack for the Forza Motorsports 6 video game includes a Pontiac Aztek.

Go ahead, burn some virtual rubber.

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