Lenny Lee and his 2003 Pontiac Aztek (Lenny Lee).
The Pontiac Aztek seemed like a great idea at the time. It was the late ’90s, the American economy was booming, and we were buying Sport Utility Vehicles by the literal millions. By 2000, the light truck category accounted for approximately one third of the 17 million cars bought in the U.S., a ratio that would trend even higher as the decade progressed. The midsized Aztek was a can’t-miss opportunity, or so GM thought.
First sketched in 1994 as the “Bear Claw,” at first designers couldn’t decide if the vehicle should be a truck or a sports car. By the time the first concept rolled out in 1999, this “sport recreation vehicle” had a new moniker: Aztek. Reviews were mixed, but the Aztek had plenty going for it: a sporty, rugged look, gear-carrying capability, and the much-coveted-in-suburbia elevated driving height. GM didn’t know it at the time, but it was among the first automakers to develop a crossover.
But when the production Aztek rolled into showrooms for the 2001 model year, it was markedly different than the concept GM had shown two years earlier. This vehicle shared a platform with the Pontiac Montana minivan, and it was boxy and unattractive, to say the least. Introduced in both front-wheel-drive and “Versatrak” all-wheel-drive versions — both powered by a barely adequate V6 engine — the Aztek was so poorly executed that it quickly became the butt of jokes.
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“That thing is butt-ugly!” my neighbor screamed, loud enough for all of Brooklyn to hear when I rolled up my block on a beautiful, sunny Tuesday in 2001, navigating a rain-slicker-yellow Aztek test driver. The comment was only the first of dozens of raspberries and guffaws I absorbed over a week driving the Aztek in and around New York City. The next came from my own brother: “That’s the Ernest Borgnine of SUVs.” GM might as well have hung a “Kick me!” sign on the Aztek’s rear bumper.
I wasn’t crazy about the Aztek, either, but my complaints weren’t about its looks. “The inside reminds me of an economy hotel,” I wrote in the New York Daily News. “Everything is clean but ever-so-cheap; I half expected a mass-produced painting to be bolted to a door.”
A few auto pundits praised where praise was worthy. The basic concept was sound: It was a mini-vannish, versatile family vehicle, distinct from every other similarly priced SUV on the market. The Aztek interior was vast, big enough to hold a piece of plywood, or so GM boasted. But the problem with its styling remained.
“Every time we look at the Aztek, we wonder what they were thinking,” said Car and Driver. “GM stumbles again… a hideous front end and a huge, angular rear end,” reported Forbes. “Jaw-dropping, chin-scratching, what-the-heck-is-that?” said The Car Connection. Time Magazine even called it one of the 50 worst cars of all time.
If there was anything GM did right it was in the accessory market. These included a bicycle rack, a tent with an inflatable mattress with a built-in air compressor, a center console doubling as a cooler, seatback-mounted backpacks and racks galore for the snowboards, canoes and bicycles. Finally, there were two rear cargo area options, a pullout tray with built-in wheels that held up to 400 pounds, or a cargo net rig that held up to 200 pounds and could be configured 22 different ways. It was this kind of stuff that led many of the Aztek’s early fans to embrace the vehicle, but as it turned out there were just not enough “active lifestyle” customers.
Plagued by nonexistent sales upon the Aztek’s introduction, GM changed the crossover’s plentiful grey cladding to body color and added a spoiler to the rear hatch just a year later. It also dropped the price by $1,450. Though GM had projected it would sell 75,000 Azteks each year (and had even hinted at larger volumes), it later revised that number to 50,000, which was still wildly optimistic. The best year for sales saw only 27,793 sold in 2002. By 2005, when GM cancelled the “Ishtar” of the automotive world, sales had dipped to just 5,020. The public had spoken, and that seemed to be the end of the Aztek story.
The only problem is that a lot of people bought Azteks, loved them, and are still proudly driving them today.
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“I’ve had my Red 2001 Aztek since ’03, and I drive it every single day,” says corporate project manager Ken Rhyno, who runs a 1,700-plus member Aztek Fan Club from his home in Port Elgin, Ontario, Canada. “I still get cracks from people, but the car runs great, gets up to 30 miles to the gallon and the amount of stuff you can haul in it is fantastic. People have got to understand it’s not a Corvette. Its looks are not the point.”
Rhyno loves his Aztek so much that he bought Aztekfanclub.com in 2006. “I was a member of the club and then the original owner turned it over to me,” he says. “The last rally we had was in 2008, in Ohio. About 30 Azteks showed up from all over the country. We had people come up from as far away as Texas.”
Musician Lenny Lee told AOL Autos, “I’ve got a 2003 Aztek and can’t say a bad thing about it, despite the ridiculous-looking rear end. I bought it from a relative in ’03 who liked it but wanted the same vehicle with 4-wheel-drive and a tow package. Rather than taking a beating on a trade-in, he sold it to me with 2,000 miles for fourteen grand. I couldn’t turn down the price.”
Lee says he hasn’t taken his Aztek camping, doesn’t own the tent accessory and doesn’t pay attention to mileage.
“Let’s just say it can get out of its own way,” the Dutchess, New York resident says. “It thrives on neglect. The odometer just passed 200,000 and virtually nothing has gone wrong with it. I’d never intended to keep it this long, but it’s been so dependable and still runs fine and the stereo system sounds good. I just drive it. I figure I’ll let her come in for a smooth landing when she’s ready.”
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” says Rhyno. “People where I work drive Honda Elements, which I think are pretty ugly.” Still, he says, “Nothing draws the fire like the Aztek.”