The Pontiac Aztek Didn’t Fail Because It Was Ugly. It Failed Because It Was Lazy
Breaking Bad, Doug DeMuro, Regular Car Reviews, Turn 10 studios, and tons of internet memes have created a cult around...
Breaking Bad, Doug DeMuro, Regular Car Reviews, Turn 10 studios, and tons of internet memes have created a cult around this horrible, ugly vehicle. Now its ugliness is endearing for some reason. But I think the charisma and good storytelling of the above-beloved characters have given us amnesia, because the Pontiac Aztek well and truly sucked, and not just because it was ugly. The Aztek sucked because it was lazy.
This post was featured on The Drive, Car Bibles’ sister site, January 4, 2021.
Let’s go back in time a bit to the distant past: the year 2000.
Crossovers as we know them had pretty much only just been invented. They were often called “car-based SUVs.” Automakers started to realize that a lot of drivers didn’t necessarily care (or want) their SUV to have a big ladder chassis, or body-on-frame design, or large V8, or a heavy-duty four-wheel-drive system. Back then, customers liked the sensible sedan and hatchback shapes that automakers were selling. But they also liked the “commanding” seating position and four-wheel-drive that truck-like SUVs offered. So more than one automaker figured “hey, why not meet in the middle?”
Besides the original AMC Eagle, you could say Toyota was the first—in 1994, the RAV4, based upon the Corolla chassis, was released. A couple of months later Honda followed up with its Civic-based SUV, the CR-V. Nissan also had one based on the B14 Sunny (Sentra) called the “Rasheen” but it never made it out of Japan. By and large, these crossover SUVs were insanely popular, almost overnight. All of a sudden it seemed like every automaker needed to have a car-based SUV in their lineup.
General Motors kind of tried to play this game and compete, but from the offerings it gave us early on, it’s clear the company didn’t really want to. GM half-assed it, insisting that the S-10 Blazer of the 1990s was a competitor, though it was bigger, thirstier, and more expensive. It also rebadged the Suzuki Sidekick as the Chevy and Geo Tracker but, those cars weren’t as refined as the CR-V or RAV4. The Sidekick, Vitara, and Tracker were body-on-frame, came with solid rear axles, and were rear-wheel drive. Those attributes made them generally more capable off-road than the front-wheel-drive, independent suspension, car-based SUVs, but most buyers didn’t care.
The head bosses at Toyota, no doubt inspired by the strong sales of the RAV4, and the success of Mercedes-Benz’s brand new ML-Class crossover, decided that maybe it should try another car-based sport-utility. What did Toyota do? Took the generally-good (and plenty boring) Camry chassis, tweaked it a little, put some big, blobby tires on it, and then sold it in two forms: as the Lexus RX in 1999, and Toyota Highlander in 2001. Those crossovers were immensely successful—in fact, I think their success was a harbinger of what we now call the “sedanocoplyse.” Suddenly, automakers realized they needed crossover SUVs more than sedans, and now they outsell sedans and hatchbacks.
Well, GM decided to take another swing at this whole everyday small-SUV idea. Here’s the thing though, apparently it didn’t really want to spend money on any new sort of chassis development. So, it used what it already had. In this case, it meant it took its U-body minivan chassis, used on the Chevrolet Venture and its four nearly identical siblings (pre-bailout GM was often a dark place) and cut a little bit out of the wheelbase.
The U-body wasn’t a great base to start on. The Venture vans had been known for playing second fiddle to the Dodge and Toyota vans through the late 1990s. Its design legacy was old; the U-body was first introduced in 1989 starting with the Chevrolet Lumina APV. GM claims that the whole U-body chassis was revised in 1997, but even still, none of the vans using this chassis got particularly good reviews. Yeah, we ain’t starting from a position of strength here.