A lament for the Pontiac Aztek

20 years ago, the world’s first SRV set a target today’s crossover SUVs still have failed to achieve

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aztek
Image from the cover of the original sales brochure for the Pontiac Aztek

Anyone remember the world’s first SRV? That’s SRV as in Sport Recreation Vehicle, which is what Pontiac called its Aztek.

“You’ve never seen anything like it before because there’s never been anything like it before,” Pontiac said as it unveiled this new creature for the 2001 model year. “Aztek has been uniquely designed to keep up with your life, your style and the way you drive. It’s the world’s first sport recreation vehicle.”

Laugh if you must, but as ugly as it may have appeared on the outside, there was amazing practicality on the inside, and probably to this day is offered up at design school as an example of proper product planning.

Sales brochure shows off all that’s inside that ugly wrapping

The thing I most remember upon my first exposure is the center console, which was actually a removable cooler disguised as a CD holder. Talk about practicality. The devise fits nicely between the front seats, serves as a center console/arm rest, but it can keep a dozen cans of your favorite beverage, or several baby bottles, or whatever chilled for consumption while traveling or tailgating. Or perhaps you needed to carry along medicine that needed to be kept cool. 

And when you stop and park, you can carry the cooler with you. 

There were four power outlets, rear-seat audio controls, cargo-area speakers designed for use while tailgating, available rear-seat captain’s chairs, backpacks that attached to the backs of the front sets to provide storage compartments when you were not out hiking, and, speaking of storage, all sorts of compartments and cargo nets (22 different configurations for dividing the rear cargo area), and a pull-out sliding and removable rear cargo tray.

No, I don’t remember all of this, but while going through some boxes in my garage I discovered that I still had a couple of the original Aztek sales brochures, though I have no idea why I tucked them away nearly 2 decades ago.

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Nifty 9 x 11-inch mosaic of magnetic images was included in the original sales brochure package

Aztek even had a camping tent — I believe a standard feature offered to boost sales as the vehicle came to the end of its production run — that expanded the rear cargo area, roof racks for bicycles or skis, and available all-wheel drive for traveling over snow or away from pavement.

Oh, and cupholders, even a couple of them built into the bottom section of the split rear tailgate for, well, for tailgating.

My recollection is that the Aztek was built on a version of General Motors’ minivan platform, though it had standard hinged rather than sliding rear doors. It also had a 3.4-liter V6, rated at 185 horsepower and with 210 pound-feet of torque, fed to the front or all wheels through a 4-speed automatic transmission. 

With 3,500 pounds of towing capacity, Aztek could handle a boat or pop-up camping trailer. 

The Aztek even was offered with heads-up display, just like the Corvette. So what was not to like about such a vehicle? 

“There’s no mistaking Aztek for anything else on the road,” Pontiac proclaimed. 

Well, Aztek’s styling certainly turned heads; problem was, those heads were usually turning away. Although the designers never would share the specifics, those inside the Pontiac studio swore that their Aztek was gorgeous, something of which they were very proud… 

That is, until some executives got into the act and mandated changes that resulted in the Aztek we all saw, a vehicle that was roundly mocked and discontinued after only 5 years in production. 

That’s a pity, as was the demise of Pontiac itself, since beneath that hideous exterior, the Aztek was just the sort of vehicle that so many of today’s crossover utility vehicles wish they could be.

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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Remarkably, the Aztek became the foundation vehicle for GM for years. Wheelbase, track width, engine layout and design, interior layout, all are directly recognizable in GM minivans and small SUVs upto today’s Terrains and Equinoxes.

  2. The Buick version The Rendevous was a bit longer and not as awkward looking and a home run for Buick. I still see running Aztecs and Rendevous in the streets of salty Chicago. I worked at a Pontiac/Buick/GMC store and loved showing the Aztec. We also had the Montana that could be built 30 different ways. I now understand why car companies only offer Ls, Lt, Slt versions of cars. Simplify things. Except the all new Corvette!

  3. I owned 2 of these totally loaded. I live in Arizona and bought one in Indiana because we wanted another one so badly. I had my father in law drive it out when they came out for the winter. Excellent vehicles, both my wife and I loved ours. If they still made them in basically the same configuration……I would buy another.

  4. We owned 5 Aztecs.. Best cars I’ve ever owned and just sold our last one to my Niece.. Probably good for another 5 years…If the made new ones I would buy it!!!

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