Posted on: Jul 20, 2012
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Biggest Automotive Missteps: Pontiac Aztek


GM's first crossover was an embarassing flop. The tent certainly didn't help.
At this point, picking on the Aztek is almost a cliché, but face it, you would have felt like something was missing from this series if I hadn't included it. The Aztek was such a massive failure in the styling department that it is often overlooked how spectacularly GM botched the job of marketing the thing. The Aztek was GM's first crossover, and the first SUV of any kind from Pontiac. It was aimed at Gen X buyers, who made up the "youth" market of the day. Right from the start, this was a flawed plan.

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The Aztek was priced well out of reach of the majority of Gen X buyers, and all of the weird "youth oriented" options didn't exactly appeal to anyone who might have actually bought the car. Adults weren't terribly interested in the pullout center console which doubled as a cooler, and they definitely weren't interested in the tent (a tent!? You seriously put a TENT in the back of a car?) which turned the Aztek into a sort of camper that somehow made it even more hideous. Only one person in the entire history of the world (my friend Jeff) ever found the tent appealing, and even he didn't actually go so far as to buy an Aztek.
Carmakers still haven't given up trying to sell hideous cars to young people and the Aztek was hardly the only weird-looking, mutant vehicle which was pitched as being "Xtreme", "active" or "funky". Gen X was subjected to some pretty idiotic attempts to bridge the generation gap, but perhaps the worst attempts were vehicular, and the Aztek was the worst of the lot. It was the automotive equivalent of your dad making you sit and listen to his Saturday Night Fever soundtrack with him on 8-track, seriously uncool. The TV show 'Breaking Bad' even has its main character driving an Aztek, just to better make the point of how lame he was before setting off on his life of crime.
The styling was absolutely hideous, and the Aztek has been included in pretty much every list of ugliest cars ever made. This included a couple lists in Time of the 50 Worst Cars of All Time and even the 50 Worst Inventions of all time. The Aztek was the zenith of Pontiac's weird fascination with ugly plastic body cladding and even the front fascia bore a resemblance to the fish caught in the river near the power plant in 'The Simpsons'. On top of all of this, the NHTSA gave it a "Marginal" rating in crash tests. Apart from the fact that everybody would laugh at you while driving it, and that if you hit anything it would kill you, the Aztek wasn't really so bad.
Perhaps a bit overpriced, but J.D. Power and Associates rated it as the "Most Appealing Entry Sport Utility" in 2001. It scored very well on the Customer Satisfaction Index in every way except styling. People who own them still generally report being generally happy with them, although these are obviously people who aren't terribly concerned with aesthetics. But this couldn't save the Aztek, and this is hardly surprising. GM had projected a modest 75,000 units in sales per year. This is actually a fairly conservative number, given that it was an entry-level crossover at the height of the SUV craze.
And thanks to GM's near-religious devotion to platform sharing, they only needed to sell 30,000 units per year in order to break even. But even breaking even proved to be overly ambitious for the Aztek. The most they ever sold in one year was 27,000, and much of that (reportedly as much as half) was to rental fleets. This dropped down to 20,000 in 2004 and just 5,000 in 2005, after which the Aztek was killed off. The Aztek is often credited as being the vehicle which killed Pontiac, and although this might be a slight exaggeration, it certainly didn't help the struggling brand.
Plenty of companies have survived making a terrible car, and if GM hadn't put Pontiac in a position where the success of the Aztek was something they needed in order to stay afloat, then Pontiac would have survived. Pontiac was little more than a dumping ground of rebadged products from other GM divisions by 2005, and it's more than likely that it would have died when it did anyway. But that doesn't mean that the Aztek wasn't a hideous mistake. It has become the icon of the follies of designing by committee, and should serve as an eternal reminder to adults that they should stop thinking they know what is hip.
On the plus side, the Aztek served as GM's styling low point. The lessons learned have helped GM to produce generally more attractive vehicles in the 11 years since the Aztek was unveiled. Of course, it would be hard to do any worse.

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by Jacob Joseph
Biggest Automotive Missteps: Pontiac Aztek
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