Written by Nathan Holley, Edited by Harshi Vashee
The Pontiac Aztek is widely regarded as one of the worst-looking cars ever produced. It had this odd ‘double hood’, comically small three-spoke wheels, plastic paneling, and a radically complex and bright interior. However, despite its unorthodox appearance and polarizing status in the car community, the Aztek revolutionized the crossover market and design. It was General Motors’ first real attempt at producing a car that was both versatile on city roads and could traverse over rough terrain. Modern crossovers have taken styling cues from the Aztek and continue to do so to this day.
But how did the Aztek become the worst failure in automotive history?
In the 1990s, Japanese manufacturers such as Toyota, Subaru, Nissan, and Honda dominated the US crossover market. The CR-V, XTerra, Outback, and RAV4s were among the top selling vehicles in the States, and with Ford having begun producing its own competitor, the Escape, GM was severely lagging behind. Not just in sales, but in new ideas and innovation. Because of this, then GM boss Rick Wagener declared that 40% of all GM products be “innovative.” Nobody truly knows what he intended by this statement, but essentially, any idea that was slightly experimental was given the go-ahead by executives. The Aztek was one of these ideas, and the project was delegated to Pontiac mainly because Pontiac had no SUV in their lineup and had many experimental ideas put into production previously.
Designed for Failure
A design idea was put forward by GM’s West Coast Advanced Concept Center created by Tom Peters. Peters wanted to combine a Chevrolet Blazer and Camaro. The project was codenamed “Bearclaw” due to its aggressive shape and low stance. However, this design was immediately rejected by GM executives. They wanted the car to be taller and narrower, similar to the minivans of the time. So instead of choosing between the two options, like how one would logically, the designers instead chose to compromise with the executives on everything. The Aztek’s “design by committee” method contributed to its future failure.
What we Actually Received
The head of product development, Don Hackworth, presented the Aztek concept car to a market research group to which it was not well received, primarily due to its looks. Despite the overwhelming criticism concerning its design, Hackworth simply ignored the criticisms and pushed on with the original design. When the concept was revealed to the public in 1999, however, people got excited about the new crossover. It was something new, stylish and potentially revolutionary. The angles were extreme, the interior was sporty, and the design was very attractive.
However, when the production model made its debut in 2000, the public was horrified. The proportions were completely different from the concept, and there was a hideous eighteen inch plastic cladding around the base and a redesigned hood that somehow was uglier than the concept. The wheels were made smaller and this car could definitely not go off-road. Somewhere in between concept and production, costs were cut anywhere they could be, which resulted in a totally useless, underpowered, and ugly monstrosity.
After just five months of production, the Aztek was redesigned. The plastic was claimed to have been removed, but in reality it was just painted the same color as the rest of the car. The wheels were also subtly redesigned, but by this point, the Aztek has already gained an awful reputation.
Pontiac’s goal was to sell 75,000 Azteks in the first year. However, just 27,000 Azteks were sold in the first year, and GM needed about 30,000 to break even. The final nail in the coffin was that the Aztek was sold $5000 more than what it should have cost. GM scrapped the Aztek in 2005, having sold about 119,000 cars, easily becoming the worst automotive failure in history.
Amidst the forgetfulness of the Aztek, one element from the Aztek has remained, and is in nearly all crossover SUVs. The crossovers before the Aztek were just smaller and more affordable versions of their full-size SUV counterparts. The Aztek, however, took on a more sporty look, almost similar to a large hatchback. This design is now in nearly every crossover designed and produced. For example, if one compares the design of the first generation Honda CR-V to the third generation CR-V (the model produced following the discontinuation of the Aztek) there are striking similarities in the shape of the car. The back became more rounded rather than boxy and took on a more sporty look. Nowadays, every crossover has taken on this design philosophy, which makes this funky mess of a car more significant and special than meets the eye.