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Was the Pontiac Aztek Really That Bad? A Look Back at GM's Weirdest Experiment

Known first and foremost for its ugliness, the oddball had redeeming qualities.

Time has not been merciful to the Pontiac Aztek. Twenty years after its introduction, you'll still hear people call it one of the least attractive cars in history. Most people today know it as chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-cook Walter White's ride in the hit TV show Breaking Bad. You know, the one White sells for $50 without the slightest care in the world. The Aztek has even gained a curious cult following over the years. Why? Because if you can look beyond its alien exterior, the Pontiac was a decent proto-crossover, maybe even a significant and pioneering one. It would help usher in the active outdoor lifestyle trend, and upon its demise, serve as a lesson to the industry.

First, where did the Aztek come from? It all started in the mid-1990s, when a group of folks at GM asked what would happen if you blended a Camaro with an S10 pickup. Then, a higher-up in the company determined it should sit on a minivan platform. The team had to make do with this strange compromise, and in 1999, Pontiac revealed the results: A concept version of the Aztek, a wild, yellow-painted hunchbacked buggy thing.

We won't go out on a limb and necessarily describe the concept car as a visual success, but the production Aztek was born into this world looking, well, a lot worse. When it arrived for the 2001 model year, the Aztek had gained goofy plastic body cladding. It also lacked the concept's admittedly better, wider stance, and thus appeared tall and narrow, with too-small wheels. The Aztek's unveiling was as strange as the vehicle itself, as the brand manager for the Aztek jumped into a mosh pit during the press conference, which also featured a fake counterculture crowd holding up protest-style signs (just look at the image below). Theatrics aside, the final design wasn't nearly as well received as the concept.

Performance-wise, the Aztek wasn't bad. A 185-hp 3.4-liter V-6 seemed powerful enough at the time. So equipped, the Aztek could run from zero to 60 mph in 9.2 seconds, making it quicker than the Mitsubishi Montero Sport and Jeep Cherokee Sport and on pace with the Isuzu Rodeo SUV. Unfortunately, the Aztek left us wanting when it came to engine and transmission refinement as well as rear visibility. MotorTrend's long-term Aztek test vehicle suffered some electrical gremlins, too.

The interior is where the Aztek really shined, both literally (because of its GM-grade plastics of the era) and figuratively, thanks to its solid packaging. We genuinely appreciated the Aztek's comfortable and spacious cabin as well as its maximum 93.5 cubic feet of cargo room. The SUV had some cool features such as a center console that was removable and doubled as a cooler, a designated seating area on the lower tailgate complete with cupholders, second-row seats with their own headphones and jacks, and a sliding cargo tray that could hold up to 400 pounds of gear, making loading and unloading easier. Other goodies included a head-up display and a great stereo system. With the Camping Lifestyle Package, you got a two-person air mattress that fit in the cargo area. And how can we forget the attachable tent accessory that turned the Aztec into a legit camper?

Pontiac made only minor updates to the Aztek during its short run. The 2002 model removed much of the hideous body cladding (those pieces went body color), and later, you could get a DVD entertainment system and even a Rally Edition with a lowered ride and a bigger rear spoiler—not exactly what the model needed to stand out even more. Production ended in 2005.

The Aztek taught us compromise doesn't always work, and that design matters, and both are lessons automakers should remember as the active outdoor lifestyle trend continues to grow. While the Pontiac checked every box for the nascent crossover-SUV market, it was somehow worse than the sum of its parts.