SEE ALSO: Pontiac Buyer's Guide
As automakers search for new marketing niches, new types of vehicles are appearing on American roads. One of the most unique is the 2001 Pontiac Aztek. Although it combines characteristics and parts from each category, it's certainly not a car, it's not a sport-utility, and it's definitely not a minivan. The Aztek is billed as "the world's first Sport Recreation Vehicle," or SRV.
Attitude has long been a Pontiac specialty, and the Aztek has plenty of attitude in its unique concept and styling. Many new cars and SUVs are touted as "lifestyle vehicles," but few have the adaptability and factory option packages of the Aztek. Adventure, bicycling, hiking, and camping packages allow it to fit into many different lifestyles. I first drove an Aztek at the press introduction in Squaw Valley, California, last winter. It worked admirably at elevation in the Sierra Nevada mountains, handling mountain grades and a light late-season snow storm with ease. More recently, I've been driving one around home. It works very well for all everyday activities, and is a convenient size. I was called upon to take a friend and his family to the airport, and the Aztek held five people and luggage for four for a week's vacation with no problem, although it would be a touch small for a long trip with that load. It may look unusual, but the Pontiac Aztek is a versatile and useful vehicle.
APPEARANCE: According to Aztek Assistant Brand Manager Sharyn Yambrick-Cousins, the Aztek's styling first "absolutely had to be Pontiac," and second, had to "take risks and be dramatic. It doesn't have to appeal to everybody." True on both counts. You'll love it or you'll hate it, but you won't ignore it, and it will not be confused with anything else on this planet. "Subtle," "bland," and "anonymous" were not in the design brief. Drive an Aztek, and its angular paramilitary styling will get plenty of attention. The shape is definitely not that of a minivan, or anything else. From the rear quarter, there is a slight resemblance to military versions of the Hummer, thanks to the semi- fastback roof. The front is definitely Pontiac, with the trademark twin- port honeycomb grille, dual hood scoops above that, and foglamps in the dark, matte-finished front bumper fascia. There is plenty of ribbed plastic Pontiac cladding on the sides, joining with the front and rear fascias. The unique two-piece fastback liftgate allows good rear visibility.
COMFORT: Like the exterior, the Aztek's interior styling is pure Pontiac. The ribbed instrument panel motif seen in some of Pontiac's sedans is taken to the limit in the Aztek. With multiple colors, materials, and textures, the Aztek's interior projects activity, not serenity. It has a futuristic, high-tech look. Non-automotive items such as climbing, diving, and other outdoor activity gear, were the source of inspiration for styling. The rubberized interior door and grab handles have the texture and feel of a diving knife's non-slip grip, and are easy to use. A diving watch inspired the styling of the instrument cluster, and the bezel surrounding it. And the interior layout, with surprise storage spaces and functional design, is reminiscent of an avalanche survival vest's pockets and air spaces. The front seats are buckets, with a standard split rear bench that flips, folds, and can be removed. The camouflage-pattern upholstery and door trim may push the envelope of conventional taste, but it fits with the rest of the interior and the seats are quite comfortable. The center console in the GT trim level looks like a picnic cooler only because it is a removable cooler, a simple and functional feature. The two-piece glass liftgate is a bit heavy, but the tailgate has built-in seating areas and cupholders for convenience during tailgate parties or when camping. And optional cargo-area audio controls and speakers enhance the party atmosphere. A reconfigurable cargo net system or a roll-out cargo partition help with groceries and small items. And the rear area can hold plenty. Despite its unconventional design, the Aztek is a very useful and comfortable vehicle.
SAFETY: The Aztek's unibody structure has a central safety cage and front and rear crumple zones. Dual front and front side airbags are standard, as are antilock brakes. All-speed traction control is standard on the GT.
ROADABILITY: The Aztek is in no way an SUV. There is no truck in its lineage, it's a unibody vehicle with a lower center of gravity than a sport-utility. The independent strut front / twist-beam rear suspension is similar in design to that of Pontiac's Montana minivan, but it uses slightly different parts and is tuned differently. Thanks to that, and its relatively wide track, the Aztek has the ride and handling of a mid-sized sedan. It is smaller than most minivans, which makes parking easy. The Aztek wasn't designed to be an all-terrain vehicle, but its 6.7 inches of ground clearance should be enough to deal with improved dirt roads. All early production Azteks are front-wheel drive, although an all- wheel drive system will be available soon.
PERFORMANCE: The Aztek's 3.4-liter V6 is inherited from the heavier Montana. Its 185 horsepower and 210 lb-ft of torque do an admirable job at sea level, and also at 8,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Aztek has the performance expected of a Pontiac, with good acceleration for a utility-type vehicle. Steep hills present no problem, although the four-speed electronically-controlled automatic transmission will downshift. It does that very smoothly, with no interruption of momentum.
CONCLUSIONS: It's new, different, and a bit bizarre. The Aztek "Sport Recreation Vehicle" could only be a Pontiac.
SPECIFICATIONS 2001 Pontiac Aztek GT Base Price $ 24,445 Price As Tested $ 25,435 Engine Type pushrod overhead valve V6 Engine Size 3.4 liters / 207 cu. in. Horsepower 185 @ 5200 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 210 @ 4000 rpm Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 108.3 in. / 182.1 in. Curb Weight 3788 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 20.5 Fuel Capacity 18.5 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular, 87 octane Tires P215/65 R16 Firestone Wilderness HT Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent strut / twist beam axle Ground clearance 6.7 inches Drivetrain front-engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 19 / 26 / 22 0 to 60 mph 9.2 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 16.7 sec Towing capacity 3500 lbs with trailer package OPTIONS AND CHARGES Dual-playback sound system $ 425 Lighter and ashtray $ 15 Destination charge $ 550