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Pontiac Aztek (2001)

SEE ALSO: Pontiac Buyer's Guide

by John Heilig


MODEL:  2001 Pontiac Aztek
ENGINE:  3.4-liter V-6
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 185 hp @ 5,200 rpm/210 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION:  Four-speed automatic
WHEELBASE: 108.3 in.
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT: 182.1 x 73.7 x 66.7 in.
STICKER PRICE:  $21,995 (base)

Don't expect me to get all gushy about the fabulous design of the new Pontiac Aztek, its sleek lines and its aerodynamic form. It ain't gonna happen.

In my opinion and in the opinion of many of the people I spoke with during the week I had the Aztek was that two words describe its physical appearance - Ug Lee.

The Aztek looks like a cross between a hatchback minivan and old Korean-built Pontiac LeMans on steroids. It is not the most beautiful car on the road. But it would be totally unfair to concentrate solely on the exterior appearance of the Aztek. After all, you don't see the outside of the car when you're driving it, and interior styling is pure Pontiac with a myriad of gauges, lots of buttons, orange-backed lighting and a comfortable ergonomic feel to the driving side of it.

Aztek will become famous for what it offers and its versatility. Starting up front and the console between the two front bucket seats. It is not just a console, but it is also a removable cooler. If you're going on a picnic, you can put your drinks in there and take the cooler with you hen you disembark for the picnic ground or whatever. Adding a feature where the cooler was powered off the car's electrical system would have been cooler (no pun intended), but that may be in the plans for future years. The cooler locks in place so it isn't rattling all the time. On the top is a non-slip surface so you can place things there without them sliding all over.

The removable inserts to the cooler are ideal for holding CDs or other objects -- change, etc. -- that again keep them from falling all over the place and make the ride more pleasant.

Lift that hatchback roof and lower the tailgate and you have a large compartment that has several potential uses. Our tester came equipped with an air mattress and a "conversion tent." You can inflate the mattress by using the pump that comes with the Aztek. You can erect the tent around the opening. It has a tent so you can close it in. So you have a vehicle that you can take on the road and sleep in if it becomes necessary.

In addition, there are sound system controls in the back so you can have your favorite music while you're sleeping.

Aztek is obviously designed for people on the go and this is a perfect example of that design.

Beneath the rear floor are storage compartments. One is flat; one has fold-up sides and netting to hold taller objects such as grocery bags. The roof rack is designed to hold bicycles, for example, or other types of outdoor gear that make life interesting.

If you want to use the Aztek as a truck, the rear seat backs fold flat, giving a huge carrying volume back there of 93.5 cubic feet.

While Aztek appears as if it might be top heavy, it isn't. It rides and drives very well. Maybe that wide track stance helps it along a bit. We took the Aztek on some high-speed winding roads and had no fears of tipping over. We also drove it in rain and had no fears of slipping.

Aztek is powered by a 3.4-liter V-6 that's rated at 185 horsepower. This is more than enough power for the Aztek, which is not so much a sporty vehicle as a versatile vehicle. It drives the front wheels. GM's Versatrak all-wheel drive system is available on the Aztek, offering full-time four-wheel drive for off-road excursions. Versatrak is light and compact and fits under the rear load floor without any sacrifice to cargo space. The gearbox is a four-speed automatic and a nice combination.

For entertainment we had an AM-FM stereo system with an in-dash CD player. We had an excellent dual zone heating-cooling system. Dual zone is valuable for people our age because my wife and I have thermostats with different working abilities.

Instruments are orange backlit. Orange lighting has never been one of my favorites, but other people like it. We had a driver information system that told us we averaged 19.3 mpg, which I thought was exceptional considering that we drove the Aztek pretty hard and put it through its paces.

Aztek is immediately recognizable on the highway. We had many people stop us or come into our driveway to learn more about the vehicle. It is a vehicle that elicits a lot of attention. It has unique styling (maybe I should change that Ug Lee to U Neek), and it has great versatility.

As a former van owner, I can't see that the Aztek offers more versatility than a vanj. However, van manufacturers don't seem to have marketed their vehicles as well as Pontiac has marketed the Aztek. In reality, it's sportier than a minivan, it's easier to drive, and while it has its own niche in the marketplace, you'll soon see a lot of manufacturers jump into that niche to provide competition.