After a lukewarm reception last season, the Pontiac Aztek is back with a revised look and a new model lineup. Even with its latest, better-integrated, monochromatic styling treatment, however, Aztek is still one radical looking beast, and folks who don't instantly love it tend to passionately hate it.
But if you fit in the former category, you just might find the Aztek offers some interesting virtues. It's fully accessorized for active lifestyles. Conceptually, it's a minivan dressed up in North Face gear and flaunting a snowboarder's attitude. Or think of it as a buzz-cut sport-utility with near-minivan utility. (All-wheel-drive is available). It's how Laura Croft would collect the kids from soccer practice. It's how . . . well, either you get it, or you don't.
Aztek ($20,295); Aztek all-wheel drive ($23,295)
After a disastrous sales launch, Pontiac pulled body cladding off the Aztek and went with a more monochromatic paint scheme for 2002.
The look is still polarizing. It leaves no room for in-between opinions. Some say it looks bold, stylized, and aggressive. Others say it's ugly.
Though the Aztek is built on the same mechanical platform as the Pontiac Montana, it doesn't look much like a minivan. Only its height betrays the minivan origins. And with its arching profile that rounds off the roofline at the rear, it doesn't have the boxy profile of a sport-utility either. It looks more like a giant four-door hatchback that's jacked up to a dizzying height.
In front, its wide track and stubby prow suggests the chin-forward face of a snarling bulldog. Its Pontiac-trademark twin-port grille is over-scored by ram-air slots in the hood, with amber turn lights mounted above irregularly shaped headlamps. The side-window shapes are angular and striking, fitting with the angular arch of the roofline.
At the rear, a flat pane of glass stretches between the high-mounted lamps. It opens along with the liftgate above. A short tailgate swings down below, expanding the opening into Aztek's cavernous luggage space. The lack of a rear wiper means you don't see very well out back when the rear glass gets covered with muck.
Understanding the interior is the key to appreciating the Aztek. Many of its interior elements relate directly to the use and storage of outdoor sports equipment.
Only the basic seating layout is minivan-conventional, with bucket seats and a floor console up front, a split bench in the middle and cargo space toward the rear. Bold graphic designs spread across the seat fabrics and door panels. Soft-to-the-touch molded polymers line the dashboard, doors and rear-quarter panels. Grab handles appear everywhere, on doors, dash and pillars. Four power outlets are provided, at the instrument panel (one), rear of the floor console (two), and rear quarter panel (one). An overhead console is optional.
Typical of current Pontiacs, the dash is dominated by circles. A recessed instrument cluster contains large analog gauges as well as four round air vents that have center joystick-style shutoff controls. Below the pair of center vents is a stack of audio and climate controls that features large easy-to-grip rotary dials.
The front bucket seats feel firm, with sporty side bolsters. The seatbacks recline, and offer rear storage pockets. The rear seatbacks fold individually to expand cargo space, or the seats can be removed entirely.
Storage compartments dot the cabin; there are even concealed spaces in the rear quarter panels and back sill plate. A twin-six-pack-size cooler locks in place in the front console; or you can take it with you when you go. Flexible zippered bags stuff into front door pockets to hold cameras, phones, CD players and other portable gear.
Optional storage systems are available for specific sports equipment, such as an interior bike rack, a cargo net system with 22 different configurations, and a slide-out rear cargo tray that supports 400 pounds of gear. There's even a specially designed tent that fits over the rear of the body with the tailgate and liftgate open, and a broad air mattress to fill the floor of the cargo bay.
Pontiac's Aztek does a reasonably good job of charging up mountain grades and handling curves.
Power flows readily from the 3.4-liter V6 engine. It musters up 185 horsepower and strong low-end torque, and quickly propels the nearly two-ton Aztek to speed. At high altitudes it struggles, and the transmission jumps between gears on steep grades searching for power that isn't there.
Traction control reduces slippage from the front wheels during aggressive acceleration on slippery pavement. A computer senses wheelspin and either dials back the throttle, gently applies the brakes, or both. It enhances safety on wet or snow-covered roads.
Anti-lock brakes allow the driver to maintain steering control in an emergency braking situation. Front-drive Azteks get front disc brakes with rear drums, while all-wheel-drive models benefit from four-wheel disc brakes.
A long wheelbase and wide wheel track add up to a broad stance that adds stability.
With all engine torque directed to the front wheels, the Aztek feels more like a minivan than a truck-based sport-utility. Smooth but firm suspension settings add to its car-like ride. Front-drive models are supported by independent struts up front and a twist-beam rear axle.
All-wheel-drive Aztek's ride on an all-independent suspension. The Versatrak system uses a compact clutch pack for each rear wheel. Intelligent electronics detects speed differences between front and rear wheels, then directs power to either or both rear wheels momentarily. This happens before the front wheels actually slip, maintaining steady forward movement.
Pontiac Aztek combines the features of a minivan, hatchback, and sport-utility. It features a comfortable passenger compartment, cargo space designed to accommodate sports equipment, and all kinds of gadgets aimed at making life more convenient. Its wild styling remains controversial.