A wild-looking, wide-tracking way to set yourself apart from the SUV crowd. And normalcy.
by Bob Storck
LAKE TAHOE, Calif. - A famed auto executive recently said that he didn't care if much of the public was apathetic about a car design, so long as a small group really enjoyed and appreciated it.
While many GM designs are understated in their design, the same surely can't be said about Pontiacs. The Aztek takes their distinctive styling to new limits, the boundaries of which might elude normal folks.
After hinting at their desire to produce small, youth oriented vehicles for years with concept cars like the Salsa and Backpack, Pontiac finally has found a package that suits them. The 2001 Aztek moves into production with character traits that active buyers are looking for and a design that absolutely screams Pontiac. No one is going to mistake this for a standard SUV, not on the inside, and certainly not on the outside.
By Pontiac's reckoning, the Aztek combines a wide-track stance for sporty handling, a roomy interior and low entry height for convenience, and optional all-wheel-drive to handle wet or snowy roads. This combination of sports sedan, SUV and minivan traits will suit a lot of youthful pursuits (snowboarding - yes; skipping college lectures for the slopes, possibly) and the overstated Aztek styling will ensure that few Modern Maturity-type buyers will seek it out.
Flexible, but not gymnastic
The big reason to seek out an Aztek is its flexibility: it's facile enough to carry various combinations of people and cargo, has a flat load floor for toting a variety of gear, and offers flip/fold/remove modular seating. Two seating configurations are offered - bucket seats in front with a three-passenger flip/fold 50/50-split seat, or dual captain chairs in back. All rear seats can be folded, flipped forward or removed to create extra space.
Utility doesn't suffer. With the back seats removed the Aztek is larger than most SUVs and can accommodate full sheets of building materials. An innovative sliding rear cargo tray system supports up to 400 pounds of gear and can be completely removed and stowed with a convenient grab handle and built-in roller wheels.
But the most obvious reason to avoid the Aztek is its looks, particularly if you're fainthearted or have been featured on America's Most Wanted. This Pontiac's appearance is rife with overwrought details: cats-eye headlamps, oversize fog lamps, a twin-port grille with ram-air slots in the hood, and protective side cladding. During our test outing, the Aztek provoked a variety of reactions. No one was blase. If you can afford controversy and notoriety, don't think twice.
Inside, the Aztek's interior is more overtly commercial, with good functionality and handsome, rugged style. While the exposed screws stare out from this $25,000 with maddening visibility, the tech-adventure environment and bold-graphic cloth or leather seats seem in step with the high concept.
All Azteks are equipped with an instrument cluster filled with highly legible analog gauges, while the Aztek GT showcases the latest new-generation Head-Up Display (HUD), which can be configured to include vehicle speed, turn signal operation, high-beam indication, a low-fuel warning, a check gauges advisory, radio station frequency, and both CD number and track.
On the subject of tunage, the Aztek offers four different audio entertainment systems, each with Radio Data System (RDS) functions (traffic alerts, station call letters, etc.) Radio receivers are available with AM/FM stereo plus cassette, CD, or CD/cassette play capability. Every unit has electronic graphic equalization, and Aztek's premium CD changer has the ability to load six CDs through a single in-dash slot. Six speakers are standard Aztek equipment while a premium Pioneer speaker system adds a 190-watt amplifier, two six-inch-diameter subwoofers, and a pair of four-inch extended range speakers aimed rearward for tailgate parties and also a rear cargo area control panel. The GT models are available with a rear-seat audio system that allows the aft passengers to listen to different media formats than the front seat passengers through headphones and separate volume controls.
Most sport-utes are tall and may roll and sway, and Aztek counters that tendency with a wide-track chassis. The Aztek's independent rear suspension gives it a significant handling edge over live-axle systems, and an optional automatic level-control system helps it maintain a flat vehicle attitude when heavy loads are carried. An added plus with the optional auto-level system is an auxiliary air compressor for inflating sports gear and tires.
All Azteks are powered by the old standby 3.4-liter OHV V-6 engine, reliable but modest in its 185-hp output. Don't be surprised if later models get an improved engine. An all-speed traction control that uses both powertrain and brake system interaction to curtail wheel spin is standard in the GT and optional on Aztek vehicles.
The mechanical jewel here is the VersaTrak all-wheel-drive system. VersaTrak directs torque to the wheels with the best traction. In low-traction conditions, VersaTrak activates multiplate clutches that split power and send some to the rear wheels; the rest of the time, the Aztek's a front-driver. Unfortunately, it will be some months before this version is available. A 3500-pound trailer-tow option is offered with heavy-duty engine cooling equipment, a high-output alternator, and the auto load-leveling rear suspension.
Different lifestyle packages will be available for outdoorsy types who want to custom-outfit their Aztek: the camping package includes a custom tent that fits over the rear half of the vehicle, while the biking package offers a choice of interior or exterior mounted bike racks. The hiking package includes a custom backpack that can be attached to the rear of the front seats when not in use, while the sport appearance package offers a molded hood deflector, vent visors, deluxe rubber floor mats and window decals.
The substantial list of standard equipment on all Azteks includes driver and passenger front- and side-impact air bags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes, air-conditioning, power door locks and windows, power liftgate release, power dual outside rear view mirrors, convenience net and cargo security cover. Additional equipment may be added such as cruise control, traction control, roof rack and a reconfigurable cargo net system, sliding rear cargo tray, deep tinted glass, and remote keyless entry.
The Aztek GT adds a driver information center, leather steering wheel with radio controls, removable console/cooler and front door utility packs, dual zone air-conditioning system, overhead console, lighted vanity mirrors, driver four-way manual seat with lumbar adjusters, and expressive premium cloth interior. Optional GT equipment includes heads up display, leather seating, heated front seats, rear captain's chairs, rear-seat audio, theft deterrent alarm system and OnStar communication service. Aztek GT models also have a portable console/cooler standard that latches into the console between the front seats, and removable utility packs nested in its front door trim for handy portable storage of high-value gear.
2001 PONTIAC AZTEK
Base Price: $21,995
Engine: 3.4-liter V-6, 185 hp
Transmission: four-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 108.3 in
Length: 182.1 in
Width: 73.7 in
Height: 66.7 in
Fuel economy: N.A.
Major standard features:
50/50 split bench seats
Rear audio system
© 2000 The Car Connection