A few weeks ago, I drove to a viewer’s house near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and I drove his 2005 Pontiac Aztek. This happened only a few days after I drove the new Ferrari GTC4Lusso. I think I was more excited for the Aztek.
I say this for several reasons. The GTC4Lusso is, undoubtedly, a very special car with some very special equipment and a very special powertrain. But the Aztek is an idol of our generation; often considered to be one of the ugliest cars manufactured in the last 20 years at best — and emblematic of all the issues and problems that drove General Motors to bankruptcy at worst. It also starred in one of the most popular recent television shows, “Breaking Bad,” and, well, it’s just weird. And I wanted to experience the weird firsthand.
So I drove out to Harrisburg and I climbed behind the wheel of the Aztek. Now, before I get started here, I should explain the situation with the Aztek for those of you who are curious why I’m referring to a 12-year-old Pontiac as an “idol of our generation.” So here’s the deal: The Aztek came out in 2001, and it was truly ugly. It had 3-spoke wheels, bizarre angles, some sort of weird dual hood situation, and the entire bottom half of the car was covered in plastic cladding like it was wearing an apron. It was crazy.
Naturally, this unusual styling ensured it was quickly picked on by virtually every automotive outlet. Pontiac rushed to its defense, removing all the cladding by the 2002 model year and changing around the wheel styles — but the damage was done, and the Aztek had secured its reputation as an unfortunate, unattractive, bizarre SUV-ish thing. Every Aztek used a 185-horsepower 3.4-liter V6, and the Aztek shared its platform and general architecture with a “luxury” version, the Buick Rendezvous, which was a little more attractive and offered 3-row seating.
Oh, and one more thing about the Aztek: You spell it “A. Z. T. E. K.” The ancient civilization is spelled “Aztec” with a “c,” but the car has a “k” at the end, like “killer whale” or “Kazakhstan.” No, I have no idea why they did this, and I bet General Motors doesn’t have any idea, either. But they did, so take note. This is the single most misspelled car name in history — yes, even more than “Camero” — so I just wanted to clear up that confusion before going any further.
So, just to be clear, we’re talking about a wildly unattractive car with an underpowered engine and bizarre styling, hailing from a rather dark period at General Motors, with an intentionally misspelled name. It has all the trappings of one of the worst cars manufactured in the modern era. And yet…
I think it’s kind of cool.
Yes, that’s right, I think the hated, maligned, ridiculous Pontiac Aztek is kind of cool, and today I’m going to explain why — although part of the explanation is already done for me. Our writer Will Kinton recently noted that the Aztek’s styling — once considered absolutely ridiculous — is starting to become more accepted as car designs (and, especially, SUV designs) become a little more “out there.” When the Aztek came out, cars were simpler and more straightforward — but today’s world has seen the acceptance of bizarre designs like the Nissan Cube and the Toyota C-HR and the Honda Element and the Nissan Juke, and the Aztek would fit right in with these cars.
But it isn’t just the growing acceptance of unusual styling that’s making the Aztek “cool.” The Aztek was also just wildly versatile, in a way that modern cars are once again trying to replicate. Consider this: The Aztek offered a tent. You could park your Aztek wherever you wanted to camp, set up the tent — which attached to its wheel well and roof rails, along with stakes in the ground like a normal tent — and then your car was part SUV and part campsite. The Aztek also had an inflatable bed designed to fit inside the cargo area and the tent. And the rear area even had optional speakers so you could listen to music in your tent, or simply with the rear hatchback lifted up if you were at the beach or maybe a drive-in movie.
And then there’s my favorite part: The center console was, of course, a center console, and it could hold your CDs and your coins. But if you needed a cooler, it was that, too — and it could be lifted completely out of the center of the Aztek and carried around, with a handle, like a normal cooler. In fact, I’ve needed a new small cooler — and so, following my Aztek review, I bought an Aztek center console cooler on eBay. It recently kept my drinks nice and chilly at a Beach Boys concert. I am not kidding.
Of course, there are some flaws to the Aztek. Its 185-horsepower V6 leaves something to be desired, and its bizarre rear-end design involves a giant bar going across the back and blocking your vision directly out the rear — which is not really ideal when, ya know, you’re driving a car. It also suffers from the typical issues with switchgear quality from early-2000s General Motors vehicles, in the sense that they’re all kind of cheap, and they look cheap, and they feel cheap, and for some reason they’re very rounded.
But that doesn’t make the Aztek a bad car. In fact, as the going rate on Autotrader right now for an Aztek is about $3,600, it’s really hard to go wrong with one of these — unless it has some sort of unseen reliability issues. In fact, I predict the Aztek will someday gain some value as an emblem of an odd and unusual time in American car design — much like the Plymouth Superbird, which was also maligned when it first went on sale. And if it doesn’t, well, you can always set up the tent and go sleep in the back. Find a 2005 Pontiac Aztek for sale
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.