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Used Car Review – 2003 Pontiac Aztek

Pontiac Aztek
Image by IFCAR via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Good, Bad, and Ugly

Style is a fickle thing. When it’s on point, everyone knows it. Conversely, when its not on point, everyone is more than willing to point it out. I would say that about 90% of cars on the road today fall right in the middle — they are neither here nor there. They all pretty much look the same and therefore evoke no real emotion based on aesthetics. The top 5% of cars in terms of looks leave the viewer in wonderment of man’s ability to make art move. The bottom 5%, well, they make us ask: “why?” In the case of the Pontiac Aztek though the question wasn’t why, the question was, “what the f**k were you people thinking?”

First off, this is a car that literally everyone on planet earth with a motoring blog, or two functioning eyeballs, has s**t on ad nauseum. Every list of the ugliest cars of all time from Edmunds to Time magazine has this very near the top. Time even went so far as to blame the Aztek for the downfall of the Pontiac brand in the late 2000’s. So when I found one of these on sale in a local marketplace, I figured, “ok it’s ugly as sin, but what is it like to drive?” So I donned a disguise and took it for a spin.

Surprisingly Good

Right away, the interior is very roomy and extremely modular. This was an early mid sized crossover and most car makers hadn’t really figured out how to make best use of the limited space. However, the Aztek’s interior really works. The one thing that is absolutely stunning was the overall visibility from the driver’s seat. One of the things that floored me was the idea that you could get the Aztek with a heads up display. However upon further research, it made sense. When the Aztek was being thought up, GM wanted to try a lot of new things on a proven platform and engine. The Aztek was built for people who were going to go out and use every bit of it. So, they added it with goodies that you would expect in a hardcore Range Rover — coolers, split tailgate, audio controls in the very back, tent attachments, air compressors, air mattresses — literally everything but the kitchen sink, and if you wanted I’m sure you could pay someone on Surfwrench to add one.

The performance was surprisingly good. At just 4000 pounds, the 3.4 liter V6 handled itself well and the Versatrak all wheel drive system is actually still one of the better ones out there. It’s not quattro, but it’s not supposed to be. I thoroughly expected it to handle like an absolute whale, but the plastic body cuts the weight and the all wheel drive distributes power nicely. There was a fair bit of body roll but I suspect that it was more the result of a failed suspension component on the driver’s side, rather than the actual design of the vehicle itself.

Then, something weird happened. I kinda forgot that I was in one of the ugliest cars ever made. Yea, it was ugly, but at 14 years old everything still worked. The interior was still fairly clean. There was pretty solid legroom in the back, and with all of the optional extra’s at $4,000 it was a pretty solid deal. It had only done 89,000 miles, but the transmission still shifted perfectly and the engine hadn’t lost any of its steam. GM V6’s are rarely going to win any drag races, but they are a well built and engineered powerplant. It also doesn’t get great gas mileage; 20 mpg in suburban and city settings.

Why It Didn’t Work

In its 5 year run, GM sold less than 120,000 of these cars, which in GM numbers is absolutely terrible. But there is something weird about every one that they sold. The Aztek scored highest in the mid sized SUV Consumer Satisfaction Index in 2001. These people mostly cited loving the interior, all wheel drive system, and the overall “different-ness” of the model. That’s actually a good observation from the people who actually owned them. The entire car was just different, and in the early 2000’s people didn’t really want different. The world was changing in ways that they didn’t understand, so we stuck with what was familiar- square, body on frame SUVs with V8’s that didn’t upset the status quo. The Aztek dared to be different, and while it didn’t do different right, it did stand out. Unfortunately it found itself in the bottom 5%, but that isn’t bothering the people who still drive them (mainly because you can’t see yourself in it).

Wow, look at that. I made it the whole article without making a Breaking Bad joke.