The Reason The Pontiac Aztek Was A Failure

Words can't quite describe the strange appearance of the Pontiac Aztek. It sports a truly bizarre two-tier front fascia that looks like it's in pain, like perhaps it was created by a team of aliens that had never seen another SUV before. It's a spectacularly wild design that flat out didn't work. All told, GM made the Aztek for only five model years from 2001 to 2005.

In the automotive world, far out designs can sometimes work in a car's favor. High-end vehicles like the new Ford GT and the Corvette C8 look like fighter jets with a powertrain warranty. Even more pedestrian vehicles, like the recent offerings from Lexus and Hyundai, have front grilles that are a departure from standard design conventions. Those vehicles have enjoyed mainstream success, and some are even heralded as examples of interesting design.

Pontiac's poor Aztek, however, did not enjoy that same praise. At best, it might be remembered as the car that chemistry teacher-turned drug dealer Walter White drove in the hit drama "Breaking Bad." Even then, it was used to illustrate White's initially mundane life. 

At worst, the Aztek is known as one of the most terrible automotive designs of all time and is even sometimes credited with killing the entire Pontiac brand. That characterization may be unfair, but the Aztek is not without fault. Just look at it. The car looks guilty, or sad, or angry, maybe all of the above.

No idea is too bad

To understand the Aztek, one has to take a look at the state of Pontiac in beginning of the 21st century. By the time 2000 hit, Pontiac's glory days were mostly behind it. Gone were the days of the GTO, and the Firebird and Trans Am were shadows of their former selves. It was a dismal state of affairs. Pontiac enjoyed some success with the Montana minivans, but those were essentially Chevy Venture vans with some extra features and a Pontiac badge. 

As a result, Pontiac had to innovate, and they needed to do it now, according to Bob Lutz, the former vice chairman of product development at GM (via Road and Track).

Everyone has heard the joke that a camel is just a horse designed by a committee. That's exactly what the Aztek was. Seemingly every designer at GM got the memo to make the wackiest vehicle possible and no design choice was too strange. According to Lutz, GM's corporate culture at the time dissuaded anyone from having a differing opinion. Even focus groups hated the design, but Pontiac moved forward with it anyway. 

This aggressive push from the brass at GM ensured that the Aztek met all of its design and production deadlines. On paper, it looked like it was going to be a major success. 

A sales disaster

In reality, the Aztek's fate was a different story.

Despite looking like an SUV that was already in a front-end collision, the Aztek did actually have something going for it. GM played it safe with the engine. It was powered by the same 3.4L V6 inside all of GM's minivans of the era. Reviews from the time report that, despite a flimsy-feeling interior, the Aztek was well appointed compared to some of its contemporaries. It was available with all-wheel drive and had XM radio. Internally, however, it was just a tall General Motors minivan. 

Sales numbers for the Aztek were not stellar though. In 2000, Pontiac sold just over 11,000 Azteks. At its peak, 27,700 models left the lot in 2002. After barely five years, GM decided enough was enough and ended production. Leftovers languished on dealership lots for a while, and Pontiac managed to sell 25 remnant Azteks in 2007, a full two years after production ended. It's safe to say the focus groups had the right idea.