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Driving the Pontiac Aztek 20 Years On: Automotive Embarrassment or Way Ahead of Its Time?

I have a distinct memory from what must have been the year 2001 or 2002. I was 15 or 16 and the family was out looking at new cars to replace my dad’s aging work vehicle. While his main choice was between a traditional sedan and a pickup truck, I remember going to the local Pontiac dealer because my dad wanted to test drive the then-new Pontiac Aztek.

2001 Pontiac Aztek GT Green

The Aztek had been out for a short time at this point, and had already become the butt of many jokes thanks in large part to its unconventional, “ugly” styling. Naturally my younger brother and I weren’t too keen on riding around in an Aztek, but that didn’t stop my dad from test driving, liking and damn near buying a brand new Aztek.

2001 Pontiac Aztek Front Grille

In the end, he ended up going with  a four-door Chevy Silverado—much to our relief. Production of the Aztec ceased in 2005, Pontiac itself was shut down in 2009. My dad would go on to own many different cars in the proceeding years, everything from modern and vintage Corvettes to an electric Honda and everything in between—but his interest in the now-infamous Aztek never faded.

2001 Pontiac Aztec Green Tent

Fast forward to the fall of 2019 and my dad finally realized his dream of Aztek ownership, purchasing a pretty clean 2001 model from a local seller for less than $2000. This time around, instead of being militantly opposed to the idea, my brother and I were a bit more understanding.

2001 Pontiac Aztek Green

Perception Shift

Not only was it a cheap purchase to be used an occasional runabout and to be towed by his RV, it felt like the perception of the Aztec had changed a bit in the many years since that test drive at the Pontiac dealership.

Having “matured” a bit myself, I still thought the Aztek was an ugly duckling but as we approach the 20th anniversary of its debt and after spending some time with my dad’s new “toy” I’ve begun to realize Pontiac’s strange looking crossover may have been ahead it’s time in more ways than one. It may even be a legit classic.

2001 Pontiac Aztek Green passenger side

Modern Styling?

Before you even get to the styling, the overall shape and layout of the Aztek has almost become the defacto shape of the mainstream modern car. No the Aztek wasn't the first crossover SUV but with its higher seating position, large cargo area and car-like driving dynamics but with the crossover replacing sedans across America, it very much previewed the literal shape of cars to come. 

Back in the late '90s and early 2000s SUVs and crossovers were pretty subtle in their appearance, so it's not surprising that the Aztec's double-hinged rear end, body cladding and angular elements would be met with disdain. But now as we approach the 2020s, overtly styled SUVs and crossovers are commonplace—from fastback crossover SUV "coupes" to pint sized car-based Jeeps with "trail-rated" styling.

2001 Pontiac Aztek Rear Tailgate

In the nearly two decades that have passed since the Aztek's debut, automobile styling across the board has gotten more extreme, with larger grilles, larger vents and more "personality" all around. And while it still stands out, the Aztek's looks certainly aren't as wild when viewed in a modern context.

Overlanding Gear DNA

When it was released the Aztek was targeted toward "active" Gen-Xers, and more than just its aggressive styling it included a number of unique features that made it a lot more interesting than your typical crossover.

2001 Pontiac Aztek Interior

For example, up front there's a built-in removable cooler between the driver and passenger seats, presumably designed for tailgating or camping trips in mind...

2001 Pontiac Aztek Front Cooler

In the rear, the back seats are removable, and with them gone there's a large "living space" complete with rear-mounted audio controls for the Pioneer sound system and an on-board air compressor which can be used to fill up a custom-fitted air mattress which was offered as a dealer accessory.

2001 Pontiac Aztek Tent Camping

The Aztek GT my dad bought also includes the optional factory tent package which can be assembled and mounted to the rear hatch to make a completely enclosed sleeping area.

2001 Pontiac Aztek Tent

Seeing all of this stuff today, it's easy draw comparisons to modern "adventure-oriented" vehicles like the Subaru Crosstrek, and also to the explosion in popularity of the overland movement. No, the car-based Aztek won't hold a candle to a 4Runner or Wrangler on the trail, but there are some definite similarities between its personality and the one favored by the REI-shopping wilderness crowd.

2001 Pontiac Aztek Camping

Celebrity Crush

And speaking of the optional tent, we aren't the first ones to point out the resemblance between the Aztek's camping setup and the one shown as a potential feature on the upcoming and wildly futuristic Tesla Cybertruck. Maybe Elon Musk is a secret Aztek fan?

Tesla Cybertruck Tent Camping

Whatever the case, thanks to the passage of time it seems people may be coming around on the Aztek. Sure there will be those who still consider it one of the most awful things ever to have wheels. While others, may may consider the Aztek one of those cars that's "so bad that it's good."

2001 Pontiac Aztek Green

And then are those who actually appreciate the car for being the unusual, forward-thinking machine it was and genuinely dig it. I guess you can consider my father part of that group. 

2001 Pontiac Aztek Green window detail

No matter your thoughts, one thing is certain. In an era that was filled with tons of forgettable American vehicles, the Pontiac Aztek isn't going to be forgotten any time soon.

And when it comes to modern Pontiacs that may or may not be forgotten, you can find our look back the abandoned G8 Sport Truck project right here.

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