Home » How I’d Fix The Design Of The Pontiac Aztek – Without Starting All Over Again

How I’d Fix The Design Of The Pontiac Aztek – Without Starting All Over Again

Altered Adrian Pontiac Aztek
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A while back in my Damn Good Design series, we looked at the much-maligned Pontiac Aztek and explained how the poor thing started out as a promising idea with a reasonably snazzy concept, only to completely shit the bed by the time the production version appeared. GM wanted a sexy multi-purpose vehicle that combined the handling of a Camaro and the practicality of a Blazer. Instead of the best of both worlds, they ended up with the worst of all worlds, because the Aztek was doomed to use the platform of a minivan. The design of the version you could buy was compromised from the very beginning.

GMs problem was they were beholden to market research that told them they needed to make more innovative and exciting cars, without really understanding what this meant. Like their cross-town rivals Ford, they were wedded to a management style that attempted to apply quantitative measurements to qualitative characteristics, leading to nonsense statements like the one made by then CEO Rick Wagoner that 40% of GM’s new cars would be “innovative.”

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Thus, despite it crashing and burning in early customer clinics, the Aztek was greenlit and progressed into development. GM convinced themselves because the Aztek hit all their internal metrics and there wasn’t anything like it on the market, it would be a smash hit, and they didn’t want to hear otherwise.

The Aztek Was Not a Bad Idea

Identifying a gap in the market or using existing vehicles as an analog for your ideas are both valid ways for product planners and car designers to come up with proposals for new types of vehicles. When I was student, Jaguar was expensively attempting to become a British BMW. The 3-series rivaling Jaguar XE had finally launched, and so penning smaller, hatchback Jaguars along the lines of a Mercedes A-Class or BMW 1-series was a popular project among my less imaginative peers.

I was never entirely convinced of the merits of this idea, but later when J. Mays was my teacher, he instructed me to identify gaps in a manufacturer’s range: Don’t look at what they have, look at what they don’t have. When I worked at Gaydon, I proposed repositioning one of the existing models as a Land Rover version of something well-loved from another manufacturer’s past. It made perfect sense to me on a number of different levels, but obviously such heresy couldn’t be countenanced. But that’s what designers are paid for: Part of the role is to have ideas and then turn them into compelling visuals so others higher up the decision-making food chain can judge their merits from a business point of view.

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There was nothing wrong with the Aztek as an idea: a chunky, robust-looking vehicle with a fun-to-drive on-road bias that was rugged enough to handle some light off-roading. The market at the time offered full-fat body-on-frame SUVs like the Blazer or smaller compact unibody crossovers like the CR-V or RAV4, so it’s not hard to understand GM’s thinking: The Aztek would be something to slot in between these two extremes. The easy and typical GM way of doing things would have been to give the Blazer a Pontiac-style glow-up similar to how they crapped out the Oldsmobile Bravada, but the GMT330 platform was on its last legs and the American car-buying public had long since started seeing through such nose and tail badge engineering jobs. Besides such a lash-up wouldn’t have been “innovative” and a traditional SUV like that would not really have fit in with a Pontiac line-up whose tagline at the time was “we are driving excitement.”

Let’s assume then (and we don’t know really if this was true or not) there was no business case for the Aztek without basing it on a minivan platform. The numbers guys punched all the data into the GM-finance-o-tron 5000 and putting a new body on the GMT330 platform wouldn’t have worked. It was too old, too agricultural to give the desired driving characteristics and economy figures, and it wouldn’t have supported the interior room and flexibility the concept promised. If the Aztek was going to be greenlit, it had to be on the existing U platform.

Let’s See If We Can Fix It

So although it would be relatively straightforward to remedy the proportional crimes of the Aztek by simply setting fire to the thing and starting again, that’s not what we’re going to do.

Drawing something fantastical and then complaining that engineers and accountants have screwed up your perfect form is not really what being a car designer is about. Being a designer means being a problem solver: How do we make this thing we are working on as good as it can be within the constraints we’re operating under? In other words, totally redrawing the Aztek to make it closer to the original brief of a Camaro interbred with a Blazer would be an easy cheat.

What I’m going to do is make changes based on what I suggested in my earlier article. To try and improve it while keeping the underlying platform and hard points. Could a few relatively simple tweaks turn the Aztek into something that looks a lot better that wouldn’t have put customers off? Is there something better lurking under there, or was the whole thing a fool’s errand from the start?

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Here are the annotated images highlighting the basic problems from the original article:

Azteksideannotated
Image via Bring a Trailer
Aztekr3qannotated
Image via Bring a Trailer

Although the proportions are not great thanks to the underlying hardpoints not being ideal, there are ways to mitigate the damage. Although getting the underlying shape correct is important, you can get away with a slightly awkward volume if everything else works to help the design out.

The Aztek is basically what designer wankers like me call a monovolume. Although it’s not the sexiest outline to ever leave a designer’s sketchpad, the one-box shape doesn’t automatically mean you end up with an ugly car. The original version of the Renault Espace and Dodge Caravan might not be objects of lust but they have a pleasing functionality and honesty about what they are. Even the GM Dustbusters were interesting and tried to move the category forward. The problem with the Aztek is the details: the glazing, stance, and graphics are all misjudged, which exaggerates the problem with the shape rather than hiding it. So let’s try and fix them.

First of all, here’s an unaltered side view.

Newaztek1
Image via Cars & Bids
Newaztek2
Image via Cars & Bids

Starting at the back, I’ve removed the underbite rear bumper, smoothing it off. This has two benefits: It removes visual weight (and actual physical weight I guess) from the lower part of the car, making it look lighter on its wheels and 2. It increases the departure angle, making it look more capable off-road.

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I’ve sized the wheels up slightly, and very slightly moved them up into the wheel arches. This fills the arches out better, improves the stance (the way the car sits on the road), and better balances out the overall height. It no longer looks quite so tippy toes.

Let’s move round to the front:

Have You Had a Nose Job?

Newaztek3
Image via Cars & Bids

Again, this isn’t a great angle. Or rather, it’s a good angle for making the car look better but not for illustrating what I’m trying to show, which is the sogginess of the front lighting and grille (known as the Down the Road Graphic or DRG). The base of the hood is quite a bit higher than the base of the screen (almost certainly one of the hard points that was dictated by the platform). But if you look at where the hood meets the windshield on the far side of the car, you can see there is a big gap there – this means we can lower the height of the rear of the hood, so it doesn’t dive towards the front quite so aggressively.

Newaztek4
Image via Cars & Bids

I’ve flattened the line of the hood out and pulled the lighting and grill up. If you’re struggling to see the difference, look at the gap below the main grill to the black lower bumper, and the gap between the headlights and the indicator units. I’ve also pulled that lower bumper in a bit, so it no longer juts out like a teenager’s lower lip when you tell them they’re grounded.

I normally hate yellow. It works on exactly one car (the 1971 Buick GSX), but it is the Aztek’s “hero” color. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find images without the body-colored cladding we could use. So I’ve added grey trim to the strake on the lower doors and removed the paint from the door handles. This helps break up the vast expanse of yellow on the bodyside, saves a bit of money (which I’ll be spending later), and looks more robust. I’ve also helped the seller of this car out by removing the scratch in the front bumper (below the headlight in the original image if you can’t see it).

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Yes. And a Butt Lift.

Newaztek5
Image via Cars & Bids

My main problem with the back of the car apart from that horrible bumper, is the position of the split in the tailgate. I think it’s just too low, adding the feeling of bottom heaviness affecting the whole car. I’m going to pull that up so it meets the feature line in the bodyside and get rid of the bumper.

Newaztek6
Image via Cars & Bids

The split on the vertical section between glass and yellow bodywork is now closer to thirds, rather than the 50-50 split it was originally. Thirds are a more pleasing visual composition, which is why the rule of thirds exists in photography. Moving this split up also has the additional benefit of lining the bottom of the tail lights up with the feature line on the bodyside, making for a cleaner and more harmonious look. Finally, the money I saved on not painting the door handles and lower strake I’ve spent on giving the Aztek a proper fuel filler cap.

In all of the three altered images, I’ve also tweaked the lower line of the third side window (the one between the C and D pillar) to make it higher and more sympathetic to the line of the rest of the Daylight Opening. I kept going over and over my changes here, each time thinking I hadn’t moved it up far enough. And I’m still not sure I’ve got it right. It’s one of those things in the studio you would iterate on a full-size model over and over, probably printing out tens of different full-size versions to stick on the clay. I was tempted to angle it slightly, but that wouldn’t really have been the fashion at the time.

Given the constraints, I think these (relatively) minor changes make a big difference. Whether they would have made enough difference to overcome the Aztek’s stiff purchase price and cringey marketing is another matter entirely, but to repeat a line I recently made in the comments: a good design can save a bad car, but a bad design will certainly sink a good one.

And anyone in the comments who says “It’s the same image” will instantly earn my scorn. Don’t make me get on a paddle steamer again.

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Authors note: It will not have escaped your attention we had a monumental publishing omnishambles gentle editorial imbroglio last week. Now I’ve removed the knives from my back and scrubbed the bus tire tracks off my torso here’s what happened: David was out doing Important Business Stuff. Matt was in London trying out a fallback career as a London Cab driver. That left Jason and Peter at the controls. Jason as usual was out of his mind on bathtub bourbon and illegal Mexican painkillers he still insists are for medical reasons. I know it helps to be wasted to work here but some of us are trying to be professionals. And Peter was … where was Peter? Who even is Peter? I don’t think that guy actually exists outside of being an AI chatbot in Slack.

I wrote something that was published (I just upload my content into the mainframe. I don’t have control over making my stuff appear on the site – for the moment my power is limited). David returned, saw the article, and promptly gave birth to several new kittens. Faced with having to alter the piece as he saw fit or rousing me from my coffin at 3 am UK time to make a few tweaks, he broke out the editorial chainsaw (it’s kept next to the battery removal chainsaw in the Autopian chainsaw cupboard).

Needless to say, when I awoke and saw what had transpired I immediately bought a first-class ticket on the next transatlantic paddle steamer so I could let my views be known in person. In the spirit of full transparency then, here’s the footage of David and I discussing the matter in the Autopian war room:

I’ll leave it to your imaginations to figure who is who.

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Myk El
Myk El
22 days ago

Back when I used to write music reviews (albums and concerts at a very local level), the ones it was easy to write about were where a good idea was poorly executed. You could point at countless little things to improve. Things fundamentally flawed were harder to write because all I’m thinking is “this sucks, pick a different career.”

I think that explains why the Aztek has continued to be written about while so many contemporary vehicles are merely forgotten. They had a concept, in better hands, it could have been excellent.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
23 days ago

Regarding the front end… I say go in the other direction. People think it’s hideous and can’t be worse? Buahahaha… we should punish them by fitting these cheap LED headlights from Walmart onto the front:
https://i5.walmartimages.com/seo/2PCS-Rectangle-H6054-LED-Headlights-5×7-7×6-Headlamp-Hi-Low-Sealed-Beam-H4-9003-Plug-6054-H5054-Compatible-S10-Blazer-Express-Van-Wrangler-YJ-XJ-Cher_f0b3c778-f547-4e22-8d63-7a461a4db48f.e2dc58aeda07a58597670cfa235c6589.jpeg?odnHeight=640&odnWidth=640&odnBg=FFFFFF

Clive Wilson
Clive Wilson
23 days ago

The Aztek was never sold here in Australia (perhaps thankfully), but I still remember my first sight of one.

Back in 2002 I visited Canada with my then 11-year old son. I still remember the shock in his voice when we pulled into a shopping centre parking lot and he yelled: “Dad – look at that car!!!”

Ron888
Ron888
23 days ago

It’s interesting to see the effect of small changes,but ultimately it’s not enough.It’s kinda pointless without changing the worst part- that horrific front end!

David W Alderman
David W Alderman
22 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

This reminded me of a line from the orignal Star Trek series when a Vulcan ship was destroyed.

JumboG
JumboG
23 days ago

You can’t polish a turd, but that’s what you tried to do here. The rear bumper is the only thing I could quickly ID as a change, some of the rest of the changes I could see if I closely examined the pics, and a couple I couldn’t even spot.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
24 days ago

Its a good start but I like the Screaming Chicken concept Aztek even better:

https://www.thedrive.com/news/32954/youll-hate-yourself-for-loving-this-pontiac-aztec-trans-am-concept

IMO THIS is what Pontiac SHOULD have made, at least as a trim.

(also an LS under the hood for *REASONS*!)

Last edited 24 days ago by Cheap Bastard
Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
24 days ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

I… actually quite like that?

Sly Bob
Sly Bob
23 days ago
Reply to  Gilbert Wham

Yeah I do as well, I’d buy that.

Inthemikelane
Inthemikelane
24 days ago

Haven’t read anything but the headline, you’re a brave man…

Crank Shaft
Crank Shaft
24 days ago

Indeed your change do improve it MASSIVELY! If only.

My sister had three or four of these and loved the car. It always felt tin-cannish to me. kind of like a larger Chevette.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
24 days ago

In the Mad Men video, it’s Hardigree saying he wants to watch this, right?

And Torch is listening outside the door, right?

Rollin Hand
Rollin Hand
24 days ago

I see Adrian’s “discussion” with David playing out like this.

https://youtu.be/Bb840owQvdU?si=WVGMCYmsz491aM7Z

As for the Aztek, the little changes do help, but man, that thing needs HELP.

Of course I find it entertaining that Mitsubishi essentiall cribbed the rear of the thing for the earlier EclipseCross.

Rollin Hand
Rollin Hand
24 days ago
Reply to  Rollin Hand

I should add that, at least to me, the same era’s Buick Rendezvous looked worse. It looked like someone took a Buick sedan, draped it over a minivan, and overinflated it by 10 percent.

Chronometric
Chronometric
23 days ago
Reply to  Rollin Hand

I agree. Especially the rear glass area and the split oval feature.

Jonathan Hendry
Jonathan Hendry
24 days ago

I suspect the office discussion actually looked a bit more like this.

https://youtu.be/x0YLLkr7VfU?t=64

MAX FRESH OFF
MAX FRESH OFF
24 days ago

I appreciate the effort but it still looks like a dumpster.

Duke Woolworth
Duke Woolworth
25 days ago

When this thing was being developed, according to a gentleman I know fairly well (son) who was paid $60/hour to wait in reserve to do clay work, the hood line was created by piling about 4″ of clay on the minivan hood. No change to windshield or wipers, which can be seen inches below the rear of the hood.

H4llelujah
H4llelujah
25 days ago

Two things: 1st, can we talk about what a glow up the aztek actually had when they shed the plastic, bumped up the wheel size, and bathed it in that glorious shade of sunshine yellow? I mean, talk about the most massive redesign without really redesigning anything. Don’t get me wrong, your alterations are great, but the difference in an early aztek and a late one is striking.

2nd: That was the funniest author’s note I’ve read in years. Reminds me of the glory days of Car & Driver, where the editors would razz each other in every issue. It was like a book version of Top Gear banter, and in the best way. More of that please.

Ron888
Ron888
25 days ago

Your author’s note and especially the accompanying video made me forgot the car altogether.Freaking hilarious.

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