Home » If Pontiac Had Built This Instead Of The Aztek It Could Have Saved The Brand

If Pontiac Had Built This Instead Of The Aztek It Could Have Saved The Brand

Pontiac Crossovers Aztek Ts
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There are many cases where I’m glad that parallel universe situations never occurred. For example, it’s a pretty well known fact that actor Christopher Walken auditioned for the part of Han Solo in the first Star Wars film. Imagine if Harrison Ford had been replaced by a guy reading off lines like  “It’s a…a SHIP…that made the…the ..Kessel RUN…in..in…less than…twelve PARsecs!” Thankfully, the massive Lucasfilms organization will never know how that would have turned out. However, there is one organization that would probably love to see a few revisions to their history: General Motors.

A little while back, Jason Torchinsky started a list of technologies that GM pioneered and then abandoned, only to have to play catch up years later. Jason’s list included five big ones like electric pickups and modern EVs in general. Still, there’s one very big miss that I think many people aren’t completely aware of.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Poncho Coulda Been Head Honcho?

Arguably one of the most game-changing types of vehicles of the last thirty years has been the modern crossover SUV: a machine with minimal off-road capabilities that still offers a driving experience more like the car chassis that it’s based on. Some will claim that the AMC Eagle and Subaru station wagons were the first; you can make a strong argument for them, but these were still very much standard cars on stilts with four driven wheels. By a number of accounts, the 1994 RAV4 is considered to be the first “modern” production crossover; a rounded, cute-rugged, Jeep-looking machine that was nonetheless made up of Toyota sedan components. Most manufacturers followed suit with similar vehicles over the next five years to cash in, and Pontiac eventually joined the crossover game six years later with the much-despised Aztek in 2001 (as featured in Adrian’s excellent Damn Good Design series).

Rav3
Toyota, General Motors

General Motors also cobbled together the Rendezvous, a Buick version of Walter White’s car to copy the pioneering luxury-class 1998 Toyota Harrier/ Lexus RX300.

Rx
Toyota, General Motors

This was a sad turn of events for GM, since the Former World’s Largest Car Maker seemed to have had the answer for a rather winning “soft roader” formula long before Toyota but did nothing with it. As I said, this is yet another blown opportunity for which The General probably wishes it could be granted a do-over.

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Let’s go back to the late 1980s. While Oldsmobile was selling the hell out of anything with a Cutlass badge, Pontiac had their Walmart BMW vibe going strong. If you thought that the brand’s production cars were red-gauge-illuminated, winged-and-body-kit-covered spectacles, you won’t believe Pontiac’s concept cars. Let’s get some appropriate music for your read:

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In 1989, visitors to the Pontiac stand at the auto show saw the unveiling of a funky lime green concept of sports car and Jeep blended together: the Stinger. We might not have known it at the time, but this was an attempt by GM to create a new type of vehicle. The big tires, high ground clearance, open top and simulated “half doors” spoke to off-road buyers; the rounded shape and fully independent suspension that could be lowered to street-level ride height removed the typical hurdles of Wrangler ownership. Unlike the Jeep, the Stinger was not even remotely designed to conquer Moab. Transfer case? Locking diffs? Forget it. Understandably, this was a concept with looks that its mechanicals could not come close to cashing. Manufacturers the world over would soon learn that about 98.5 percent of car buyers wouldn’t care.

Stinger
General Motors

What the Stinger lacked in overlanding prowess it made up for with attitude and “lifestyle” accessories. Look at the kit this thing came with! Coolers that snapped into the openings in the bottoms of the doors, a vacuum cleaner, built in flashlight, a garden hose (what?), a power strip with rolled-up extension cord (again, what?), portable radio, and even a camp stove:

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Accessories
General Motors

Though generally well received, the Stinger concept was viewed as a bit wacky by some–the inevitable toning down that a concept gets before it goes to production would likely have softened these opinions. Of course, a production Stinger never happened. General Motors put the show car in the closet with all of their other undeveloped concepts and that was the end of it. Pontiac moved on to other projects while Toyota went on to eat their lunch. Again.

From the viewpoint of 2023 (or even 2002 for that matter), the Stinger looks like it could have been a monster hit for GM and Pontiac as well. Imagine if the first entry into the ultimately wildly popular crossover segment had come not only from The General, but from a division that would be deemed superfluous less than two decades later. I’d be glad to.

Actually Building Excitement

As a rather cartoonish dune buggy, the circa-1992 production Stinger would need some changes before it could hit the showrooms of Dealership Row. To make it in a size similar to the much-later Aztek, I think the best source of mechanical components would be the same ones the Stinger show car used: the all-wheel-drive bits from the Pontiac 6000 STE AWD, a car whose trunk-lid badge read as GOOOSTE. The Stinger show car was powered by the race-only “Super Duty” four, but I really don’t want to see the Iron Duke (sorry, Tech IV) anywhere near this thing. And so, the Gooste’s 3.1 liter V6 will also find a home in my what-if Stinger. But rest assured, Pontiac would very likely offer a decontented, four-cylinder FWD bargain-basement model as well, rolling on 14-inch steelies. Yikes.

Just like the latest Bronco, we know that a 4-door, mom-and-the-kids model would be essential for sales, so that would be the place to start. If offered exclusively as an open-topped two door, we know that the market for a production Stinger would have been limited; this is proven by the fact that the two-door soft-topped RAV4 barely lasted a few years before being discontinued.

I’ve tried to keep as true to the show car Stinger shape as possible with the “sedan,” the main graphic changes being the exposed headlamps in front and removal of the cutouts on the side of the car; the detents remain but obviously roll-down side windows negate the idea of big openings in the lower doors.

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General Motors

In the rear, the glass window lifts up but there’s also a tailgate section that pivots down for the fun-in-the-sun antics the GM video above hinted at. The license plate housing can rotate as well to allow it to be visible if you drive with the gate down.

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Needless to say, we’d have to offer a two door version. One would have the targa-style roof:

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General Motors

The other two-door version would have the option of doors similar to the show car with removable clear portions above the rocker panel. Of course, this void space removes any space to roll down the entire side window, so we’d have to provide removable “side curtain” windows that also feature smaller Delorean-eque roll-down sections for ventilation and pass-through access at drive-thrus.

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It’s rather clunky to be sure, but it beats soft doors on a Jeep. This design also allows you to get that doors-off feeling without having to literally lug the damn things off of the car–and you still have the upper section of the door to give you a feeling of security.

Cutawy

What if you want a station wagon? I’d like to employ the trick that Nissan tried with the Pulsar NX (but didn’t find an audience with), as I think the Stinger lends itself much better to the concept than the NX. You see, many buyers will likely be looking for a station wagon version of the Stinger, and by creating a boxier wagon-style rear that bolts in place of the big glass hatch, you could easily make this a dealer-installed upgrade. The box part would stay fixed while a smaller glass upper tailgate would open:

 

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We’ve got something for everyone now. But wait! There’s more!

Hope You Like Circles

Some contemporary reviewers thought the interior of the Stinger show car was a bit bizarre, but it’s downright tame next to something like an early Citroen CX or Visa. No, we’re going to make a truly strange dashboard for this car, but one that has a bit of logic to it as well.

1989 Pontiac Stinger Concept Car Interior 04
General Motors

The sweeping shape of the overall dash simulates a traditional Pontiac split grille with HVAC vents mimicking headlamps and a glowing-at-night central Pontiac logo that is actually the button for the hazard flashers. We’re also taking the Pontiac dash-of-many-circles approach to the rest of the design. And I mean many circles.

I’ve bit the bullet and accepted that the production Stinger would need an airbag, and early nineties versions of this safety device were pretty big. Circular pods that look like jet engines stick out the side of the main cluster for lights and wipers, and move with the adjustable wheel. Inclinometers sit near the center of the dash, aimed at the driver and can be covered by a sliding door. The round theme continues below with a climate control button set above the radio/CD player. There’s a cassette tape deck on the center console which can be removed and used as a Walkman-type portable unit. What looks to be an Easter basket is in fact the shifter for the automatic transmission.

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The half-round gauge cluster tilts with the steering wheel and contains concentric instruments. Speedometer and fuel gauge are dead center, surrounded by tach and secondary gauges:

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The Stinger concept went way overboard with the add-on crap in the cargo area, so we’ll curate the equipment list a bit. There’s two bins on each side of the trunk for storage, and optionally you can fill them with an air compressor on one side and a portable stereo radio on the other. That boom box looks like the rear of the Stinger, with the “taillights” acting as speakers and the “backup lights” as the bass ports. Note that the cassette deck from the center console up front snaps in to play your mix tapes.

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You don’t need the off-road capabilities of a Jeep to enjoy camping, but you need a place to sleep. The Aztek offered a tent, but one of the Stinger accessories includes a full camping destination: a roof top carrier and a pop-up tent that hooks into the optional trailer hitch. Note how the roof top carrier slides out to provide room for an upper “bunk” so the whole family could live it up in the outdoors, not just the fun-loving singles from the cast of Baywatch in the original Stiner video.

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Inside and out, this “production” Stinger would offer everything that buyers today turn to crossover SUVs for, including just that extra bit of offbeat style. RIDE! PONTIAC RIIIDE!

Coulda Been A Contender

Every company misses opportunities, but seeing concepts like the Stinger collect dust is like watching a movie where the protagonist just walks by something that could save them from the trials they’re about to face. To my mind, there’s no way possible that a well-executed production Stinger wouldn’t have been a big seller and turned Pontiac into THE sport soft-roader brand.

But alas, that’s not what happened. The rest of the industry knew a good thing when they saw it and gave us CRVs and VehiCrosses while Pontiac took a decade to finally market a competing model–which looked like an Eastern Bloc knockoff of their own 1989 show car. The saddest thing might be that, considering all that we know about General Motors of the late 20th century, the way things turned out didn’t surprise anyone at all.

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Relatedbar

Our Daydreaming Designer Attempts To Fix The Underappreciated 5th-Gen Pontiac GTO, Which Too Many People Think Looks Like A Malibu – The Autopian

Here Are Five Times GM Developed Some Pioneering And Important Innovation Only To Fumble It And Have To Catch Up Later Like A Chump – The Autopian

The Pontiac Aztek Was Not A Design Tragedy, It Was A Corporate Tragedy. – The Autopian

Our Daydreaming Designer Takes The Chevy Corvair Into The Eighties By Borrowing Features From The Pontiac Fiero – The Autopian

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Scott
Scott
4 months ago

I like it and especially appreciate your addition of a tailgate, since I didn’t see one on that one prancing in the surf… first thing I thought of was ‘how would I load it up with stuff w/o a tailgate?’ The three-spoke wheels you used also look very appropriate… did they come off an Isuzu or weird C5 Corvette or something?

PS: speaking of Isuzu, I saw a survivor VehiCross the other day, being driven completely unironically. 🙂

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
4 months ago

I really enjoy the ones that seem to grip you and you can’t. stop. adding. stuff. The logo hazard light is great, as are the modular sound system, and then tents. You make me yearn for your alternate timelines.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
4 months ago

I think this really is a good adaptation of the concept.

But the concept was irrevocably ugly and impressively dumb. I think if this was put into production in the early 90s it would have been the Aztek fiasco a decade early. It would have sold like garbage, permanently sunk any value in Pontiac as a brand, and likely permanently killed the “soft roader” idea before it ever took off.

It would have been bad for Pontiac, bad for GM, and good for the world. I’m all for all three of those.

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
4 months ago

“Needless to say, we’d have to offer a two door version”

Of course you would.

The Explorer had just been introduced the year prior – they had both a 2 door and a 4 door – because Ford truly had no clue which would sell more. Mazda made the error of choosing the 2 door version to rebadge as their Navajo…
The 4Runner still offered a 2 door in 1992 – tho the Pathfinder had dropped it’s 2 door after 1990. Isuzu had the 4 door Rodeo and the 2 door Amigo. Jeep offered their 2 door XJ Cherokee thru to the end of production in 2001! So of course the 2 door makes perfect sense for this size-class given the timeframe.

That interior looks good – but it’s far too bespoke for GM.
It needs to have more parts-bin pieces – such as the standard rectangular GM cassette radio w/ equalizer sliders – but with a dismountable Sony Discman direct from the Sony accessory catalog, as they offered a car-mount on a stalk for Discman – no special engineering needed! Standard GM HVAC controls would fit – but perhaps the binnacle controls, gauges and multi-button steering wheel from the Pontiac Grand Prix STE could have been used to dress things up a bit.

Remember that Airbags vs Automatic Seatbelts were not mandated for SUV/Trucks back then – but if they had to, Pontiac would have gone with the door-mounted shoulder belts & separate lap-belts…

Door openings – Why couldn’t the 2 door have a Plexiglass/Lexan panel on the outer door skin as well as embedded within the inner door card sandwiching the standard window mechanism & speakers that have been prettied up a bit? The exposed window mechanism and speaker ports Pontiac could have been marketed similar to exhibition-style casebacks on watches – which would go with Pontiac’s “tech” brand positioning.

And while we’re at it – Make the clock a dismountable Swatch.

Given an optional plexiglass/lexan roof panel for the 4 door too – and Spielberg & Kennedy might have even chosen the Stinger series over the roof-bubble Explorers and Wrangler YJ Saharas to feature in “Jurassic Park” – with strategically written-in action scenes utilizing the Sony Discman for tour narration, as well as certain plug-in factory-accessory transparent thermal cups, flashlights and walkie-talkies.
Just think of the cool color-chart names – such as “Lizard Green”, “Jungle Yellow”, “Jurassic Plum”, “Rainstorm Black”…
…then GM would really have had a cultural phenomenon and sales smash on their hands, which would have kept Pontiac invigorated and valid for at least a decade after.

Last edited 4 months ago by Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
4 months ago
Reply to  The Bishop

I also forgot “Eggshell Ivory” – and the standard “Clay and Grey” vinyl interior.
Can you imagine a dealer-installed option substituting the clear lexan side panels with amber panels?
How cool would that be?

Master P
Master P
4 months ago

That in-dash CD player is actually a production Discman! The Sony D-88, which was smaller than full-sized cd’s, hence the exposed disc.

Last edited 4 months ago by Master P
Oldskool
Oldskool
4 months ago

The Stinger was in Car And Driver or a similar magazine, which I had when I was about 13.

When the Aztek came out, going by memory alone, I thought the Stinger WAS its prototype vehicle. Considering the similar overall shape, the gray plastic with bright color (Azteks in yellow, orange, electric blue…), and having the outdoor accessories.

Last edited 4 months ago by Oldskool
Zelda Bumperthumper
Zelda Bumperthumper
4 months ago

These could have been rebodied Isuzu Rodeos and Amigos! The platforms were ready to go and the 3.1L was already in the mix.

10001010
10001010
4 months ago

Damn you Bishop, sketching up all these cars that we want but can never have!

UnseenCat
UnseenCat
4 months ago

Off-topic: The Citroen dashboard comparisons remind me of my affinity for all things weird and wonderfully Citroen.

What’s worse is that my wife and I are considering moving to Europe for retirement within the next decade. Which means I may be getting closer to fulfilling my Citroen obsession…

PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
4 months ago

This is an absolute win. I think you’re right; it could’ve saved the entire division.

I was fully into the Stinger when it was a show car, and was really looking forward to a tamed-down production model.

Just one note: The Walkman-style cassette player would have to be replaced with a Discman-style portable CD player. The Discman is circular, and would fit right into the dashboard theme with only the addition of some external electrical contacts.

Soso Tsundere
Soso Tsundere
4 months ago

I’d add one more circle to the dash: the logo/hazard switch could be a circular dial with the logo as the handle, you’d activate by flipping it upside down.

I kinda love this car, it was the fastback that hooked me.

Nycbjr
Nycbjr
4 months ago

not sure this would have saved pontiac but I’ve said this a few times, GM should bring it back as the electric brand, take on tesla with a full range of EV’s.

Madewithgenuineparts
Madewithgenuineparts
4 months ago
Reply to  Nycbjr

Why do that when you have Saturn (weird futuristic cars with fixed pricing and no grilles) and Oldsmobile (the innovation division) that would be more fitting choices?

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
4 months ago

Came here for the SNL Col Angus reference. Stayed for the article. Thanks.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
4 months ago

Like the 2-door version, which means it would be the least likely to ever be built.

Personally, I consider the VW Thing the first crossover, but I’m weird that way.

Pat Rich
Pat Rich
4 months ago

Comment the first: The RAV4 came out in 1994 in Japan, and 1996 MY in the US, not 99.
Comment the second: This wouldn’t have changed Pontiac’s fate. The trouble with Pontiac was the same one so many of GM’s huge portfolio had – No clearly defined brand. “excitement”? Ok… Nah, it would have just been a different kind of failure timeline. It is a cool concept tough.

Last edited 4 months ago by Pat Rich
Arch Duke Maxyenko
Arch Duke Maxyenko
4 months ago
Reply to  Pat Rich

Had GM just made Pontiac and Holden the same lineup when they introduced the GTO back to America, they both would probably would have lasted until Covid.

Pat Rich
Pat Rich
4 months ago

see, thats a plan. Make your excitement division also your performance division.

Arch Duke Maxyenko
Arch Duke Maxyenko
4 months ago
Reply to  The Bishop

GM are the experts at shooting for the moon and hitting themselves in the dick instead.

10001010
10001010
4 months ago
Reply to  Pat Rich

You’re right, towards the end “We build excitement!” just meant “We hot-glued a bunch of corrugated wavy plastic to the side of this 4-door GM rental car!”

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