My God, redemption arcs are tedious. For the terminally online, they’re a convenient way to cook up a medium-warm take that’s only novel if you weren’t paying attention the first time around. Live long enough in the popular automotive consciousness and it’s only a matter of time before a reappraisal comes your way. A car that stubbornly refuses rehabilitation with the grim vigor of a career criminal is the Pontiac Aztek; a car so ham-fisted in its execution it became a metaphor for the clownshow that was pre-bankruptcy GM. Pour a stiff drink, it’s time for Damn Good Design.
Car design is a whole process, from conception to production. It isn’t just about creating the exterior appearance of a vehicle — that’s the glamorous rock-n-roll part that captures the imagination and leads to turtle-necked think pieces in glossy magazines. The mundane reality is that after the flashy sketches are done and the clay models start being milled comes the long and tedious process of shepherding your design unscathed through various corporate, engineering, and marketing minefields and onto the showroom floor without it being irrevocably ruined. How successful you are in this Sisyphean endeavor will depend on a multitude of factors, including but not limited to: the original brief, the resources available to you in terms of time, manpower and platform, and the importance your company places on design – because despite what flashy PR videos full of nonsensical word salads and good looking young designers doing sketches on fucking panes of glass or some shit might proclaim, not all OEMs value the design process in the same way.
OEMs that prioritize design will put the chief designer near the top of the corporate hierarchy: Peter Schreyer is now chief design officer for the whole Hyundai Group, including Kia and Genesis. Gerry McGovern is Chief Creative Officer of Jaguar Land Rover. Adrian van Hooydonk is BMW Group Design Director, with responsibility for BMW, Rolls Royce and Mini. Whether you like their work or not, having figureheads like these is important to defend and protect your designs from outside interference as they progress through the corporate meat grinder, even if their actual role is more akin to tastemaker and editor of other peoples work. This context is important to fully understand exactly what happened with the Aztek.
Pontiac Was In Love With The Idea Of A Do-it-all All Vehicle
From my perspective as a professional car designer who was alive at the time, the Aztek didn’t face problems in the marketplace because it was an idea ahead of its time and customers weren’t ready. Being first to market in a new segment isn’t a barrier to success if the product is compelling enough. It wasn’t because it was badly built or unreliable – the quality wasn’t exactly peak Mercedes, but it was no worse than other GM products at the time and it sat on proven mechanicals. The Aztek’s problems arose from the corporate environment that managed its development, the cynical way it was marketed, and mainly its customer-repelling appearance.
Pontiac had been toying with the idea of a vehicle for young people with an ‘active lifestyle’ long before the Aztek. In 1989 they debuted the Stinger Concept – a sort of modern dune buggy with two doors, four seats and all manner of built-in vanlife-nonsense. Watch the promo video, and the amount of plastic crap packed into the thing is mind-boggling. From a handheld vacuum cleaner to a gas station counter mini-tool kit, removable seating AND sound system, a stove and everything in between — all the essentials for making the lives of beautiful people easier whose jobs were presumably just beach. The designers didn’t know when to stop – the only thing it didn’t have was an actual kitchen sink.
The period-cheesy video above from an old MotorTrend TV episode is fascinating, in no small part because Pontiac designer Terry Henline lays out specifically what the brief was. Designers were told to create an: “interesting and innovative small family vehicle that would be particularly suited to the west coast markets.” In 1992, designers came up with the Salsa, a small, bright pink front wheel drive car that had a removable rear canopy and an extendable rear section allowing it to transform from a small wagon, into a targa topped roadster and a mini truck. Both the Stinger and the Salsa were products of GM’s Advance Concept Center in California, and although a feasibility mule for the Salsa was reportedly built according to MotorTrend, neither made production.
A single car that can be adapted for a variety of roles is an endearing idea that frequently captures the imaginations of automotive design students, and occasionally OEMs themselves. Bodywork that can be reconfigured for different use scenarios sounds like it should be a panacea to efficiency and consumption issues. As anyone who has had to store a hard top for their convertible will tell you, the reality is different. You need space to store the bits you’re not using, and making the body structure modular introduces openings that must be sealed, and connection points that will give Noise, Vibration and Harshness engineers sleepless nights.
GM wanted 40% Of Vehicles To Be Innovative
The Aztek avoided these pitfalls by having all its versatility on the inside. According to this critical look into Aztek development from auto industry legend Bob Lutz, at the time Rick Wagoner and the GM management board stated that 40% of the new cars they made had to be “innovative.” How you measure the exact amount of innovation a product contains is a mystery but this type of meaningless target-driven management was endemic in how the corporation developed cars at the time.
Wagoner was not a product person. He had risen through GM’s ranks on the financial side of the business. John Smale, the then GM chairman decided what the company needed was what had worked at his previous company, Nabisco – give the customers what they want. And what the market research GM told them was that customers wanted something edgy, different and sexy. Something a bit alternative – nothing like the bland-mobiles GM was peddling at the time.
Back out at the Advance Concept Center in California, exterior chief designer Tom Peters picked up a yellow and black North Face jacket (an obscure brand at the time) for his team to use as inspiration for a car that “took a Camaro and a Blazer and put them in a blender” — something that would combine the handling of the former and the flexibility of the latter.
Designer Brigid O’Kane drew some sketches of an aggressive, athletic, higher-riding car – what was to become project Bear Claw, the genesis of the Aztek concept. Peters described it as being “an AWD, sporty vehicle that could carry a fair amount of gear, as well as people.” He goes on to say “the initial ‘Bear Claw’ Aztek concept was based on an S-series full-frame platform with four-wheel drive, an off-road wheel/tire package and an aggressively styled body featuring big flared wheel arches, a low roof and a wide track.”
Shamelessly aimed at the nebulous idea of a Californian Generation X customer who wore neon and Lycra, when the concept Aztek was shown in 1999 it was not entirely without charm and quite well received. What GM didn’t mention was that it had already been greenlit for production, but with a significant compromise that doomed it before a tooling head hit the first clay.
An Expensive Car On A Cheap Platform
To save money and increase profit margin, GM management decided the production Aztek would be based on the U platform that underpinned their minivans. This forced the base of the windshield up, the track to be narrowed, ruining the combination of visual cues that were meant to be its USP (unique selling point). Worse still, when it was launched in early 2000, the Versa Trak AWD system wasn’t ready, so despite appearances, the Aztek was going nowhere off-road. And it was expensive; if you wanted all the attachments, you were paying for them – an optioned-up Aztek GT was getting on for $30k (about $50k today).
The problem with how the Aztek looks on a most basic level is the proportions are wrong, and the detailing is poor. The Aztek is stretched in the Z axis (up and down), because using a minivan platform compromised the height of the cowl, one of the hardpoints that could not have been altered.
Because headlights are too low it looks a bit like an anteater. Lowering the rear of the hood where it meets the windshield so it doesn’t dive so aggressively and moving the lights up in Z would help avoid this sloping face look but would mean exposing the wipers which is probably what the designers were trying to avoid. I think this would have been a compromise worth making.
From the side you can see the lower line of the Daylight Opening (DLO — the side windows) is below the level of the cowl (the base of the windshield) – this is to help reduce the height of the bodyside, but the glaring issue is the bottom of the third side window is lower still – it doesn’t line up with the rest of the glazing. It looks like a third side window from a totally different car. It’s amateurish and the side view makes the rear look tail heavy.
The way to avoid this ‘full diaper syndrome’ at the back is to kick up the lower bodywork aggressively – which helps increase your departure angle as well. The Aztek has entirely too much bulk down low – everything below the lower split line in the cladding needs to go. At the back, there’s a weird shelf cut-out in the lower bumper which looks like it’s there to support the bottom half of the tailgate in the dropped position.
I get why this was done – to keep the loading lip low and give you somewhere to sit with the tailgate open, something that featured heavily in the marketing. But it looks horrible and juts out like an underbite. Bin the whole thing and find a more elegant solution – stronger straps so the tailgate doesn’t need support from underneath. The main source of pain in the rear three-quarter view is the Quasimodo not-quite-a-hatch-not-quite-a-wagon profile. Aligning the bottom of the taillights with the bodyside feature line would help visually lighten the back of the car, and as a happy side effect, it pulls up the split line in the tailgate, making that look better balanced.
One of the first things Pontiac changed when they emergency facelifted the car shortly after going on sale was to paint the lower cladding body color. This was exactly the wrong thing to do. The Aztek is bottom heavy – you want to hide the lower half of the car, not tie it in visually to the rest of the bodywork. The issue isn’t with the cladding – it’s doing a lot of work visually reducing the height. It’s the typical GM penny-pinching way they did it. At the leading edges of the doors you can see there are cutouts in the grey plastic to allow the doors to open. But you can see body-colored metal behind them, which looks cheap and unfinished. A few cents of grey paint here would have solved this issue.
There’s a lot of wheel arch gap around the tires, so there is some room to put bigger wheels on the wretched thing. Would it really have killed them? Stance, or how a car sits on its wheels is vital in creating a good first impression. The Aztek is like an extremely tall person with small feet – unbalanced, top heavy and ready to topple over. Keeping the wheels in proportion to rest of the body is key to not looking underwhelmed – the Hyundai Ioniq 5 gives the impression in images of being a compact family hatch but in reality is over 4.6 meters (182”) long – because the wheels are scaled up appropriately.
The GM Vice President Of Design Doesn’t Get A Photo
The question you might rightly be asking is: If I can see what’s wrong with the Aztek, how come no one else could? GM knew the Aztek was a stinker, but they didn’t want to listen. Despite being beholden to customer clinics and marketing research in the past, GM was so desperate to show they were an innovative company they were suddenly gripped by reactive schizophrenia. Even worse, GM simply ignored negative reactions and customer research:
Again, from the Lutz piece above:
The guy in charge of product development was Don Hackworth, an old-school guy from the tradition of shouts, browbeating, and by-God-I-want-it-done. He said, “Look. We’ve all made up our minds that the Aztek is gonna be a winner. It’s gonna astound the world. I don’t want any negative comments about this vehicle. None. Anybody who has bad opinions about it, I want them off the team.” As if the public is gonna give a sh** about team spirit.
Because the Aztek had hit every internal measurable internal metric, they convinced themselves it would be a winner, and were not willing to hear any dissent from inside the company that told them otherwise.
In the past, previous GM Vice Presidents of Design like Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell held a lot of power to influence product decisions. GM management absolutely hated this, and after Mitchell retired the board made sure to keep the Tech Center on a much tighter leash.
The current VP of GM Design Michael Simcoe doesn’t even get a headshot on the company leadership page. The tragedy of the Aztek is that somewhere in there was a half-decent car trying to get out – but it was buried under a series of poor management decisions. Instead, it became a poster child for the failings of old GM, a market failure which with a bit more thought and careful development could have been a market pioneer. Good, or indeed bad design never springs from the sketchpad fully formed. It’s always influenced by factors outside the studio – the trick is knowing what to take into consideration and what to ignore.