The genesis of a cult culture icon, the 1999 Pontiac Aztek concept

When it comes to being a true full circle vehicle offering, the Pontiac Aztek would certainly rise through the ranks to be a potent candidate. The Aztek was one of the first CUVs of the period, and was supposed to be Pontiac’s ultimate adventure vehicle. The Aztek shared its platform with the Montana minivan, and it offered all kinds of interesting features. This included a removable center console that could double as a portable cooler, and the ability to turn the entire rear of the Aztek into a tent via an optional accessory. But while the ability to go tenting with your Aztek was certainly a unique quirk that appealed to some buyers, it failed to jump start sales, with the Aztek being a blockbuster bust for GM, before the plug was pulled. However, with Saul of Breaking Bad making the Aztek cool again, we wanted to take a special look at the original Aztek concept, and see if GM learned any lessons from the debut of this particular show car.


An injection of freshness for a inflexible company

Before the Aztek cemented its infamous place in automotive history, the idea was ironically viewed as a game changer for GM. In the 1990s, the company was in a stagnant phase in its history. Former GM CEO Roger Smith tried to make GM a more dynamic company during his tenure, introducing more automation, the Saturn division, and joint ventures with foreign firms in a bid to make GM more adaptable to outside changes. However, Smith failed to penetrate the hardened old guard in GM’s board of directors during the 1980s, and he was forced to retire in 1990.

His retirement left GM with a big problem. The former CEO’s ambitious schemes costed the company massive amounts of money, and as a result, left the company inflexible, and reluctant to embrace new trends. In those days, cookie cutter offerings and putting quantity and profits over quality, and what buyers actually wanted in a car ruled the day. Case in point was the 1997 Chevrolet Malibu, which touted unusual features such as a left handed cupholder, and a early marketing campaign centered around toughness versus being a serious rival to the Toyota Camry.

This stagnation also extended to other GM brands, and Pontiac was no exception. Once known for being known as the brand that defined excitement, the brand was anything but that during this period. While the Firebird continued to be the lone and vibrant exception to the norm (minus its declining sales) the rest of the lineup suffered from the same basic automotive sins (just with more body cladding tacked on.) But there were a few daring souls in the company’s Advanced Concept Center in Thousand Oaks, California that were willing to try and think outside the box.

Tom Peters (the director of ACC during this period) challenged his underlings, asking them “what would happen if you took a Camaro and a Blazer and ran them through a blender?” An early result was a concept for Chevrolet called the Bear Claw which was supposed to be targeted towards younger buyers. With the initial praise from GM brass, ACC pushed forward, and worked on making the Bear Claw work for Pontiac.


Early signs of trouble for Aztek

As mentioned, GM at this period of time was a company wrought with inflexibility, and that would make an impact during the Aztek concept’s creation. For example, the original Bear Claw was based on the Chevy S-10’s platform, but GM bean counters forced the Aztek team to instead base the CUV on GM’s minivan platform (aka the U body.) This caused designers to make a number of drastic changes to make the concept fit the new underpinnings. This included narrowing some parts of it, as well as altering the styling to suit the new dimensions, including raising the hood and front fascia.

GM internal focus groups also indicated that the concept in its current form was not being well received, but GM bureaucrats chose to move things along anyway, claiming that they wanted to make a splash no matter what the concept looked like. When the concept eventually made its appearance in 1999, it still managed to capture the world’s attention, with head designer Tom Peters being tasked with pitching the concept to the assembled press. Despite the buzz words and some of the ingenious engineering that went into the concept, some press reps from the period were baffled at what they saw, and wondered what GM was thinking here.

The company was undeterred, and pressed on with the Aztek anyway, debuting the production version a year later. Sales for the Aztek never met GM targets, and several hasty updates did little to stem the decline, and the Aztek was axed in 2005. However, the Aztek would eventually circle its way back into the public eye via the Breaking Bad TV show, with the main character Saul cruising around town in one. These days, a small cult following exists for the Aztek, and there are actually small groups of owners that gather to show their Azteks off.


What lessons were learned from Aztek?

While the Aztek was treated as an unwelcome oddity by consumers, GM did learn several lessons from the program. The first was to have a backup plan, with the Aztek’s sales woes ironically helping give birth to its sibling the Buick Rendezvous. Introduced in 2003, the Rendezvous was a very successful model for Buick. Unlike the Aztek which doubled down on being quirky and completely failed, the Buick had more conventional styling, and featured a cabin that pitched gimmicks for more traditional luxury elements. The sales success enjoyed by the Buick actually helped save the broader program for it and the Aztek from being a complete financial bust, and it managed to stay in existence a bit longer, with the last model rolling off the assembly line in 2007.

A more important lesson though was to invest more time and commitment in the vehicle development process. This would be proven with the Aztek’s successor, the Torrent. While the Torrent was far from perfect, it was a much improved offering, with the platform being designed from the very beginning to be a contender in the CUV ranks. The Torrent’s interior also focused less on gimmicks, and more about the core essentials that buyers wanted in a utility model.


Lastly, it would seem that GM learned to listen to customer input better, with the company recently releasing several concepts that not only serve as rolling show pieces, but also serve as better representations of not only what a production offering could like, but also as a preview of some of the customer focused features that will be a part of the ownership experience. As for Tom Peters, he eventually had a chance to go full circle too, and was responsible for the design of the C7 Corvette .