Ride around in the new Aztek by Pontiac and you'll draw attention. With its wide stance and tall profile, bulldog's face and wild styling, you can't help but notice it.
It is definitely different in appearance, but so too is its composition and purpose. Pontiac calls it the world's first SRV, or sport-recreation vehicle, a multi-purpose machine designed to support active lifestyles with plenty of space for hauling bicycles, kayaks, snowboards, skis and other recreational gear. Designers drew inspiration from a variety of sources, ranging from the multi-function Swiss Army Knife to the tone and feel of high-tech sports equipment like mountain bikes and scuba gear. The result is an interior that flips and folds and contorts as a highly individualized package with comfortable space for five passengers and lots of personal stuff for sport and play.
Core mechanical components come from Pontiac's front-wheel-drive Montana, so Aztek drives and rides with the easy-to-maneuver agility of a minivan, yet the tall stance and load-carrying capacity makes it act like a sport-utility wagon.
And that wild exterior package: Some say it's ugly. Pontiac calls it an aggressive statement pitched to a youthful, active audience.
A quick glance at the Aztek tells you this is not just another boxy sport-utility wagon. It looks like no other vehicle with rakish but angular contours, unusual shapes for side and back windows and a wedge-like profile underscored by a massive ring of bumpers, bodyside moldings and fender flares.
Aztek is a bold and stylized treatment that you're either going to love or not. The aggressive design makes a polarizing statement that leaves no room for in-between opinions.
Despite origins from a platform that supports several General Motors minivans, there's no hint of minivan styling in the Aztek. And with its arching profile that rounds off the roofline at the rear, it doesn't look like a sport-utility box either. It's more like a racy four-door hatchback that's jacked up in back and mounted on a slab of bumpers and side cladding cast in a contrasted dark color.
In front, the wide track and stubby prow with tall bumper treatment sets up the chin-forward face of a snarling bulldog. Trapezoidal cat-eye headlamp clusters flank a twin-port grille over-scored by ram-air slots in the hood, with amber turn lights mounted above corner headlamps and round foglamps set below.
The front face tips decidedly rearward and the hood slopes up to the raked windshield as A pillars form rails that flow over B- and C pillars to meet the opposed D pillars sloping down to a squared tail. Creased shoulder planes run the length of both sides above flat doors and the low row of molded side cladding that bulges with rippled streaks implying motion.
In the rear, the flat tail shows the tall bumper below a narrow painted lip of a flip-down tailgate panel and the flip-up liftgate superstructure. It consists of a horizontal pane stacked vertically, followed by a canted pane tipping forward to match the slope of the windshield in reverse.
Understanding the interior is the key to appreciating the Aztek. With front bucket seats divided by a floor console, second-row bench split in half and a cargo compartment in the rear, the layout may be the only conventional aspect of the Aztek's interior plan. All of the interior elements themselves relate to functional use for recreation and the storage of lifestyle and sports equipment.
Bold graphic designs spread across the cloth seat fabrics and door panels. Soft-to-touch molded composite polymers are used to line dashboard, doors and rear panels. Grab handles appear everywhere, on doors, dash and pillars. Four power outlets are provided, at the instrument panel (one), rear of the floor console (two), and rear quarter panel (one).
In the cockpit, dashboard bumps house a recessed instrument cluster containing large analog gauges as well as four round air vents that have center joystick-style shutoff controls. Below the pair of center vents is a stack of audio and climate controls that features large easy-to-grip rotary dials.
Front bucket seats feel firm and have side bolsters with reclining backs and rear storage pockets. The standard second-row bench may be removed and the seatback, divided into two equal segments, folds down flat to expand cargo space in back. Two removable captain's chairs may be substituted for the rear bench with GT trim.
Storage compartments dot the cabin, from a front glove box and side door pockets to concealed spaces in rear quarter panels and back sill plate plus center front consoles for the floor and ceiling. The GT package adds a thermal container that locks into position in the front floor console and functions as a console storage bin when in the vehicle or a twin six-pack cooler when removed. Also, flexible zippered bags stuff into front door pockets to house cameras, phones, CD players and other portable gear. Optional storage systems are available for specific sports equipment, such as an interior bike rack for the cargo bay, a cargo net system with 22 different configurations, and a slide-out rear cargo tray that supports 400 pounds worth of gear. There's even a specially designed tent that fits over the rear with tailgate and liftgate open, and a broad air mattress to fill the floor of the cargo bay.
We drove a front-wheel-drive Aztek GT around Lake Tahoe, around California's snow-covered Sierras, and across the high deserts of Nevada to test its spirit, sample the ride quality and experience the built-in comforts. What we found was a sturdy machine that charged up mountain grades and handled twisty curve sets with sure-footed confidence while also maneuvering easily through traffic on urban streets in Carson City and zipping along in a stable state on freeways through Reno.
Power flows readily from the 3.4-liter V6 engine, as translated through the automatic transaxle. It musters up to 185 horsepower and, despite its hefty weight of almost two tons, propels the Aztek to speed quickly, thanks to strong low-end torque. In thin air at higher elevations in the Sierras the transmission tended to jump between top gears as it struggled to find the ideal equation for mastering steep grades, but that should not be expected at more modest altitudes.
Our Aztek GT also packed an all-speed traction control system, which checks slippage from the front wheels during aggressive acceleration or on slippery pavement through computer-controlled interaction between brakes and powertrain. It's a handy safety tool for moving with confidence over wet or snow-coated roads, and it appears as part of the standard equipment with the GT package but is available on the base Aztek.
Both Aztek editions contain a number of active and passive safety systems that extend to frontal and side-impact airbags and brakes with four-wheel anti-lock controls. Standard issue brakes combine front discs with rear drums, but discs for all four wheels are offered as an option.
The vehicle's long wheelbase and wide wheel track create a broad stance that keeps it rooted to the road. With all engine torque directed to the front wheels it feels more like a conventional easy-to-drive sedan or minivan than a truck-based sport-utility wagon. Smooth but firm suspension settings add to the car-like ride quality, with independent struts up front and a rear twist beam axle.
When the optional all-wheel-drive version emerges late in the model-year, expect it to vary suspension elements with an independent short-and-long arm arrangement in the rear. The new all-wheel-drive system, dubbed Versatrak at GM, eliminates the usual center differential in favor of a compact clutch pack for each rear wheel. The intelligent system detects tire rotational differences between front and rear wheels during low-traction conditions, then directs power to either or both rear wheels momentarily before actual slippage occurs at the front wheels, all to maintain steady forward movement.
The Aztek combines the best features of a minivan, sedan and sport-utility. It boasts wild styling that gets attention, a comfortable passenger compartment, cargo space designed to accommodate sports equipment, and all kinds of gadgets aimed at making life more convenient. Prices pitch it in the affordable column.
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