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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.
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.