2001 Pontiac Aztek
2001 Pontiac Aztek. Click image to enlarge

By Jeremy Cato

It had been three years since I first drove the Pontiac Aztek, so when the chance came to take the wheel I jumped.

And you know, the oft-maligned Aztek is not a bad new vehicle at all. It’s spacious inside, quite versatile, delivers a reasonably comfortable ride, offers good towing capacity for its class and the 3.4-litre V6 engine (185 horsepower) mated to a four-speed automatic transmission delivers peppy performance.

Moreover, the Aztek is just plain practical all around. For the 2004 model year, GM plans to make a bigger wheels and tires available, which not only improve the road manners, but also improve the looks.

Ah, the looks. General Motors Corp. has taken some serious heat over the Aztek’s original boxy, busy, angular and two-tone styling. More on that and what GM has done about it in a moment.

But I must point out that a slightly used Aztek is a very, very good value. For starters, the quality is more than decent (see Buyer’s Alerts), as indicated by just two recalls and mostly minor issues of a technical service nature.

Then there is the Aztek’s interior flexibility. This is a very useful design. So useful, in fact, some elements now appear in Honda Motor Co.’s Element (pun intended) crossover vehicle – which was a nominee for 2003 North American Truck of the Year.

Truth is, the Aztek scores very high on consumer surveys for interior comfort and convenience, ride and handling and engine and transmission, says Brian Walters, director of product research for J.D. Power and Associates.

Walters says the Aztek’s interior scores high thanks to features like its removable centre console and drink cooler, the large cargo space and a good sound system. Still, even owners who rate it high were initially taken aback by the styling, Walters adds. “They rate it unique, but not attractive,” he says.

Most of all, though, a used Aztek is very affordable (see pricing).

Now we all now the Aztek was a radical departure for GM. Too radical, as it turned out. So GM quickly sent the Aztek in for a facelift for the 2002 model year. If you want the cultish looks of the original Aztek, look for a 2001 version. From 2002 onwards, GM toned down the Aztek by painting the black plastic in the same colour as the body and throwing on larger wheels and tires.

I can’t kid you here, though. You either love the Aztek’s looks, or hate them. There’s no in between. If you’re a lover, take heart. The Aztek has attracted a small but loyal following; you are not alone. Surf the World Wide Web and you’ll find a number of established enthusiast sites, all filled. There is a growing body of passionate and happy Aztek owners out there.

“Aztek owners like to drive something unique,” says Walters.

And they like to talk about it on online message boards where they plan reunions, swap cleaning tips and passionately defend their vehicles. Owners also like to name their vehicle and in online chatter they frequently refer to their rides as ‘Teks.

They also defend the Aztek fiercely. And they marvel that while the Aztek has been mocked, the Element and the U.S.-only Toyota Scion xB have followed in the Aztek’s boxy and practical tracks.

Wherever you stand, what Pontiac officials call “the world’s first sport recreation vehicle” or SRV has many sensible features – too many to list here. Among my favourites, though, are the removable back seats and a rear sliding cargo tray with three-compartments. The middle compartment is sealed for soaked and yucky stuff like wet suits and muddy hiking clothes. The tray eases loading over the fold-down rear tailgate – and it’s capable of bearing 181.4 kg or 400 pounds.

When sales began in the summer of 2000, Pontiac had only a front-wheel-drive version equipped with traction. An all-wheel-drive (AWD) model arrived shortly afterwards. The fully automatic Versatrak setup feeds power to the rear wheels when there’s slippage up front. There are no switches, no shifters, not even a transfer case. But it works very well and it’s packaged compactly in a rear cradle so that the Aztek has a flat rear load floor.

According to industry sources, Pontiac plans to phase out production of the Aztek in December 2004. That will be then. For now the Aztek represents a reasonable new buy and a very good used one.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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