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Montezuma’s Aztek Revenge

’Tis the season for new car models. Fall is when the automakers start rolling out their offerings for the next year. All-new models arrive, redesigns hit the dealerships, and updates to existing cars appear. But obviously, there’s a wrinkle this time round: Both General Motors and Chrysler are fresh off bankruptcy. And you’d be right to assume there’s extra pressure on their new wheels.

2002 Pontiac Aztek
AP
2002 Pontiac Aztek

Chrysler, unfortunately, doesn’t have much new stuff to sell. But GM has a new SUV, the GMC Terrain, that is already a sales leader and recalls a vehicle that still horrifies carmakers and critics alike. That car is the despised Pontiac Aztek, an almost universally loathed vehicle that established the paradigm for the Terrain: the crossover SUV, a half-car, half-truck concoction that is one of the fastest-growing vehicle categories. GM needs to remember the Aztek, because it represents the kind of risk-taking design that the post-bankruptcy firm will need to go forward. The temptation for the New General will be to copy successful market formulas, rather than try to define new market segments.

The Aztek, introduced in 2001, was an attempt to do something entirely different. It was aimed at then-twenty- and thirtysomethings who liked to hike, camp, mountain bike, and generally participate in the whole suite of Outside magazine diversions, but who might also want a young-family hauler with a bit more flash than your typical truck or SUV. So the Aztek came furnished with a host of outdoorsy options, an interior that could be configured according to the recreational preferences of customers, and an all-wheel-drive system for the snow and the mud and the slush and the rain. The design was boldly idiosyncratic, but GM figured it would attract buyers. It wound up scaring them, but at least it took no prisoners.

It’s easy to berate GM for always failing to see where the market is going. But in this instance it was the first to recognize the need for a new kind of vehicle to fill the crossover segment, which would grow rapidly in subsequent years. A crossover is basically a 21st-century station wagon. SUVs are usually built on the same platform used for trucks—and they often feel that way when you drive them. They also inhale gas. Crossovers, by contrast, are built on platforms used for cars, so they have better road manners, and they’re more fuel-efficient. There were some crossover-ish vehicles before the Aztek, such as the Subaru Forester, but these were seen as neo-wagons, or small/compact SUVs. With the Aztek, GM created something that had SUV size, minus the SUV stigma.

An innovative GM? Well, yes. GM can sometimes be, for all its detractors, troublingly ahead of the curve. And the Aztek was first in this mold. It was good at what it set out to do, despite the zany styling. And it showed that the four-door sedan, the hatchback, and the midsize SUV could be meshed. The Pontiac packaging was profoundly flawed, but the concept and engineering execution were solid. GM later rebadged it as the Buick Rendezvous and salvaged some sales before the product cycle petered out (the Rendezvous was much better received by families who wanted a more polished, less aggressively styled car).

In terms of innovation, the Aztek shares DNA with some surprising relatives, like Apple’s early, failed PDA, Newton, or its first stab at a portable, proto-laptop Mac. Apple didn’t succeed with these products, but the company began to define new markets with them. Obviously, laptops and notebooks would eventually become huge part of Apple’s business, and while Palm came to dominate the PDA market, Apple’s experience with Newton set the stage for its move into smaller personal devices, such as the iPod and iPhone. GM could banish all recollection of the Aztek, but the vehicle’s controversial design could be just the ticket as GM seeks to define how hybrid gas-electric-crossover technology derived from the Chevy Volt will appear.

Still, for anyone born in the 1980s or 1990s, the Aztek is increasingly the new Edsel, Ford's infamous automotive failure from the late 1950s. This would incline a swath of GM designers and engineers not to dare utter its sullied name. They don’t like the rather strange front fascia, nor do they care for the elevated rear end. They don’t like the lower-body cladding. But all these aesthetic objections are misplaced. The Aztek didn’t work, but it demonstrated that GM had the capacity to invent a product that people didn’t know they wanted. The General can still do this—the forthcoming Chevy Volt-extended-range electric car could be a game-changer for the company. But it needs to keep doing it.

And even though it might fail miserably … well, that’s the auto industry. Success is never guaranteed. But blandly hewing to what has worked, falling victim to fear rather than having the confidence to completely miss the mark from time to time, will not bring GM back to its glory days. Or even, someday, enable the company to return to profitability and pay back the taxpayer. So remember the Aztek. It may not have been great. But it gave birth to a new idea in the auto business, and that’s gold.