Automotive history is littered with titanic failures. For every hot-selling Mustang, there’s a hatful (hateful?) of Vegas, Pintos, Excels, Yugos, Edsels and, of course, Azteks. From its introduction until its timely demise some four years later, the Pontiac Aztek SUV was the subject of journalistic dog-piling and a thousand weak jokes. But really, does it belong in this infamous company? The answer is a bit complicated; the Aztek was certainly a failure, but not exactly in the way you might expect.
First, let’s look at the Aztek’s indisputable failure: sales. Pontiac aimed to sell 75k Azteks a year. In its first model year (2001), GM shipped less than 10k Azteks to private buyers, dumped quite a few thousand on unfortunate middle-managers and sent the rest to the rental fleets. After an emergency re-style, a price-cut and deep discounts, sales climbed to around 25 – 27k units per year, and stayed there until the car’s demise.
The Aztek may have been a car lot pariah, but it was no Chevy Vega. There were no major recalls or horror stories involving melting engines. The model was as reliable as any GM vehicle of its time, cutting edge in many ways (CAD-CAM designed, red light dash, optional heads-up display), outdoorsy (could be converted into a camper, complete with built-in air compressor for your air mattress), lifestyle-oriented (racks for bikes, canoes, kayaks, etc.) and beloved (high scores on “CSI" owner surveys). Despite abuse from all quarters, the Aztek earned itself a group of passionate devotees.
Even so, it bombed. So who exactly gets the blame for this so-called fiasco? Again, there's no denying that the engineers didn’t make it pretty, but they made it well. The UAW also gets a pass; GM built the Aztek (and Buick Rendezvous) in Mexico’s Ramos Arizpe plant. No, the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of GM's bean counters. That’s because the Aztek’s biggest problem wasn’t its confused looks (though they didn’t help). It was price.
The Aztek was designed for younger couples and families who didn’t want a great honking SUV. Pontiac priced the Aztek in the region of $25k to $30k. Unfortunately, the price was well into premium minivan and three-row SUV territory. The Aztek offered Versatrak all-wheel drive and a lot (a LOT) of cladding, but it fooled no one. The vehicle its makers labeled “quite possibly the most versatile vehicle on the planet” was priced at least $5k above its logical, non-SUV competition.
Given that most of the Aztek’s technology was off-the-shelf, and south-of-the-UAW labor costs were low, why was the initial asking price so high? When the Aztek was designed, Pontiac had no high profit SUV’s. When their line finally got an SUV (ok, a proto-crossover), Pontiac’s brass were hungry for big profit margins, despite the fact that the Aztek was a more-expensive unitary design. So GM cut production costs as deeply as possible and then set the retail price to deliver big profits while still undercutting Chevy’s mid-sized SUVs (Trailblazer). Great in theory, poison in practice.
Even so, why did GM/Pontiac think they could sell 75k Azteks? Of course, missing a sales target is hardly a novelty in the car industry, especially at General Motors. Even though the domestic automaker pays thousands of researchers huge amounts of money to find out how many people want (or think they want) what, no one has quite cracked that particular nut. The market research leading to the Aztek is locked away, deep inside GM's vaults. Did they ask the wrong questions, or simply draw the wrong conclusions?
GM certainly was on to something with the Aztek's manufacturing system. Like Honda's Odyssey/Ridgeline twins, the Mexican plant could switch between Azteks and Rendezvous. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough demand for either vehicle to make the so-called "flexible" system work. In fact, GM has had some terrible luck with plants capable of making limited production runs, such as the now-closed Lansing facility (Reatta, EV1, SSR). As a result, the majority of GM's business is still built on big runs, with the “extra” (i.e. surplus to retail demand) units going to fleets. The company is still not set up to profit on small volumes for niche markets. Which is exactly what today's fragmenting market demands.
Now that it’s gone, many want to write off the Aztek as one of the great all-time automotive disasters. On the face of it (should you be able to look), it was. But in many important ways, it wasn’t. Again, the model broke new ground in many areas. The epitaph should not be “GM’s Edsel”. Or maybe it should. Edsel Ford was hounded by his famous father and ruined by the stress of holding a disintegrating company together. The Aztek died because it was forced to carry the hopes and dreams of an entire division, when it was just a decent, homely little people-carrier.