When Pontiac’s infamously retina-searing Aztek pops up in popular auto industry analysis, it’s usually as little more than a throwaway punchline. So credit Thebigmoney.com‘s Matthew DeBord for trying to leave the Thesaurus entry for “ugly” out of a recent piece dedicated entirely to one of the great modern styling miscalculations. Unfortunately, his admirable restraint serves only to further a wholly unsupportable thesis:
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.
DeBord’s fundamental error is his misguided belief that the Aztek was a pioneer in the burgeoning crossover segment:
The Aztek, introduced in 2001, was an attempt to do something entirely different… 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.
Er, no. The Lexus RX is, without question the pioneering model of the modern CUV segment (although proto-crossover precedent has existed for decades), having debuted in 1998. Had DeBord taken a minute to check Wikipedia’s “Crossover SUV” article, he might have saved his readers and ours from having to gaze once again upon the Aztek’s grim countenance. Instead, his entire thesis falls apart.
The Aztek’s emergence no fewer than three years (or one development cycle) after the RX in 2001, more than indicates that GM essentially copied the RX in concept. In fact, the Aztek’s only “innovation” was an overemphasis on “lifestyle” branding that was an unfortunate hallmark of the Ron Zarrella-era General Motors. And which saddled the Aztek with epically unlovable styling and doomed it to its current status as a rolling mark of shame. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that GM should copy innovative designs early, and steadily improve them instead of over-marketing them into niche irrelevance or worse.
Unfortunately, DeBord’s lessons from the Aztek experiment couldn’t be more different. And the implications for GM’s future are troubling.
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.
Or, remember the Aztek as a colossal missed experience, rife with the usual lessons of old GM… and a monstrous warning for Volt optimists.