In the interest of diplomacy, it's best to call the 2001 Pontiac Aztek's exterior styling 'polarizing' and leave it at that. But the vehicle is a cautionary tale for designers across the industry.
It epitomizes some of the frustrations in store for them as they are asked to conjure up more vehicle models from a common platform - even from platforms that don't lend themselves to flexibility.
Such was the mission charged to the Aztek's designers, who completed most of their work before the styling of the sister Buick Rendezvous started. From the B-pillar forward, the Aztek's structure is nearly identical to the Chevrolet Venture/Pontiac Montana/Oldsmobile Silhouette minivans.
Morphing a niche vehicle from these vans under the close scrutiny of General Motors' top management was no dream assignment, says one Aztek team member who, like every other red-blooded designer, would rather have spent the time putting sheet metal over a roadster chassis like the BMW Z8's.
For starters, there was the minivan's wedge-shaped nose.
It needed some vertical bulk to give the Aztek the commanding presence of a sport-utility, says the GM source (who understandably wants to remain anonymous). No problem, except that the minivan's radiator mounts low such as that on a passenger car. Raising it would have given the Aztek a shapelier snout, but at the cost of a major front-end redesign. The solution was a compromise: The Aztek gets its prominent grille and high hood line but with a baggy chin to house the radiator.
The use of common parts is a religion at today's GM, right down to the door hinges. The minivan's clunky hinges and its pole-straight pillar mounts gave the Aztek's designers fits.
The fat hinges allow neither outward curving (called 'shoulder') nor inward curving ('scallop') in the bodywork - the sexy contours that designers call 'surface development.' The Aztek team was forced to take desperate steps to break up the vehicle's slablike flanks, the obvious one being Pontiac's trademark corrugations.
Even those were a compromise, however. The original yellow Aztek show car's corrugations were elegantly rendered in the sheet metal, but executing them on a stamping press would have been a nightmare. Brand managers wanted to retain this key Pontiac feature, so designers went with much simpler (and significantly less elegant) plastic cladding.
One step that deserves applause is an angular horizontal trough in the sheet metal that runs from the front fender across two doors to the rear quarter panel. Few Aztek buyers will ever know how much sweat went into this small detail.
At its deepest point, the trough clears the door hinges by only a few millimeters, a daunting tolerance for a high-volume body shop. Also, the way the line fades in at the front fender and fades out in the rear quarter panel is challenging to execute neatly with a stamping press. Assuming the stamping is right, GM still must align all four panels perfectly during body assembly or the disjointed trough will scream 'poor quality' loudly enough to be heard from across a dealer showroom.
Other designers may sit back and smirk at the Aztek, but they will have their own challenges soon enough.