In the summer of 2000, I attended a global conference in Italy put on by General Motors and its just named CEO Rick Wagoner. One of the topics of conversation was the accelerating market for crossover SUVs, sport utility vehicles built on car platforms that ride softer and are lower to the ground than conventional truck based SUVs like the Chevy Trailblazer and Ford Explorer. As I sat with Ron Zarella, then GM's head of North American operations, talking about the Pontiac Aztek taking advantage of the crossover trend, he said..."Well, not so much the Aztek. We have other vehicles coming."
Huh? I thought. You are late to the party with crossovers, spend hundreds of millions of dollars developing a vehicle and you are already apologizing for it before it hits showrooms?
The Aztek has been the poster-car for GM's canny ability over the last decade to survey the marketplace, poll consumers, anticipate style trends and come up with something so wrong-headed as to make Sony's commitment to Beta look like marketing genius.
My sister-in-law once called me on the phone, having just picked up an Aztek from Avis, asking, "What the hell am I driving here? It looks like a giant grasshopper wrapped up in caution tape (it was a bad shade of yellow.) GM product boss Bob Lutz has quipped, "We'd fire the guy who greenlighted the Aztek if we could find anyone willing to admit it."
For five years, I have listened to kind-hearted GM folks make excuses for and defend the Aztek. My favorite defense is that it has the highest loyalty rate of any Pontiac. I think that was based on surveys about how favorably owners felt toward the car after getting it home, not intent to repurchase. Of course, if you adopt the runt in a litter of puppies, the one with three legs and one eye, you are going to tell people you took the one with the biggest heart and you wouldn't want any other. In truth, the Aztek has been a great value for buyers. It's been so unpopular from a design standpoint that GM and dealers have had to discount the heck out of it. I even know an auto industry journalist or two who couldn't resist the bargain for a vehicle with all-wheel-drive and space for a family with lots of luggage.
So, it's fitting that Pontiac dealers are almost out of Azteks---the last few collecting dust as GM employee pricing program for consumers clear lots of excess and unsold cars--just as the Pontiac gets ready for its newest design gambit. That's the hot and spiffy Pontiac Solstice, Lutz's affordable sleek two-seater convertible that marks the debut of the Lutz era--the first car in the showrooms designed and built from clean sheet of paper to showroom since the gray-haired septuagenarian came to GM in 2001. No one is apologizing for the Solstice, which makes for a good start to a new era.