A prime candidate for the official vehicle of Weight Watchers. BY LARRY WEBSTER October 2000 Face it, America, you're not getting any thinner. Nearly one of four persons in this country is obese, according to the National Institutes of Health. Not just fat, obese. Or maybe we're on the verge of a societal shift in thinking. Maybe we're headed back to the thinking of the Renaissance, when pale, size-20 women were sex symbols and a tanned, muscled figure meant you were a peasant forced to work in the fields. Don't get your hopes up, fatty. As we get porkier, we're also spending a ton of dough to get the fat off. Americans spend more than $33 billion annually on this battle of the bulge, and that's more than the gross domestic product of Ethiopia, a place we all know has yet to experience any problems of paunch. News flash: We're gluttons. Maybe all this weight-loss spending is one reason we're seeing so many vehicles specifically designed for "active lifestyles." We wonder: Are these vehicles meant to appeal to the already active and fit, or are they the dangling carrots for those who would like to turn over the active leaf? Is there such a thing as a vehicle that can be thought of as a kind of four-wheeled Thighmaster, a vehicle that can put its owner on the road to fitness? If this line of reasoning is correct -- although no automaker is admitting to it -- then Pontiac's Aztek could well become the darling of the Susan Powter crowd. It's perfectly sized and configured to carry all your fitness toys -- Rollerblades, bikes, skateboards, dueling swords, ninja sticks. The Aztek sprang from a concept car first seen at the Detroit auto show in 1999. The idea was simple and sound: a cross between an SUV and a minivan that had room enough to carry all your stuff, four-wheel drive for the rough spots, and styling that made sure it did not look like a minivan. There is irony in the Aztek's rather cartoonish, space-cadet styling. Most often, on the road to production, an automaker's show-car styling, to everyone's disappointment, gets left on the cutting-room floor. This time, to our chagrin, the production car is nearly a carbon copy of the show car. A telling comment came from a 40ish woman at a gas station who remarked, "You're getting paid to drive that thing, right?" Perhaps this is a good point at which to repeat our Mr. Swan's observation on its styling in his July preview of the Aztek: "Let's all . . . agree on 'unique' and move on." The real question is, does it work? Built on the shorter Pontiac Montana platform with a 3.7-inch shortened wheelbase, the Aztek is like a minivan in that it is especially roomy. With the rear seats removed, a sheet of plywood (48 by 96 inches) will lie flat on the floor with the tailgate down. Bicycles can stand upright in the back -- something that most SUVs can't handle. There's also 94 cubic feet of cargo room, which is 14 more than in a five-door Ford Explorer and 26 cubic feet less than in the Montana. For sure, the minivan can haul more, but unless you need to carry a small army, that extra space is often unused. With 182.1 inches of length, the Aztek is 5.2 inches shorter than the short-wheelbase Montana and 8.6 inches shorter than the Explorer, so you don't feel as if you're piloting a large vehicle, and that makes running errands and parking easier. Unfortunately, the Aztek still drives like what it is -- a mini-minivan. The driving experience is -- as Homer Simpson would say -- borrr-ring. Handling is safe first, fun last, with determined understeer being the only way this beast knows how to get through a corner. Skidpad grip is a minivanlike 0.69 g. Whereas the Aztek is perfectly suitable for running errands, we expected more driving zing, especially in a package with such a flamboyant wrapper. We missed the SUV aspect as well -- the optional four-wheel-drive system doesn't turn up until January 2001. We were impressed by the Aztek's tight, rattle-free structure and quiet interior. At idle, we measured only 40 dBA -- 5 dBA less than in a Lexus RX300. Cruising at 70 mph with the optional roof-mounted bike rack generating plenty of wind noise still only ramped our sound-level meter to 70 dBA. The RX300, which does not have a noise-creating bike rack, registered 67 dBA during the same test. And at wide-open throttle, the more expensive Lexus and the Pontiac are very close: 72 for the RX300, 74 for the Aztek. The Aztek didn't fare so well in acceleration tests. It needed 10.8 seconds to 60 mph from rest. Gasping to 100 mph takes 51.8 seconds. The 3.4-liter, 185-hp V-6 is clearly overburdened by the Aztek's 3923-pound curb weight. That engine, which as you suspected is shared with GM minivans, is not in the same league as the refined V-6 in the Lexus, but Pontiac has found a way to isolate it enough that its droning note doesn't intrude into the cabin. The four-speed automatic is like a good servant -- it does exactly what you want without calling attention to itself. Okay, let's switch gears and talk about the things that will make the Aztek a fitness enabler -- namely, the four optional lifestyle packages. We tested three of them: Biking, Camping, and Hiking. The fourth, the Sport Appearance package, obviously does nothing for our midsection, so we skipped it. For $516, the Biking package comes with either a roof-mounted or interior-mounted bike rack, rubber floor mats, and washable, waterproof vinyl seat covers. This package is a steal. The bike rack alone is worth $300. The seat covers fit snugly so they don't slide around. It takes less than five minutes to install the individual front-seat covers and the one-piece rear cover, and you can throw them in the washing machine if a certain four-legged hanger-on gets them dirty. Certainly, the ease with which the Aztek hauls bikes around removes one more excuse for not working out on your two-wheeler. We'd skip the $300 Hiking package, which includes seat-mountable, removable knapsacks, the rubber floor mats, and the seat covers, because you can get the two most useful items (the floor mats and the seat covers) in the Biking package, and the knapsacks aren't much bigger than backpacks college students use for hauling their books. Finally, the $195 Camping package is another good deal. It includes a tent that fits over the open rear end and attaches to the car body. We put it up in about 10 minutes. Once erected, there's space for two to sleep comfortably. Also included is an air mattress, which has a handy built-in pump for easy inflation. For $365, the optional Towing package includes a rear load-leveling system and an onboard compressor and hose to pump up the air mattress or bicycle tires. Speaking of options, there are plenty you can slap on your Aztek. Upgrading from the base Aztek to the GT model ads $3000 to the base car's $21,995 price and includes such handy items as dual-zone climate-controls; a driver-information center; steering-wheel-mounted radio controls; and a clever center-console cooler. Our test car also came with the $2415 1SC option package to the rear sliding cargo tray, a power driver's seat, a CD player, and cargo-area radio controls. Heated front seats cost $245. When four-wheel drive becomes available in January, Pontiac says it will be about $2000. With its various options, our Aztek was $28,666, putting it right in the middle of a bunch of very capable SUVs and minivans. A final note: Apart from the possible life-extending physical activities the Aztek makes easier, it has one major thing going for it: You can live in it. THE VERDICT Highs: Useful accessories, quiet interior, a good balance between maneuverability and cargo room. Lows: Does not include a personal disguise for when you're driving in crowded areas. The Verdict: A good vehicle with nifty features that's blemished by adventurous styling. ----- COUNTERPOINT I'm going to go out on a limb here: I actually dig the Aztek. Yes, the styling is over the top, but give Pontiac credit for trying something different. Driving it is not a negative experience -- it's a lot like the Pontiac Montana minivan that won a comparo in March '99. And why not make the center console a cooler you can take with you to an outdoor concert? Why not incorporate aftermarket toys such as tents and utility racks? People are going to buy them anyway. I understand how someone would dismiss the Aztek on looks alone, but if you do that, you miss out on a brave new idea in car design. Dig it? --Brad Nevin I've been known to like some controversial styling exercises that have turned into flops, so let me risk ridicule again and say that I find the look of the Aztek, well, appealing. We'll have to wait to see if it's ahead of its time, or just dreadful styling, but it sure is different. The interior is unique, too, with innovative switchgear and the "fake rivet" look. Not until I drove the Aztek did I realize that the lower portion of the liftgate is glass, a la Honda CRX, so rearward visibility is excellent. The Aztek is bulky, as its performance numbers attest, but so is the Mercedes ML320. I think the Aztek is fun. --Patti Maki Let's leave the looks completely out of it, okay? I know, that's like trying to ignore Joseph C. Merrick's looks, but I have plenty of other reasons to pass on Pontiac's latest. For one thing, they've pushed this humble minivan platform too far in terms of suspension and tire stiffness. The way it crashes over bumps now suggests its minor rattles and squeaks will become major ones long before the lease is out. Second, for such a huge vehicle, the visibility out the short windshield is poor, and the cargo room inside is compromised by the sloping hatch. GM is to be cheered for taking a swing at something new, but to me the Aztek's a foul ball. --Frank Markus ----- The Daily Auto Insider Gasp, People Like the Aztek "The highly competitive SUV market is spawning many new and redesigned models that capture top rankings across all four SUV segments," according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2001 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study. The study is based on responses from more than 110,000 new-vehicle owners and measures what "excites and delights them with their vehicles' features and design." It asks owners to rate such things as vehicle exterior styling; engine and transmission; comfort and convenience; ride, handling and braking; seats; heating, ventilation and cooling; cockpit and instrument panel; and sound system. General Motors SUVs were on top of three out of the four segments in the APEAL study. The new Pontiac Aztek, often criticized for its unconventional styling, captured the top ranking in the entry SUV segment. Interestingly, the Aztek scores highest or second highest in every APEAL component measure except exterior styling, the report noted. "While many auto reviewers have been quick to criticize the Aztek's unusual exterior, Aztek owners overwhelmingly praise its smooth, quiet ride, versatility and sound system," said Brian Walters, director of product research at J.D. Power and Associates.