Junkyard Gem: 2002 Pontiac Aztek

The General’s Pontiac Division sold the Aztek for the 2001 through 2005 model years, and — despite enjoying something of a cultural rebirth in recent years — it is generally considered to be one of the worst cars of all time. The idea of using a minivan platform as the basis for a rough-and-tough-looking crossover with plenty of outdoor-lifestyle amenities wasn’t the problem, since many vehicle manufacturers have printed bales of money using that formula. What doomed the Aztek was its hideous appearance and sticker price too lofty for its underemployed-at-the-time Generation X target demographic. Still, the Aztek proved to be perfectly suited for the outdoor activities that Coloradans love: hiking, camping, fishing, skiing, hauling mud-caked golden retrievers around, etc., and so you’ll still find lots of Azteks on the roads of the Centennial State. Here’s an Aztek Yellow Aztek (yes, that’s really the paint color’s official title) residing just a few rows from a ’76 Checker Taxicab in a Denver self-service yard.

Sure, it does look like a vehicle built to the specifications of a six-year-old who decreed a mashup between a Datsun F-10 and a Fisher-Price Little People Travel Together Airplane, but so what? There’s a built-in air compressor to blow up your inflatable rafts and volleyballs, a tent attachment that turns the rear of the van into a camper, 12-volt power plugs all over the vehicle (years before this became commonplace on ordinary minivans and SUVs), and running-gear commonality with a jillion Ventures, Silhouettes, Montanas and Trans Sports.

24 2002 Pontiac Aztek in Colorado junkyard photo by Murilee Martin

Buick managed to de-uglify the Aztek (somewhat) and sold it as the Rendezvous through 2007, but the Aztek never could win over many people with this face.

04 2002 Pontiac Aztek in Colorado junkyard photo by Murilee Martin

I see plenty of Azteks and Rendezvouses in Denver-area wrecking yards, and I’ve documented a handful over the years.

15 2002 Pontiac Aztek in Colorado junkyard photo by Murilee Martin

This one came fully loaded from the factory, with the Corvette-style heads-up display in full effect.

28 2002 Pontiac Aztek in Colorado junkyard photo by Murilee Martin

The center console was a removable cooler, which was a great idea … except for the fact that this cooler holds five standard 12-ounce cans. Michigan residents tell me that this must have been intentional on the part of the Detroit-based Aztek designers, because Michiganders are expected to chug one beer out of a sixer as they walk from the liquor store to the car in the parking lot … which makes me extra cautious whenever I’m driving in the Wolverine State. It’s not easy to find these coolers in the junkyard (presumably because Aztek owners keep them even after ditching their Azteks), but I managed to score one and I often combine it with my Honda CR-V spare-tire cover/picnic table when having outdoor parties.

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An Aztek with more than 250,000 miles on its odometer competed with great success in the 24 Hours of Lemons race series, proving during the process that the pop-up tent will stay attached at high speed on the Sears Point (aka Sonoma Raceway) course.

29 2002 Pontiac Aztek in Colorado junkyard photo by Murilee Martin

True, an all-wheel-drive minivan would be more useful for camping, what with its more spacious interior and sliding doors, but I expect to keep seeing Azteks on the streets and in the junkyards of Colorado for years to come.

Pontiac had such high hopes for the Aztek, but the brand died with the end of the decade.

Standing out and playing large! As a Generation X member, I can’t say that these ads spoke directly to my innermost desires. Then again, I was driving an ’85 CRX and an ’86 Civic hatch at the time of the Aztek’s launch.

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