If you're in the Witness Protection Program or you just want to blend into the scenery, the aggressively styled new Pontiac Aztek is probably not for you. Everywhere it goes, the Aztek elicits both puzzled looks and admiring glances. Most of the professional automotive people we queried said the design suggests a committee was involved. A committee whose members never actually met each other. Still, the designers' intentions were good. The Aztek does look aggressive in a Terminator sort of way. But the controversial appearance of this affordable SRV (Sports Recreation Vehicle) is just the tip of the iceberg.
Suspension tweaks turn a boring minivan chassis into a surprisingly agile corner carver. Given how top-heavy and road-numb most SUVs feel, this wide-track approach to hauling the soccer team might tempt you to enter an autocross. Let the kids walk to the game. You've got a slalom to run.
The brainstorming didn't stop at the wheelbase. Pontiac dreamed up a plethora of sporty lifestyle accessories. Integrated roof racks, door-mounted tote bags, seat-back backpacks; you can even get a rear-panel- mounted compressor for blowing up your tires or the official Aztek air mattress (which, when teamed with the custom tent attachment, creates a campsite that's both moveable and heated). Plus, you can use the center console as a removable ice chest. What American consumer wouldn't want a sturdy six under the hood and a chilly six between the seats?
Like it or not, you can't deny the Aztek is a lot of SRV for the money: With a base price just over 20 big ones and the fully tricked-out kit coming in under 25, the Aztek, with a decent 3.4-liter, 185-horsepower V-6 and a very smooth four-speed automatic, gives you a good all-around hauler that doesn't look anything like the herds of Explorer clones, which will shrink from you at stoplights.
If you're not in a hurry to be the first on your block to own an Aztek, here are some interesting alternatives to consider.
With full-time all-wheel drive; great looks; 18- or 19-inch alloy wheels; a 282-horsepower, 4.4-liter V-8 or an in-line 6, BMW's interpretation of the SUV is a fine choice. The only drawbacks are the somewhat small cargo area (54.4 cubic feet) and the somewhat large price tag ($40,000-$50,000).
The new Pathfinder boasts an engine transplanted from the Maxima. The improvement in horsepower (up 80 hp to 250) and torque (up 40 to 240) is reason enough to visit your Nissan dealer. While you're there, have a look at the Xterra, too.
FORD ESCAPE/MAZDA TRIBUTE.
The all-new Escape and Tribute should be high on your list. Their larger engine package will give you a 200-horsepower V-6 at a price in the very friendly neighborhood of $25,000.
Coming soon, this $35,000-$40,000 3.5-liter V-6 built on the Honda Odyssey platform is everything you would expect from Acura-engineering, resale value, good looks, and more.