- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2001

The Pontiac Aztek has been the butt of the worst barbs. Most of the criticism stems from its very unconventional looks that emphasize a lot of heavy cladding (metal coatings bonded onto other coatings.) "Ugly" is perhaps one of the kinder epithets thrown at the new vehicle, whose sales have been a great disappointment to General Motors.

But Jim Vurpillat, who recently took over as brand manager for Aztek, sees lots of opportunity to make the crossover vehicle a success, even by capitalizing on its unconventional styling. He points out that the Volkswagen Beetle also was the brunt of many jokes about its styling when first introduced into the United States. Of course, the original Beetle went on to become one of the best-selling cars in automotive history.

Mr. Vurpillat sees an opportunity for Pontiac to do the same thing with Aztek. What encourages him is that present owners really love the car. "I get e-mails at home, as well as at the office, from owners who tell me the style doesn't bother them," Mr. Vurpillat said. "The customers are wowed by the vehicle's interior space and versatility," he said.

Also impressive to owners is the Aztek's gas mileage. By far the biggest complaint, Mr. Vurpillat gets, however, is the difficulty some buyers have had in obtaining options. These include a console cooler and a tent package, which Pontiac had difficulty in procuring from suppliers when the vehicle first went on sale. These features are now readily available.

Recently, incentives have helped to spur Aztek sales, which were an anemic 12,000 units last year. Mr. Vurpillat said Pontiac is on track to sell about 30,000 to 36,000 Azteks this year. He concedes that incentives have helped to bolster sales, but says these were offered mainly for competitive reasons.

Aztek's main competitors include the Ford Escape, Nissan Xterra, Toyota RAV4 and Chrysler PT Cruiser. To compete with these, Pontiac is offering a $1,000 rebate to customers and 4.9 percent financing for 60 months. There have also been some pretty competitive lease rates. But Pontiac has stayed away from wholesale sales to rental-car companies to boost volume.

Even though the Buick Rendezvous is built on the same assembly line, Mr. Vurpillat sees no competition between the two GM vehicles. The Buick is $2,500 more expensive than the Aztek, which has an average transaction price of about $25,000. Mr. Vurpillat says there has been no identity problem between the two, even in dealerships that display both brands.

Right now, Aztek has only a small percentage of the 2 million-unit crossover utility vehicle market. "We're working to grow that aggressively," Mr. Vurpillat said. This effort will result in some significant changes to the 2002 Aztek. The changes include dropping the cladding, which discourages many would-be buyers. Pontiac will also stop offering the Aztek with 15-inch wheels. Sixteen-inch wheels will be standard on the 2002 model, and 17-inch wheels will be available as an option.

The new model will also have a softer monotone appearance. Pontiac will abandon the harsh two-tone paint used on present models. One successful feature will be retained: the OnStar communication system. Better than 50 percent of buyers get this feature that comes in up-level trim packages with free standard service for one year. Mr. Vurpillat says that OnStar has frequently helped close a sale for Aztek.

The brand manager sees the Aztek as a sleeper. "I want to say that in a positive sense," he said. "I think it has the ability to take off saleswise, and something is lurking beneath the surface just waiting to burst out."

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