Gutsy Drivers Wanted By Neil Dunlop Who do you think first tried lobster? What would have possessed him to think that this butt-ugly, hard-shelled sea insect with massive, finger-snipping pincers would taste good? Never mind that it turns red when cooked. Didn't that set off any alarms? Whoever it was, we've got a lot for which to thank him. He must have been pretty self-assured and gutsy, what with his friends and family yelling "Don't eat that, it's ugly!" The Pontiac Aztek is suffering similar prejudice. A lot of people shy away from it because a vocal minority keep squawking about its looks. Underneath, however, the Aztek does have a number of advantages. Its 3.4-liter V6 engine provides smooth power and its four-speed automatic tranny (perhaps the most pleasant part of the powertrain) delivers imperceptible upshifts. Kickdowns could be faster, but it doesn't claim to be a sports car, so we'll let that slide. The ride is supple with good cushioning over harsh surfaces, such as potholes and rutted dirt roads. Though the ride is serenely free of jarring bumps, it is perhaps a bit too floaty. In the effort to protect its passengers from bumps, the Aztek allows too much bounce and body roll for our tastes. Since early 2001, the Aztek has been available with all-wheel drive. This is provided in the guise of General Motors' Versatrak system, which is also used in GM's Buick Rendezvous, Pontiac Montana, Chevrolet Venture and Oldsmobile Silhouette. The on-demand all-wheel-drive system drives the front wheels for ordinary road conditions and then automatically engages the rear wheels when it detects slippage. We did not encounter extreme weather during our test period, but were able to experience Versatrak on a steep gravel-covered slope and again on slick city streets after a sudden shower. In both cases, the system handled itself admirably with no perceptible lag in power or intrusive engagement of the rear wheels. The surefooted feeling it imparted was reassuring. Since it has only 7.2 inches of ground clearance, we're not recommending the Aztek for offroad foraging, but it can certainly handle muck and snow that would otherwise reduce most front-wheel-drive sedans and wagons to feeble wheel-spinning and concussive bottom-bashing. Further on the plus side, the Aztek has a roomy and comfortable interior. The seats are spacious, and we like the support from the high backs. However, the flip-down armrest tends to block the seatbelt latch, which is a minor annoyance. And though we like the upright seating position and the clear view it provides over the short, sharply sloped hood, the C-pillar is huge and the spoiler (now standard on all models) running through the rear window blocks our view. We were surprised by the serenity of the interior. Little wind noise could be heard and tire and engine noise were well muffled. The cabin was also full of amenities and convenience features, such as air conditioning; power locks, mirrors and windows; tilt steering; and a six-speaker stereo with CD player. Our test vehicle was also equipped with a $985 option package that included remote keyless entry, cargo nets, deep window tint, cruise control and a roof rack system. Another $500 bought a six-way power driver seat and a sliding multi-compartment tray for the cargo area. The sliding cargo tray opens to provide a diverse array of storage space, which is useful if you carry lots of odds and ends. And the fact that it slides out onto the tailgate makes it easy to access the compartments, as well as to load heavy cargo on top and then slide it into the vehicle. Let's revisit the appearance issue. After getting a chilly reception in the Aztek's first year, Pontiac is attempting to salvage the vehicle with a slight makeover. The consensus here is that the 2002 looks better but still has a long way to go. The real aesthetic problems occur at the side where the jumble of odd-shaped windows, door openings and non-parallel pillars make it seem disjointed and irregular. On the 2001 model, this problem was exacerbated by the black cladding on the lower body which added another incongruent element. For 2002, the cladding has been changed to body color, which makes the Aztek's profile flow better. Also, although 17-inch aluminum wheels are standard on the AWD version of the Aztek, we think its looks would be vastly improved if 18- or even 19-inchers were added to fill the cavernous wheelwells and lend more attitude. One of the Aztek's greatest strengths is its versatility, which is best demonstrated by the optional camping package (something we also tested during our road test of a 2001 Aztek GT). The package includes a tent that fits over the rear of the vehicle with the gate open and tailgate down and an air mattress shaped to fit the rear cargo area with the second-row seats tumbled forward. The tent is easy to attach and creates a roomy bubble with large ventilation panels on three sides that can be zipped open or closed. As we woke to a heavy downpour, we can attest that the tent is watertight. However, there are two fastening straps that come over the rear doors and attach to the coat hooks inside and act like mini aqueducts dripping water near your feet. The air mattress was a bit more of a struggle than the tent. We neglected to bring a foot pump or electric air pump that we could have plugged into the powerpoint in the cargo area, so we were stuck using our own lung power. There is an "internal" hand pump in the mattress but we couldn't get it to work, despite fussing with the instructions. We ended up inflating it with our breath. Doing so took up time and energy that we could have used to roast marshmallows. We also found it a hassle to remove the sliding cargo tray and then store it outside. We were thankful it had nothing in it because it would have been difficult to keep it level during removal and storage. Also, while we're complaining, the rear lift gate requires too much effort to pull closed, and it is also a stretch for anyone under 5-feet-6-inches tall. The best scenario for using the mattress would be to have the built-in air compressor, which is part of the $365 Trailer Towing Package that also includes a wiring harness, engine oil cooler, high outlet alternator, heavy-duty engine cooling system and rear suspension with automatic level control. Then we could have towed a boat, as well. Once we inflated the mattress, however, it fit snugly in the rear. The sleeping area was roughly the size of a double bed. Regardless of its looks, which are subjective anyhow, the Aztek proved itself to us. Now when we see someone driving one, we don't wonder if they're stylistically challenged. Instead we applaud them for their refusal to conform to popular prejudice. They're gutsy and they're being rewarded with a fine ride.