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The Pontiac Aztek

I am not a car guy. I've never been a car guy. So what qualified me to test-drive the Aztek, Pontiac's new addition to the world of sport-utility vehicles?Well, actually, I'm a guy who has spent a good deal of time living out of his car. I'm a journalist and a rock climber, and both pursuits have led me many places where I could have set up camp, but I always opted to crash on a futon in the back of my SUV, certain that I'd sleep a whole lot better there than I would in a tent.

So Pontiac is onto something with its five-passenger Aztek, which, by the way, is a Sport Recreational Vehicle, a term its creators coined to set their product apart from all other SUV's. Here's what it comes with (depending, of course, on which package you purchase--but since the price starts at about $21,000, as opposed to the $30,000 most SUV's go for, you might splurge on the extras): an attachable tent that extends over the tailgate and turns the back cab into a bedroom (one you have to kneel in); an air mattress that fits into the car's frame; a built-in air compressor; a set of stereo controls in the rear, so that during your tailgate party you don't have to get up to switch the six-CD player from Bob Marley to Bob Dylan; a satellite-based system that allows you to stop worrying about getting lost or making dinner reservations, because you have one-touch cellular connection to someone whose job it is to do these things for you; a virtual display that projects everything from mph to radio settings directly in the driver's sight line; cargo nets to secure fishing rods and soccer balls; a fancy Driver Information Center that tells you everything from the temperature outside to how many miles until it's time to stop for gas; a compartment between the front and back seats that goes from locked-down CD holder to portable ice chest in about two seconds; and a design that makes the Aztek look like the progeny of a steroid-abusing Honda CRX and a detoxed Mercedes 450SL.

As for how the Aztek drives . . . well, I beat the hell out of the thing--streets, highways, back roads, no roads--and it was great. The six-cylinder engine delivers. I drove the two-wheel-drive model because the four-wheel won't be available until 2001 (don't ask me about the logic of designing a two-wheel-drive SUV; I already told you I'm not a car guy). Still, the handling was perfect.

To try out the camping package, I took the Aztek to Pyramid Lake, Nevada, a desolate and beautiful weekend-warrior-in-a-jeep sort of place that happens to be exceptionally windy. Here I discovered that the tent is impossible for one person to set up in windy conditions, nearly impossible for two, and, in truth, utterly unnecessary. The air mattress-compressor combo, on the other hand, is wonderful. And the entire cab was brilliantly designed to have extra headroom: no neck kink!

I was also pleased to discover that the rear seats are removable. This is to provide additional storage space, but why not set the chairs out, as I did, for some serious campfire-side comfort?And the air mattress would make a great life raft, I realized, if I were to drive into a lake, though I didn't get to try this. Still, I tried pretty much everything else, and found that Pontiac has built a better futon--and they even built a car to go with it.

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