From ugly to cool: Automotive outcasts find favor with Millennials – Chicago Tribune

Posted: Sunday, November 01, 2015

The Pontiac Aztek didn’t warrant many compliments. The crossover minivan compact looked worse than it sounded. It was functional, but the short-lived Frankenstein (2001-05) has made virtually every “most ugly vehicle” list of the past decade.

Now, as Hyundai contemplates mixing another automotive martini — the handsome Santa Cruz crossover pickup — we look at the past to predict the future.

As a car-based pickup, the Santa Cruz won’t offer much utility. Subaru tried this formula with the Baja (2003-06), which never escaped the Outback’s shadow. Still, automakers keep trying.

“Everybody wants to come up with the next minivan,” said Paul Snyder, chairman of the transportation design department at the College for Creative Studies. “There are success stories, but identifying niches between mature markets comes down to packaging and styling … comes down to if they really identified a need.”

Melding vehicle segments can work. Car-based minivans and crossovers are some of today’s hottest segments. On paper, the quirky Aztek should have worked. So, why didn’t it?

“Proportions of the thing — small wheels, narrow, flat sides, lipstick on a pig,” Snyder said. “Compare it to the proportions of a Porsche Macan. It may not be as functional but it looks fantastic. CUVs have high ground clearance but are still sleek.”

The Aztek clearly wasn’t sleek, but younger generations aren’t as averse to these multisegment mashups, especially when resurrected in popular culture. The recent popularity of the Aztek has been attributed in part to its starring role as the vehicle of antihero Walter White in AMC’s “Breaking Bad.”

Closer to home, parents’ choice of vehicles may influence future tastes.

“(Millennials) grew up in the back of minivans and find them cool,” Snyder said.

On Edmunds.com’s recent list of “Top 10 Used Cars, by Share of Sales to Millennials” are the Pontiac Aztek, Chrysler Pacifica and Dodge Magnum. Minivans also were popular.

“Millennials are more practical used-car shoppers than we might otherwise credit them,” said Jeremy Acevedo, an analyst with Edmunds.com. “When it comes to used cars, value and utility appear to trump just about anything else.”

Government regulations will make fuel-conserving crossbreeds more common.

“There are so many pressures to make vehicles more efficient,” Snyder said. “Fuel economy is the big item. To achieve this, you have to make the vehicle lightweight. Customers want a good-looking, spacious vehicle with fuel economy.”

Crossovers and crossover-pickups such as the Santa Cruz likely will increase in popularity. Unlike the Aztek, Hyundai’s segment-buster looks good from the outside.

Williams is an automotive freelance reporter.

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