A group of young designers responsible for styling the Pontiac Aztek was introduced at a 2000 press preview for that cross/utility vehicle. They were asked, in effect, to take a bow.

Lauding the out-there look of the Aztek, their design mentor said things can happen when you turn youthful eager beavers loose on a project.

Looking at the vehicle's odd lines — especially that goofy rear end — I took what he said as a warning.

Of course, it turned out I wasn't the only one who thought the Aztek looked off. “Aztek-ugly” became an automotive adjective.

The sales picture hasn't been pretty, either. General Motors originally figured it would sell about 75,000 Azteks a year. It sold 20,588 last year, about 7,000 less than the year before. Mercifully, production ended in January.

The Aztek showed up on a list at a recent J.D. Power and Associates roundtable, part of which focused on automotive design. (See also page 20)

The list consisted of vehicles that polled consumers deemed as the homeliest.

Yet Aztek owners love its looks, says J.D. Power partner Chris Denove. “It's just that there are not enough of those people.”

When it comes to cars, beauty apparently is in the eyes of the keyholder.

A vehicle praised for its assertive design is the Cadillac CTS. It has helped revive Cadillac's image and sales.

Yet its angularity is like the Aztek's. Not the same, of course. But similar in its sharp cuts, daring lines and bold strokes.

The CTS's grace is in its execution. Conversely, College of Creative Studies President Richard Rogers recalls a senior auto designer's verdict on the Aztek: “Good idea, bad execution.”

Some people find the CTS unattractive. But CTS detractors are few and admirers many — just the opposite of the Aztek.

A stylist who had a hand in shaping the CTS is Kip (John) Wasenko, a GM design director. Unlike the young turks who designed the Aztek, he has been with GM for 35 years.

I had lunch with him at the Meadow Brook Concours d'Elegance, a beauty pageant for classic cars in Rochester, MI. Wasenko is one of the judges. We spoke about the subjectivity of automotive design in general and the CTS in particular.

“The CTS was controversial when it came out,” he says. “People either loved it or hated it. It was so different. It was aggressive when everyone else was doing soft. When it comes to style, you can't be everything to everybody.”

Some Asian cars have reliability reputations that are so sterling, they can get by on bland styling. Wasenko foresees the day when high quality will be a given for all vehicles. When that happens, styling will be the important point of differentiation.

All automotive design departments do consumer research. Wasenko says it helps establish priorities. But consumer clinics and focus groups can only help so much. They should be design guides, not arbiters.

“I always watch the clinics and do my own interpretations,” Wasenko says. “I've been going to them as long as we've been doing them, which is 20 years now. I want to hear all I can, then make an informed decision. Or perhaps know if I'm making a mistake.”

Steve Finlay is editor of Ward's Dealer Business magazine.