Poor Pontiac Aztek, the Quasimodo of automobiles. Disrespected, derided and called ugly right to its pointy face, Aztek trundles on in its second model year after a mild face lift.

Obviously, too mild. Nothing less than major reconstructive surgery was needed here.

Pontiac designers seemed genuinely surprised last year when Aztek was so roundly scorned, and when customers generally avoided it. Even me, the soul of empathy, found much to mock in Aztek when I tested one last year. I called it Mr. Ugly. Unkind but true.

After a few months of public flogging and lousy sales, Aztek received an unprecedented first-year restyling that was supposed to make it all better.

It didn't. All the remake entailed was changing the thick plastic lower body cladding from gray to the same hue as the rest of the vehicle, adding a small spoiler to the towering rear section, and providing larger wheels and tires.

Improved? Not nearly enough. The changes do little to soften the basically ungainly appearance of this unfortunate character. So I'll call this episode of the Aztek saga The Return of Mr. Ugly.

Aztek is still a head-turner, but those heads that were not turning away were staring in shocked amazement. Maybe I'm getting paranoid, but every time I drove Mr. Ugly, I swear people were smirking at me.

There is one change that could improve sales, and that's a drop in price. Aztek now comes fully equipped with all the desirable power and convenience features for under $20,000, about $4,000 less than when I last drove one. That's a lot of value if you believe "beauty's only skin deep."

The monochrome treatment does help a bit, though it makes Aztek seem even boxier and more slab-sided. In back, the awkward rear hatch is only marginally enhanced by the small spoiler. The spoiler also enhances an unpleasant blind spot right across the center of the rear vision.

Lest people think I'm being too shallow about Mr. Ugly, I will say the engine and transmission are very nice, the V-6 being GM's venerable 3.4-liter, which has loads of acceleration strength and cruising power. The tranny is responsive, downshifting and upshifting smoothly and predictably.

Handling is not bad for a tall, boxy vehicle, and I would rate the Aztek's driveability in the upper echelon of hybrid sport utility vehicles, which combine the virtues of cars and trucks. Aztek comes in either front- or all-wheel-drive configurations.

The interior of the Aztek is as clumsy and over the top as the exterior, with just about every stop pulled out for a sporty, adventurous look. It's all just too much.

However, the interior is also roomy and pleasantly accommodating. It includes really nice and unique features, such as the center console that doubles as a removable insulated cooler and cargo nets in the doors. The seats are comfortable, and there's lots of head, shoulder and legroom front and rear.

Aztek remains a flexible and versatile vehicle, and can be equipped for such things as lugging bicycles or transforming itself into a tent camper.

The rear compartment is very roomy, even with the rear seat deployed, although unloading such things as grocery bags can be challenging because of the deep recess and the rear-dropping tailgate that gets in the way.

The test Aztek came with an upgrade package of cargo nets, remote entry, window tinting, cruise control and adjustable roof rack for $985; power glass sunroof, $650; a 10-speaker stereo system that sounded fantastic and included controls in the rear-deck area for camping or tailgating, $510; and 16-inch puncture-resistant tires, $150. The total price was just over $22,000.

Antilock disc brakes and traction control are standard.

So the problem with Aztek remains: Here's a nice-running, practical vehicle that is very accommodating and moderately priced but still hampered by basic questions of taste.

However, for those unbiased against ugliness, Aztek's bottom line is a thing of beauty.