It's funny how far the Pontiac Aztek has come in such a short period of time.

Three years ago when it first rolled into our driveway, the Aztek had replaced the Yugo as the vehicle everyone loved to hate.

What was it? Who would want to drive it? How could anyone buy it?

Three years later, it has fan clubs.

From Fort Wayne to Fort Worth, Pontiac Aztek fanatics gather to compare their hardware. The vehicle has a cult following. It has personality. Mostly, it has life where once everyone predicted death.

Pontiac, which couldn't sell many Azteks that first year, now markets it as a "yawn buster" that only needs to be "unleashed."

That's a far cry from the "kitchen sink" label new GM design executive Bob Lutz gave it when he stepped aboard two years ago.

One of the industry's first SRVs, or sport recreational vehicles, the Aztek is no longer the oddball on the block. Pontiac went back to the drawing board and made the Aztek softer around the edges, more balanced on the rubber and a little more attractive inside and out.

The result? Sales (and fan club) success.

Our verdict? It's still odd. It's just no longer offensive.

The Aztek still has an overly soft suspension, a heavy and cumbersome tailgate, poor visibility and controversial styling. But it's also incredibly versatile, highly comfortable on highway drives and very economical.

If you didn't consider it the first time, you might want to reconsider. Honestly.

Available in one body style and two basic configurations - front- or all-wheel-drive - the Aztek comes dressed in three major option packages. Each level increases the standard equipment and dresses things up an extra notch with everything from dual-zone air conditioning and power windows and locks in the base model to a tire inflation monitoring system and a six-way power driver's seat in the top end.

And, for 2003, the Aztek arrives with high-tech options like a DVD-based entertainment system, a tire-pressure monitoring system, a "luxury appointment group" and XM Satellite Radio.

But during our one-week test, the question still lingered: So what is it, exactly?

Functional as a minivan or sport utility crossover, the Aztek once set the standard for the suddenly crazy crossover segment, combining the wide stance of the Grand Prix sedan, the versatility of the Montana minivan and the character of an SUV.

We'll give it two out of three. At its best, the Aztek is still the Swiss Army knife of the industry. Hauling luggage, kids, toys, lawn chairs and a La-Z-Boy? See the Aztek. With the class-exclusive front fold-down seat and more than 93 cubic feet of cargo capacity, the Aztek can be flipped, folded, adjusted or taken apart to create extra room. Drop the tailgate and it can swallow four full sheets of 3/4-inch plywood. There are a dozen cargo anchors, a rear convenience net and storage bins built into the side trim and tailgate to keep track of odd objects.

At its worst, the Aztek is a load to drive. While its exterior conveys a sense of performance, the hardware doesn't quite fit the bill. The suspension feels like you are riding on the high sea. It absorbs the bruises but floats on the smooth stuff. Body roll is excessive, and the steering provides little feedback.

And then there's the issue of power. Pontiac might claim that the 3.4-liter V-6 outruns the Chrysler PT Cruiser, but we'll take the PT for sheer enjoyment and that elusive fun factor. The Aztek's V-6 is solid from a standing start but dies out quickly.

On safety, all Azteks come with four-wheel anti-lock brakes and front and side air bags, but in its latest tests the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Aztek a "marginal" rating in offset frontal impact tests, the second-lowest out of the four ratings it uses.

At the very least, it gets four stars for being unique. Loaded up with 17-inch wheels, the Aztek carries that wide-and-high stance, giving you a commanding position on the road. And it does offer an interior that is downright different. Dials and gauges are set in a futuristic tone that would make "Terminator 3" types happy. The driver instrumentation is set deep into large wells and passengers have the option of a handlebar on the dash in case things get really adventurous.

There is still the removable cooler in the center console, radio controls that can be accessed from the tailgate area, a sliding rear tray to hold little things and cutouts in the tailgate that would make for - what else? - a perfect Saturday tailgate party.

In the Rally Edition it even looks - gasp! - pretty good.

Throw in a $20,870 base price and gasoline mileage that's about 26 mpg on the highway, and it even starts to look appealing for the entire family.

We might not be ready to sign up for the fan club just yet, but the draw toward the Aztek is getting better.

It still suffers where other vehicles excel. But it also excels where other vehicles are afraid to wander.

And it still has life.

2003 Pontiac Aztek

Rating: 2.5

High gear: Versatile, roomy, fuel efficient and downright different, the Aztek has softened the edges and rounded out the bumps. Beefier tires give it balance, and Swiss Army-like features separate it from the crowd of crossovers.

Low gear: The suspension is still overly soft, and handling still suffers. The tailgate is difficult to lift, and blind spots are abundant.

Vehicle type: Front- or all-wheel-drive, front-engine, four-door, five-passenger midsize sport-utility vehicle.

Key competition: Hyundai Santa Fe, Jeep Liberty, Mazda Tribute

Base engine: 185 horsepower, 3.4-liter V-6

Torque: 210 lbs-ft. @ 5,200 rpm

Safety equipment: Four-wheel anti-lock brakes; front- and side-impact air bags; daytime running lights with automatic lamp control; battery rundown protection.

Wheelbase: 108.3 inches

Length: 182.1 inches

MPG rating: 19 city/26 highway

Manufactured: Ramos Arizpe, Mexico

Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/36,000 miles; drivetrain is three years/36,000 miles; roadside assistance is three years/36,000 miles; and rust is six years/100,000 miles.

Base price: $20,870

Price as tested (including options, destination and delivery): $28,095