This has to be one of the most unusual places we've ever written a test drive: We're tucked inside a cozy tent, a gentle rain is falling and the stereo is playing Bob Seger's Night Moves. We're actually in our driveway. The tent is grafted onto and encloses the back of the controversial new 2001 Pontiac Aztek sport-utility vehicle. We can sit on the Aztek's tailgate and change channels with the cargo-area auxiliary stereo controls. Quite a neat feature for a tailgate party. And how cool is this? The new Pontiac's center console doubles as a removable mini cooler.

Besides, this is the first time that we've ever had a tent and a air mattress listed as optional features on a vehicle. What would Dr. Laura say?

Actually, it took us a good hour to get the tent up, figure out how to remove the rear sliding cargo tray (the release lever turned out to be broken) and take out the back seats. And forget that optional mattress (which bears the warning "not intended for use while vehicle is in motion"). Neither one of us had any success with the integrated hand pump, and we figured running in the house and inflating the mattress with the hair dryer or canister vacuum would be cheating. After all, you wouldn't be able to do that in the middle of a national park. Despite those minor glitches with some of the optional camping package features, the Aztek is very unique and fun. So fun in fact that Steve, the local cop on the beat, just popped his head in the tent to see what was going on. Moral of that story: You are going to get noticed in the Aztek, but maybe by people you wish hadn't noticed you.

Steve wasn't the only one to be stopped in his tracks by the Aztek, which is derived from the Pontiac Montana minivan, but is decked out with so much black plastic body cladding, it looks like it could take more of a pounding than the traditional mom-mobile. The motoring press has been unsure of which category the Aztek belongs. Pontiac refers to its most striking offering for 2001 as the "world's first sport recreation vehicle."

It does seem to be an amalgam of different vehicles, with a pickup-like tailgate and a sloped glass liftback. Almost everybody we passed in the Aztek whirls around and stares. But unlike the response to Volkswagen's New Beetle or Chrysler's PT Cruiser, Paul noticed most of the Aztek watchers weren't smiling. They seemed more dumbfounded.

But first things first. The Generation Xers who would seem to be perfect for the Aztek might balk at the price of the uplevel GT model we tested, which starts at $24,995. The base Aztek retails for $21,995. Our vehicle included such options as leather seating, heated front seats, rear captain's chairs, rear-seat audio and an OnStar communications service, plus the camping gear, all of which nudged the bottom line close to $30,000. Clearly, this is one SUV - sorry, SRV - that's not intended to compete at the entry level.

The camping gear we had on our four-pa ssenger Aztek is one of several packages available to consumers. Others include a biking package with a special bike carrier, all-weather floor mats and waterproof seat covers. A hiking package includes such accessories as custom backpacks that can be used while hiking and then attached to the front seat backs while traveling. All the special packaging underscores just how trendy the Aztek is supposed to be.

It's the latest effort by automakers to capitalize on the increasing customization and personalization of vehicles. Like the Montana minivan, the Aztek has a 3.4-liter V-6 engine that makes 185 horsepower and 210 pounds-feet of torque. The V-6 is mated to a four-speed automatic. While the Aztek comes with standard front-wheel drive, an optional all-wheel-drive system will become available after the first of the year. Buyers can also order a 3,500-pound trailer-tow option.

Our issues with the Aztek are several. First and foremost, its aggressive, in-your-face looks y rnoff - or turn on - some buyers. Or, like Steve, it may just leave you scratching your head in bewilderment. Among our concerns, the second row of seats is lacking in leg room and gas mileage is ho-hum; we averaged less than 20 miles a gallon in our test vehicle. Visibility out of the rear hatch is restricted by the horizontal band that splits the tailgate.

We drove an engineering prototype, which means all the production bugs have yet to be worked out. Still, we noticed that the quality of the plastic parts, especially on things like the tailgate and rear cargo tray, was sub-standard. Dynamically, the Aztek feels more like a minivan than a truck or one of those compact car-based utes. The ride is softer than on many SUVs.

On the plus side, the Aztek seems plenty powerful enough for passing and merging, and we enjoyed the cabin, with its chunky grab handles, oversize vents, cargo nets and intuitively laid-out controls. We give Pontiac credit for having the guts to take some chances with design and try a few creative moves with the packaging.

Pontiac Aztek by the numbers

Length: 182.1 in.

Wheelbase: 108.3 in.

Height: 66.7 in.

Width: 73.7 in.

Engine: 3.4L V-6

Output: 185 hp

Fuel Economy: 18/24 mpg

Base Price: $24,995 (Aztek GT)

Where Built: Ramos Arizpe, Mexico

Source: Pontiac