The Ford Flex is a full-size crossover utility vehicle that can seat up to seven adults and carry luggage or groceries at the same time. It's the modern-day equivalent of what used to be the family station wagon, but no station wagon can match the comfort, utility, capabilities or driving enjoyment of the Flex.
The Flex has three rows of seats, with a standard 2-3-2 layout or optional 2-2-2 configuration. It's built on a passenger-car platform, as opposed to that of a body-on-frame truck, and thus has the basic stance and friendly driving characteristics of a car.
The Flex is larger and roomier than the Ford Edge, and its three-row seating allows it to carry more people, and in more comfort. Its passenger-car platform makes it lower and more carlike than the Explorer or Expedition, and thus easier to drive and live with in daily use. Competitors for the Flex include the Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, and Buick Enclave, though they are quite different in a variety of ways.
Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 17/24 mpg City/Highway for a front-wheel-drive Flex, 16/22 mpg for the base-engine all-wheel-drive model, and that's on Regular 87 octane gasoline.
The Flex offers a choice of V6 engines: the relatively conventional 3.5-liter Duratec, and the more powerful 3.5-liter EcoBoost. EcoBoost utilizes advanced turbocharging technology to deliver the fuel efficiency of a smaller engine with the power and performance of a larger engine. EcoBoost includes two turbochargers and direct fuel injection. The 3.5-liter V6 EcoBoost engine in the Flex is rated at 355 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque, yet with little penalty in fuel economy compared to the standard non-EcoBoost 3.5-liter V6, which is rated at 262 horsepower. In the Flex, the EcoBoost engine is available only with all-wheel drive.
For 2011, Ford has added the new flagship Titanium model, featuring an abundance of sinister-looking blackout trim (inside and out), relieved by 20-inch, five-spoke Luster-Nickel wheels. The voice-activated navigation package now includes HD radio. Limited and Titanium models offer optional one-touch PowerFold and tumble third-row seating. And some new option packages are available.
Ford Flex SE FWD ($29,075); SEL FWD ($31,875); SEL AWD ($33,725); SEL AWD EcoBoost ($36,720); Limited FWD ($37,845); SEL AWD ($36,720); Limited FWD ($37,845); Limited AWD ($39,695) Limited AWD EcoBoost ($42,690); Titanium FWD ($40,340): Titanium AWD ($42,190): Titanium AWD EcoBoost ($45,185)
The Ford Flex looks boxy, in an attention-getting and stylish sort of way, but boxy nonetheless. The hood and roof are long and flat, the windshield stands tall and proud, corners are squared-off, side body panels are vertical, side glass is nearly vertical, and the tailgate could be plotted with a T-square. The overall box shape suggests interior room and maximum space utilization. Many would also find the shape honest, simple and elegant.
People seeing the Flex for the first time generally agree it has presence and a variety of upscale cues. Those who find it attractive are reminded of the Mini Clubman and Toyota FJ Cruiser, both of which share basic Flex proportions and even color-contrasting tops.
The Flex may at heart be a functional people and cargo-carrier, but it's certainly not shy when it comes to exterior design. There's design everywhere, both in the overall look of the vehicle and in the details. A fair amount of brightwork, just short of bling, sets the Flex apart and communicates upscale intentions. A signature three-bar Ford grille in a muted silver finish extends across the front. Front bumper foglights are encased in highly reflective jeweled surrounds. Door mirror housings are not only chromed, but the caps have little tab-like crenellations that sparkle in sunlight. Big, bright 19-inch polished alloy wheels on the Limited suggest Lincoln more than Ford, as do large chrome door handles, bright window surrounds, and a shiny band running across the tailgate that repeats the front grille theme.
Beyond the brightwork, the Flex has a series of small, horizontal, body-color indents stamped into the door panels. These not only visually lengthen the vehicle and break up mass along the sides, but likely also strengthen the panels and reduce oil-canning noise within the doors. Sure, such detailing is a little finicky and over the top, but the Flex would look a lot heavier if the indents weren't there. Another Flex signature is the optional roof color of either warm white or silver.
On the new Titanium model, a black chrome grille, black trim around the park-and-turn lights, and darkened headlight bezels visually unite these different elements into a single, dark panel spanning the face of vehicle and wrapping around into the front fenders. Similarly, blacked-out nacelles make the fog lights disappear into the air opening below the bumper. The Flex name is spelled out in bold, black capitals above the grille, a rather truck-like touch. Around back, the taillights and the trim panel between them get the same blackout treatment as the headlights and grille. A black-painted roof ties it all together. Ten-spoke, 20-inch alloy wheels are painted a color Ford calls Luster Nickel, which has a subtle brightness that nicely complements the Titanium's otherwise dark trim
The Flex is taller than most station wagons but significantly lower than such traditional SUVs as the Explorer and Expedition. Unlike traditional SUVs, the Flex roof is about level with your eyes, not above them, so when you look at the Flex from up-close, you're looking across it, not up at it.
Inside, interesting design elements are everywhere. While most cars show more attention and budget devoted to exterior design than interior design, it's clear the Flex interior designers were given free reign and considerable budget to work their magic and get things right. The Flex on the inside looks full, complete, spacious, roomy and luxurious. All the basics and most of the details are well covered.
On opening a door and seeing the Flex interior for the first time, the impression is rich and inviting. Color coordination is carefully managed. Materials, plastics, fabrics, leathers and carpets are well matched with textures and sheen is nicely controlled. The visual impression is more Lincoln than Ford, and definitely upscale. Titanium models feature unique charcoal leather with grey Alcantara suede inserts.
The impression of comfort and luxury is reinforced by large door openings and excellent entry and egress for all three seat rows. Seats are chair height, which means you slide across as opposed to jumping up or squatting down to sit, making it easy for even the less limber among us.
The two front seats, separated by a stylish multi-function console, are more comfortable and accommodating than the second-row seats, which in turn are more comfortable and accommodating than the third-row seats. Perforated leather inserts and smooth leather seatbacks are on the front seats, but only leather inserts in the middle seats (vinyl everywhere else) and all-vinyl seats in back. All interior materials, including the vinyls, have a look and feel that communicate quality and durability.
The front seats are superb, beautifully shaped and wonderfully supportive over long drives. There is a caveat, though, in the form of fairly aggressive headrests Ford claims are mandated by new federal safety standards. These place your head farther forward than you might be accustomed to, in the interest of reducing whiplash in the event of a rear-end accident. Maybe so, but other vehicles that must meet the same requirements seem to have less intrusive headrests.
Second-row seats offer generous legroom and basic support good for long trips, and are marginally less supportive and comfortable than those in front. The second-row seats are adjustable fore and aft, and they can also be folded through an electric switch to enable third-row access. Push a button in the C-pillar and the seatback folds forward, then the seat cushion folds up. It's clever and well done. Another interesting second-row touch is a pair of wedged footrests that attach, with Velcro, to the carpeted floor and add greatly to overall comfort.
For 2011, Ford has added a power-fold option for the third row as well. Still, third-row seating is what might be called occasional for adults, but reasonably comfortable and accommodating for anyone under five-feet tall. Adults can reasonably hang on for 30 minutes or so; longer than that, and it becomes confining. This sense of confinement is exacerbated by all rear side glass being fixed, as well as the rear window. Third-row ventilation either has to come from overhead A/C ducts or someone in the second row opening rear-door windows. On sunny days, the third row can quickly become hot and stuffy.
The multi-function screen display in the center stack of the instrument panel works in conjunction with Ford's SYNC Hands-Free and Communications System and offers everything from airwave audio to satellite audio, climate controls, Sirius Travel Link, navigation, hands-free phone and rearview camera monitor. Push-button or touch-sensitive switches are either adjacent to the screen, on the steering wheel, or within the screen itself. Split-screen readouts are available. The reversing camera offers a day-for-night feature, which means that even in the darkest alleys, the rear-view image you see on the screen is as bright and clear as in broad daylight. We found the rearview camera in the Flex to be one of the best available for backing around obstacles.
Audio quality through the system developed by Sony is excellent.
The in-dash screen functions and display look spectacular. The colors, the graphics, the sheer range of capabilities never fail to impress. In practice, there are some limitations. The voice recognition function often takes a couple of tries to get it right. Maybe it's the accent, maybe it's the inflections, maybe it's ambient noise, but regardless you learn to pace yourself giving instructions and have to be prepared to try more than once. Then there are the screen readouts. Some colors (red, for instance) are hard to see in certain lighting conditions. Others are in symbols or fonts too small to distinguish while driving. Still, the system as a whole is a technological tour de force and clearly paves the way for future developments. In any case, don't work these systems while driving.
An refrigerator that fits between second-row bucket seats on 2-2-2 models is available. It's not just a cooler that keeps cold things cold, but an actual refrigerator that takes warm things and makes them cold.
The deep-tint Vista Roof appears to be a single moonroof over the front-row seats combined with a huge glass panel over the second and third-row seats. From the inside, the front-row pane is a conventional glass moonroof with normal slide and tilt features. In the second row, glass is visible over the right and left sides, with a solid headliner trim panel up the middle. In the third row, a single glass pane extends across the seat from left to right. Second and third-row overhead glass is fixed, with retractable sliding shades to reduce interior heat and glare.
Behind the third-row seat is a small cargo area about the size and shape of what you might find in a minivan. This is accessed through a swing-up one-piece tailgate. The load floor is carved into a recessed well, which keeps cargo in place and prevents things spilling out but also makes access marginally more difficult than with a flat load floor. Those needing more room or better access can easily fold the third-row seats to suit.
Cargo capacity is 20.0 cubic feet with all three rows of seats in place, 43.2 cubic feet with the third-row seat folded down, and 83.2 cubic feet with the second- and third-row seats down.
The Ford Flex and other people and cargo movers are more about features, accommodations and equipment than the actual driving experience. That said, the Flex is remarkably composed on the road and dynamically competent, and not just for a vehicle its size, but remarkably taut for a vehicle of any size. Seamless is the word that comes to mind.
The prevailing feeling on the road is less of power and speed than overall safety and solidity. The Flex feels like a vault. NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) control is exceptional. This results from a well reinforced body structure (both visible and notable in the way the various pillars and door openings are constructed) that eliminates the usual creaks and groans. The only noise you hear while underway comes from the mirrors, but even this is only slight and at speeds over 65 mph. The Flex is one composed and quiet car.
The standard 3.5-liter V6, with double overhead-cams and 262 horsepower, has more than adequate power for normal driving conditions, along with sufficient torque to either tow a 2000?pound load in standard form or a 4500-pound load with the optional trailer towing package. The 6-speed automatic transmission does its job efficiently and well. We found it was rarely, if ever, caught in the wrong gear.
Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 17/24 mpg City/Highway, 16/22 mpg with all-wheel drive.
The EcoBoost V6, with its 355 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque, is a wonder of power and response, and brings with its additional output only a small penalty in fuel economy, being rated at 16/21 City/Highway mpg.
Ride quality is controlled to the point of neither being noticeable nor a real factor in the driving experience. Cornering is level and quiet. Turns taken at enthusiastic speeds elicit no audible reply from the tires. Four-wheel disc brakes with every conceivable electronic interface are equally quiet and composed, and provide peace of mind.
The Ford Flex is a large, stylish and capable crossover vehicle that can carry six or seven passengers and a fair amount of cargo in luxury and comfort. It is easy to access, easy to use, easy to drive over short and long distances, and comfortable for everyone. The exterior design is distinctive and memorable. The interior is filled with clever details and surprise-and-delight features. High-tech touches abound. For families who need a large vehicle, the Ford Flex offers everything you would want in the way of a satisfying and rewarding vehicle to own and drive.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Rex Parker filed this report from Santa Monica, California.