Substantially upgraded for 2013, the Ford Flex is an innovative vehicle, and the only full-size car of its kind. The Mazda5, a distant cousin, is the same people-moving type of vehicle in the midsize class, but the larger and smoother Flex is in a field of one. Ford says that among all its cars, the Flex has the highest percentage of return buyers, at 67 percent. And 45 percent of Flex owners are women.
With standard seating for seven in its 2-3-2 configuration (optional 2-2-2), the Flex is all about people. Except when the seats fold flat, as they easily do; then it can be all about cargo. Because Flex is not built on a rugged body-on-frame chassis, it's not like an old-school SUV. Nor is Flex like a van. At first Ford called it a crossover utility vehicle, but now Ford has decided that the term is unclear, so the latest official word is that it's just a utility vehicle. We'd call it a superb cross between a limo and a taxi. If you have a spouse and four or five kids who like to travel to distant places including snowy mountains or desert sands, the Ford Flex can't be beat.
All-wheel drive is available for wintry conditions.
The Ford Flex looks like a stylish box. The hood and roof are long and flat, the windshield stands relatively straight, the side and rear glass is flat, and the corners are sharp, although the front end has been rounded a bit for 2013. The shape is honest, simple, and even elegant, for a box. It suggests interior room and maximum space utilization. It has presence and upscale cues that some might call bling. It's not shy. The grille and tailgate have been redone for 2013, with a chrome or satin aluminum band, but frankly we can't say that's an improvement over the old three bars and signature blue oval.
There are substantial improvements for 2013. Most notable is a revised V6 that comes standard on the base 2013 Flex SE and 2013 Flex SEL: For 2013, the 3.5-liter V6 engine delivers 25 more horsepower, to 287 hp (with 254 foot-pounds of torque at 4000 rpm), while gaining 1 mile per gallon, to 18 City/25 Highway, according to the EPA. This boost to the base 3.5-liter V6 is the result of new Twin Independent Variable Camshaft Timing, or Ti-VCT as Ford calls it. Ford continues to lead the way among American manufacturers in engine technology.
The full-tilt Flex Limited all-wheel-drive model uses the dazzling twin-turbo 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 with 365 horsepower and 350 foot-pounds of torque at a super-low 1500 rpm, which gets just 2 mpg less than the base V6, or 16 City/23 Highway. We got 16.4 mpg running it hard for half a day, city and freeway but mostly two-lanes.
With the EcoBoost V6 you might find yourself at the limits of the suspension. Even though the springs and dampers were stiffened for 2013, our 2013 Flex Limited danced a lot during hard driving on rough and undulating two-lanes. But we also got good miles on an easy freeway and around town, and the Flex ride is smooth and composed. It's comfortable and doesn't feel firm. The cabin is silent and steady. It's a pleasure to drive.
We loved the seamless 6-speed transmission shifting and programming, and the ergonomics of the perfectly designed paddles, on the Limited. The same automatic transmission on the Flex SE and Flex SEL models is manually shifted with a small thumb button on the side of the lever, and the ergonomics of that setup were poor, demanding a cocked wrist and raised elbow.
The interior has been revised for 2013, with a new and beautiful instrument cluster, steering wheel, seats and trim; and there's been a total revamp of the previously problematic MyFordTouch electronic controls. The 2013 Flex interior looks full, spacious, and luxurious. The basics and details are well covered. Materials, plastics, fabrics, leathers and carpets are well matched with textures, and sheen is nicely controlled. The visual impression is upscale comfort and luxury, more Lincoln than Ford.
The cabin is exceptionally quiet, as there's been a lot of work on sound deadening on the new 2013 Flex, for example liners in the wheelwells.
The 2013 Ford Flex comes with a new brake system. We used the brakes hard on curvy two-lanes, and we loved the responsiveness and pedal feel. There's also new electronic power steering with a quicker steering ratio. Although the Flex is no sports sedan, the cornering is impressive for a vehicle like this, with fairly high limits.
However there's more to that than the tightened steering and suspension. For 2013, there's also new Torque Vectoring and Curve Control technology. More typically found on high-performance cars, Torque Vectoring uses the brakes to imitate the effect of a limited-slip differential, balancing torque between the front wheels during cornering, resulting in better grip and reduced understeer. Curve Control is like electronic stability control, only quicker; it senses when a vehicle is entering a curve too fast, and applies the brakes to individual wheels to cut the speed by up to 10 mph in one second. Think freeway on-ramps or off-ramps, especially in the wet.
If those safety features weren't enough, the 2013 Flex is available with the automotive world's first production rear inflatable shoulder belts, designed to offer improved comfort and protection for rear-seat passengers. The advanced restraint system is designed to help reduce head, neck and chest injuries for rear seat passengers, often children and older passengers who can be more vulnerable to such injuries.
Ford Flex SE FWD ($30,885); SEL FWD ($33,225); SEL AWD ($35,175); Limited AWD EcoBoost ($39,230)
The Ford Flex is a stylish box. Some will find the shape honest, simple, and even elegant, for a box. It suggests interior room and maximum space utilization. It has presence and upscale cues that some might call bling. It's not shy.
Five feet eight inches tall, the Flex is higher than a station wagon but lower than an SUV like the Ford Explorer. The roof is about eye level, so you don't find yourself looking up at it, or perceive yourself climbing up to get into it.
The hood and roof are long and flat, the windshield stands relatively straight up, the side and rear glass is flat, and the corners are sharp angles, although the front end has been rounded a bit for 2013. The doors are striped with four horizontal grooves, like speed lines on a drawing or cartoon, apparently an attempt to make the Flex look less boxy. We wonder if it's an afterthought. We're not sure if it helps or not. These indents must also help stiffen the doors, for a more solid closing sound.
What does work is the addition for 2013 of black for the roof (adding to silver or white); too bad the black roof comes with a package that includes 20-inch wheels. We drove a titanium-colored Flex with a black roof and mirrors, plus far-out black and machined wheels, and it looked hot. Not a Mommy car, for sure. Add 365 horsepower and two turbochargers under the long hood of our Flex, and it's a one-of-a-kind vehicle.
Speaking of bling, there's a new grille and tail trim for 2013. Ford has apparently abandoned what it was calling its signature for the last few years, a three-bar grille. Now it's just a silver band, chrome on the SE and satin aluminum on the Limited. Another band across the liftgate. Must have taken the designers all of an afternoon to knock it off. We long for simple black eggcrate or mesh (like the Taurus SHO). Is this the same company that created the fantastic new Fusion?
There are six new wheel designs for 2013, so you can probably find some you like, unless you're picky like us. The SE has standard 17s, the SEL 18s, the Limited 19s, and 20-inchers for rappers are optional.
The Ford Flex interior has gotten a makeover for 2013, and it's beautiful. For starters, MyFordTouch (Flex SEL and Limited) has been redesigned and reprogrammed, and now it works. This good news gets better. Owners of the 2011 Flex (or any Ford) with the confusing and maddening first version of MyFordTouch can take their vehicles to their dealer and get the new version installed for free. Presto, your screen and controls get cleaner, simpler, and understandable except maybe sometimes.
The main display of gauges is gorgeous. Graphics for the speedometer are clear and bright in organic white, and a pleasure to look at; it's the kind of thing that makes one love their car. But function is another story. There is a frustration: the tachometer, smaller than the speedo and to the left of it, keeps appearing and disappearing on the screen, based on when some program thinks you want or need to see it. We tried and tried to figure out what drove it, and we found no pattern. We floored the throttle, and the tach appeared, hooray; we downshifted and floored the throttle, and it didn't appear. Maybe later, when we get a full week in the car and an hour with the manual, we can find a way to keep it displayed.
The trip odometer does the same thing. Someone is out there deciding for us drivers when we need that information. On this day we were following a route, and needed that information a lot. To get the trip odo back, each time, we had to take our concentration off our driving and go through three clicks, removing our eyes from the road twice.
We wonder when manufacturers will learn that they're not doing drivers any favors by making all these decisions for them. We fear that it will be never. The presumption of their own prescience is staggering.
Hey, at least the perforated leather-trimmed seats, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel with controls, and the transmission paddles too, are luscious and terrific.
The lovely center stack contains a big 5x8-inch MyFordTouch screen that makes a satisfying blip when you engage something. Your fingers fit. The only dial on the centerstack, at least with the SEL and Limited with MFT, is a big one for the radio. Most everything else is on the touch screen, and its clarity is vastly improved over the previous generation of MFT, which lasted all of two years before being basically booed off the stage. There are also 15 climate control buttons, and this sounds like a lot, but no, each one has a function. Finding comfort in life is that complicated, nowadays.
There's a big glovebox that's easy to open, deep door pockets, ergonomically easy door handles, and great cubbies here and there, including a deep downhill cubby like a rabbit hole forward of the shift lever, and clever ones by the driver's right knee and passenger's left knee. No less than 10 cup and bottle holders, grab handles, lush padded armrest lid for the deep center console between the seats, with USB ports inside. It's all been thought out.
Moving rearward, it remains all good. The second-row seats are way comfortable, with a drop-down console in the center, cupholders, climate controls, power outlets, more cupholders, trays, seatback pockets, and last but not least, excellent legroom. Large door openings allow easy entry and egress. Seats are chair height, so you don't have to climb up to sit down. The second-row seats are adjustable fore and aft.
Even the third row is a decent seat, with thin flip-up headrests. Access to the third row is okay, as the second-row seat flips forward. You raise a lever on the 60/40 rear seat to drop the seatback, then lift a nylon loop to flip the seat up to vertical. It takes two hands, and might need to be held in that position since there is no latch to hold it upright.
There's also a power option, for folding the second row flat. Push a button in the C-pillar and the seatback folds forward, then the seat cushion folds up. There's even optional power for the third row seat. It's not cheap, but it doesn't get any easier. Raise the liftgate, press a button, and watch it go flat for you.
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 cabin is exceptionally quiet, as there's been a lot of work on sound deadening for the 2013 Flex, for example liners in the wheelwells.
Given some other fine things we haven't even gotten to, the Flex makes a wonderful family road trip vehicle. If you want to drop another five grand or so on options, you can have the ultimate road trip machine, with reclining rear seats, DVD rear-seat entertainment system, Vista roof, even a real refrigerator with the 2-2-2 seating. Comfort and convenience get no better than this, for long hours on the road, as long as you don't need to closely watch the trip odometer.
Before we get to the awesome 365 horsepower in the twin-turbo EcoBoost V6 engine, let's just say that 287 horsepower in the new Ti-VCT V6 is enough. Acceleration is smooth and good. The lesser V6 can easily tow 2000 pounds as is, and 4500 pounds with the optional tow package. Both engines use the same sweet 6-speed automatic transmission with a manual mode, so there's no advantage there. The difference in fuel mileage is 2 mpg.
But it's not really a decision about which engine you need, because the EcoBoost comes only with the Limited; so you'll end up with either 287 or 365 horsepower more probably based on the options and comfort level you want. You can, however, get a heavily optioned Flex SEL with all-wheel drive and the Ti-VCT V6, if you have an aversion to 365 horsepower, and want 22 mpg instead of 20.
Another thing about the EcoBoost V6 is that you'll more easily find yourself at the limits of the suspension, because it's faster. Even though the springs and dampers were stiffened for 2013, our Flex danced a lot during our hard driving on rough and undulating two-lanes. At least it was only up-and-down, not side-to-side, which suggests rebound tuning on the shock absorbers. We should say that we were pushing the Flex harder than most owners ever will, but still not pushing it unreasonably. And we had just one passenger; as a people hauler, with others in the rear rows, this kind of driving just doesn't happen because the passengers would scream bloody murder. Which is a good thing, because the suspension would scream uncle if trying to drive hard with all that people weight.
On the freeway and around town we found the Flex ride to be smooth and composed. It's comfortable and doesn't feel firm. The cabin is silent and steady. It's a pleasure to drive the Ford Flex.
We loved the seamless 6-speed transmission shifting and programming, and the ergonomics of the perfectly designed paddles, on the Limited. The transmission on the Flex SE and SEL models is manually shifted with a small thumb button on the side of the lever, and we hated the ergonomics of that setup, requiring a cocked wrist and raised elbow.
The EcoBoost V6 in the Flex Limited is very smooth, and emits a light growl out the twin chrome exhaust pipes. But because the Flex is a heavy vehicle, even with all that horsepower it isn't a rocket.
For 2013 there's a new brake system with a larger master cylinder, revised booster tuning for improved brake feel, and upgraded friction material for additional resistance to fade. We used the brakes hard, and they felt wonderful, strong but not too sensitive, with progressive feel to the pedal.
There's also new electronic power steering syste on the 2013 Flex with a quicker steering ratio. Still, back in those curves, the steering sometimes feels behind the car, like it's just guiding the wheels, not steering them. The handling is never boaty, but it can feel a bit floaty, even with the revised spring and damper rates making the Flex more responsive than before.
Keep in mind that none of this is affected by the impressive Torque Vectoring Control, and Curve Control technology. These systems step in when traction is an issue, due to speed or hard throttle application, and we weren't there yet. At least we don't think so. One of the things about Torque Vectoring is that it's almost imperceptible (the next day we would drive a Ford Taurus SHO with these systems, harder than we drove the Flex, and we could definitely feel it). Torque Vectoring uses the stability control module to monitor the vehicle 100 times per second; as the car accelerates through a corner, the system detects when the front inside wheel is starting to slip and applies an imperceptible amount of braking to the wheel, which transfers torque to the outside wheel, which has more grip, thus maintaining traction, balance, and steering control.
Curve Control comes into play when the car enters a corner too fast, by cutting power and adding braking. It's expected to be particularly useful when a driver hits a freeway on- or off-ramps with too much speed, especially on wet pavement.
The Ford Flex is the only game in town, if you want a smooth, fast, comfortable, safe, and roomy full-size utility vehicle that seats seven and isn't a crossover or SUV. It's got the latest technology and available options, and is available with all-wheel drive to take you anywhere. Like they used to say, Ford has a better idea.
Sam Moses filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from Portland, Oregon, after his test drive of the Ford Flex lineup.