Ford Flex is a new model that represents a sixth entry in Ford's already extensive lineup of people and cargo-carrier vehicles, joining Escape, Edge, Taurus X, Explorer, and Expedition on the showroom floor.
All Flex vehicles have three rows of seats, with a standard 2-3-2 layout or optional 2-2-2 layout. Under the skin, and in all functional aspects, Flex is identical to Taurus X. This makes it a passenger car, as opposed to body-on-frame truck, and gives it the basic stance and driving characteristics of a conventional car.
Three-row seating makes Flex larger and roomier than Escape or Edge. Its passenger-car platform makes it lower and more carlike than Explorer or Expedition. Those choosing Flex do so for a variety of reasons: They need something roomier than Escape or Edge. They don't either want or need the higher seating positions and trailer towing capabilities of Explorer or Expedition. They want something more distinctive and stylish than Taurus X. The tradeoffs are Flex being larger and thirstier than Escape or Edge, less rugged than Explorer or Expedition, and marginally more expensive than Taurus X.
A generation or two ago, Flex would have been called a station wagon. Those with longer memories might think of it as a modern version of Ford's venerable wood-sided Country Squire, with Taurus X being a slightly lower-level Country Sedan. In official releases, Ford is careful to refer to Flex as a crossover, which at this stage could mean just about anything. In an interesting attempt to set things straight, Ford design chief J Mays recently went ahead and called Flex a station wagon, which surely sent PR personnel scurrying but went a long way toward clearing the air. Call it a station wagon, for that's physically and functionally what it is.
The most direct competitors for the Flex are the Chevy Traverse, Saturn Outlook, GMC Arcadia, and Buick Enclave (all built on GM's Lambda platform), plus the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander. These competitors are quite different from the Flex in a variety of ways, so it's a good idea to shop them all to understand what each has to offer.
Projecting ahead, it's reasonable to assume Flex's ultimate success in the marketplace will depend less on the vehicle and its merits than the future price of fuel. Flex is a large and spacious vehicle that most would casually look at and assume to be pretty thirsty. Appearances aside, let's review at the numbers.
On recommended 87-octane regular unleaded gasoline, official EPA city/highway ratings for a front-wheel drive Flex are 17/24 mpg. An all-wheel-drive Flex comes in at 16/22 mpg. In a combination of city and highway driving, and driven as a station wagon might normally be driven, we observed averages in the 20-23 mpg range. Our test Flex AWD, driven steadily at 70 mph on a flat road, delivered instant readouts of 27-28 mpg. All this suggests that due to an advanced engine management system, sophisticated six-speed automatic transmission and comparatively tall gearing, Flex is more fuel-efficient than its size and mass might suggest. The question then becomes whether you can live with real-world fuel consumption somewhere in the 20-23 mpg range. If yes, Flex represents a stylish, elegant, comfortable and versatile choice.
The 2009 Ford Flex comes in three trim levels. All come with a 262-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine and a six-speed automatic transmission. A choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive is available.
The Ford Flex looks boxy. Make that boxy in an attention-getting and stylish sort of way, but boxy nonetheless. The hood is long and flat. So is the roof. The windshield stands tall and proud. Corners are squared-off. Side body panels are vertical; side glass is nearly vertical. 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.
In industry terms, Flex is called a two-box vehicle, which is to say one box (the body and greenhouse of the vehicle) grafted onto another box (the hood, front fenders and grille). Think the basic proportions of a shoebox with a notch cut out for the windshield and hood. This notch makes Flex look like an upscale station wagon or SUV, as opposed to what the market considers a less desirable and lower-image one-box minivan.
People seeing Flex for the first time generally agree it has presence and a variety of upscale cues. Those who find it attractive are reminded of Mini Clubman and Toyota FJ Cruiser, both sharing basic Flex proportions and even color-contrasting roofs. Think of Flex as a big Mini Clubman. Make that a really big Mini Clubman! Whatever design cues Flex shares with FJ Cruiser are less direct, but if you squint, there's clearly resemblance there as well.
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 brightwort, just short of bling, sets 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, bold, in-your-face 19-inch polished alloy wheels 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, Flex has a series of small, horizontal, body-color indents stamped into door panels. These not only visually lengthen the vehicle and break up mass along the sides, but likely also strengthen the panels and reduce oilcanning noise within the doors. Sure, such detailing is a little finicky and over the top, but Flex would look a lot heavier if the indents weren't there. Another Flex signature is the optional two-tone roof in either warm white or silver.
Height is an important design element. Flex is taller than most station wagons, but significantly lower than such traditional SUVs as Explorer and Expedition. Unlike traditional SUVs, the Flex roof is about at your eyeline, not above your eyeline. When you look at Flex from up-close, you're looking across to it, not up at it.
An informal survey among bystanders elicits a wide variety of responses. Supporters find it interesting and compelling. Detractors find it too boxy or simply too trendy; too much design working too hard to attract attention. Both supporters and detractors agree Flex gets looks and has an overall presence beyond what most would expect from a Ford. This suggests Flex succeeds in accomplishing what its designers clearly spent a lot of time working very hard to accomplish. Lots of design? You bet! Too much design? Well, only if you want to go unnoticed.
This diversity of opinion is not necessarily a bad thing. Some observers note that bland designs that offend no one are often less successful than designs that please some and offend others.
The Flex exterior is a mere warm-up for what's inside. Once again, interesting design elements are everywhere. While most cars show more attention and budget devoted to exterior design than interior design, it's clear Flex interior designers were given free reign and considerable budget to work their magic and get things right. Flex on the inside looks full, complete, spacious, roomy and luxurious. All the basics are covered. Most, if not all, the details are covered as well.
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. No, make that more Audi than Ford. Or, better yet, Audi with a fair amount of good-looking, but clearly faux, woodgrain trim.
The impression of comfort and luxury is reinforced by large door openings and excellent entry-egress to all three seat rows. Seats, particularly the front seats, are chair height, which means you slide across as opposed to jumping up or squatting down to sit. Easy for even the less limber among us.
People-carrying vehicles such as Flex are all about accommodations. Flex accommodations can be ranked in what might be called descending order.
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. More luxurious too. Ford speaks of a leather interior. This means perforated leather inserts and smooth leather seatback wrap on the front seats, but only leather inserts in the middle seats (vinyl everywhere else) and all-vinyl seats in back. Leather-accented interior might be a more apt description. (Though, in fairness, other manufacturers do this, also.) That said, all interior materials, including the seat vinyl’s, have a look and feel that communicate quality and durability.
Flex 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 2009-model vehicles we've tried that presumably have to meet the same requirements at least perceptually 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 to create or reduce third-row legroom. 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. Presto! Full rear seat access at the mere touch of a button! Clever and well done. Another interesting second-row touch is a pair of wedged footrests that Velcro to the carpeted floor and add to overall comfort.
Third-row seating is what might be called occasional for adults, but reasonably comfortable and accommodating for anyone under 5-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 backlight. 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.
Several Flex interior features are worth mentioning. First is the multi-function screen display in the center stack of the instrument panel. This is 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 reversing camera. 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.
Audio quality through the system developed by Sony is excellent.
Taken as a technology exercise, the in-dash screen functions and display are 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. Our advice: take a passenger along to work all the many functions while you do the driving. It's easy to get distracted when trying to work these systems while driving.
Other interesting features are color-adjustable cabin mood lighting and an optional refrigerator that installs between individual second-row seats on 2-2-2 vehicles. Not just a cooler that keeps cold things cold, but an actual refrigerator that takes warm things and makes them cold.
Another feature worth noting is the optional deep-tint Vista Roof. From the outside, this 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. Keep in mind the Vista Roof is not available on vehicles equipped with optional roof rack side rails, so anyone buying Flex has to decide between multiple moonroofs or a roof rack.
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. Of course, those needing more room or better access can easily fold third-row seats to suit.
Cargo capacity is 15.0 cubic feet with all three rows of seats in place, 43.2 cubic feet with the third-row seat folded down, 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, Flex is remarkably composed on the road and dynamically competent. Not just competent 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. Flex drives and 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. Flex is one composed and quiet car.
Its 3.5-liter V6 with double overhead-cams has more than adequate power for normal driving conditions, plus sufficient torque to either tow a 2000–pound load in standard guise or a 4500-pound load with optional trailer towing package. A newly designed six-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.
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 speed elicit no audible reply from the Hankook 235×19 tires. Four-wheel disc brakes with every conceivable electronic interface are equally quiet and composed.
Towing capacity is rated at 4500 pounds when equipped with the optional Class III Trailer Towing Prep Package.
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.