Not quite a minivan, not quite an SUV, the stylish new Ford Flex may be the first 21st Century Ford station wagon from a company that practically invented the segment. It's an addition to the Ford product line, designed to compliment the smaller 5-seater Taurus and the Taurus X with which it shared a platform.

The Ford Flex was built to compete successfully against the GM quartet of CUVs: Acadia, Enclave, Outlook and Traverse, plus the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, and the Chrysler and Dodge minivans, among others.

The Flex was designed to look like nothing else on the road. It has square corners, four conventional doors, a rear hatch, a long, flat hood and the now-familiar Ford three-bar horizontal grille. But it also has an all-black greenhouse regardless of paint or roof color, and it has a decidedly low-slung stance, just the opposite of most SUVs. For such a long, wide vehicle, it has a drag coefficient of only 0.33, a very good number for its size.

The Flex is the only vehicle of its type that incorporates its rocker panels as part of the sheet metal of the doors, folding under to the chassis. The Ford designers said it makes the car look longer and lower than it is, and makes it easier to get in and out without getting dirt on your pants.

The Flex is built on a 118-inch wheelbase version of the same chassis that goes under the Taurus, Sable and Taurus X, and that extra length gives it what Ford says is the largest interior in its class at just under 176 cubic feet. The EPA says it has 155.8 cubic feet of passenger space, 20 cubic feet of space behind the third row seats, 43.2 cubic feet with the third row seats folded down, and 83.2 cubic feet with the second and third row seats folded down. Every seat in the Flex but the driver's seat seats, including the front passenger seat, folds down flat, which means you can carry cargoes up to 119 inches long inside.

For the Flex, Ford lengthened the body structure it shares two inches with the wheelbase being stretched a full five inches. The entire five inches of additional length are added to the second row for easy entry and exit and lots of legroom for the second-row passengers. The B-pillar was moved back for easy ingress/egress, and Ford says there is 44 inches of legroom in a Flex, with seven inches of knee clearance.

The engine in the Ford Flex is a 3.5-liter 24-valve V-6 engine that's in all the other Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles on this platform, slightly detuned to 262 horsepower at 6250 rpm and 248 foot-pounds of torque at 4500 rpm.

The 6-speed automatic transmission is the only available choice and the customer can choose front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive configurations. The optional Haldex all-wheel-drive system can deliver up to 100 percent of engine torque to the front or rear tires, and can adjust torque side-to-side to match traction conditions. The Haldex drive system adds 111 pounds to the front-wheel-drive version's 4529 pounds for a total of 4640 pounds. The front-drive Flex will be rated at 17 mpg city and 24 highway, the all-wheel-drive version at 16 mpg city and 22 highway.

The Flex pricing starts at the SE trim level of $28,895, with the mid-level SEL model at $32,970 and the Limited model at $35,405, in FWD or AWD, in six- or seven-seater interior configurations. The price for the all-wheel-drive option, available on SEL and Limited models only, is $1850.

Standard equipment on all models includes Roll Stability Control, traction control, all the normal power assists, reverse sensing, rear air-conditioning, 18-inch wheels and tires, Ford's cap-less fueling system, and fog lamps. Both 19-inch and 20-inch tires and wheels are optional, the latter mounting monster P255/45R20 H-rated tires that make it look really cool. Any Flex can be ordered with a white roof, a silver roof, or a body-color roof.

Ford has trumped every competitor vehicle in the van, minivan and SUV class with its new refrigerator option for the Flex. It's is a real refrigerator, not a cooler, with a compressor, fan and exhaust system. It's capable of achieving temperatures of 41 degrees Fahrenheit or, at the flip of a switch, temperatures as low as -5 degrees Fahrenheit. The refrigerated space can stow a wide variety of containers, and can hold up to seven 12-ounce cans in its position between the two second-row bucket seats. Ford says the refrigerator will run even with the engine off, and after it shuts off, is so well insulated that it will take several hours before the temperature falls far enough to have to cool or freeze the contents all over again. It's a $760 option on any model as long as you order the second-row bucket seats, too.

Sirius Travel Link is another first-time option on the Ford Flex. You get 130 stations of Sirius satellite radio, but you also get satellite navigation, real-time weather, real-time traffic, and information on fuel prices in the local area. Travel Link can display weather information in radar, map or satellite formats, or as tables, including current weather, the five-day forecast, and ski reports. The Travel Link system can also display local movie listings for the top 40 most popular movies, as well as sports scores for every major sports league. The system includes a rear-view camera for backing up safely, and six months of service, at an option price of $2375.

The HDD navigation system can store up to 150 hours of music, with album covers, and it can play an iPod, and upload photos for display on the nav screen through a USB port. Another new option in Flex is a Sony 7.1 10-channel, 390-watt, ten-speaker sound system, or the optional twin headrest-screen DVD player.

The Microsoft Sync hands-free music and telephone system is also available in the Flex for an additional $395, with an automatic 911 accident notification added to the existing Sync technology.

On our first test-drive we got to drive the Flex from the borough of Queens up into Connecticut to Greenwich, then all the way back down to Gramercy Park in lower Manhattan. Our test car was a Limited AWD, priced at about $40,000 including the optional Vista Roof, the Travel Link and Sync systems, heated reclining rear bucket seats, two-tone paint, roof rack, and 19-inch polished wheels with 235/55R-19 tires.

The Flex drove pretty well considering its weight, and it stops and handles much better than we had expected. It's very quiet inside at road speeds, and you can hear very well from the first row to the third and vice versa. The seating position is high and the dashboard is low so it's easy to see out in all directions. The front bucket seats were very comfortable even after all day in traffic. The second and third row seats were very roomy and comfortable, and the theater-style seat mounting made it easy to see out even from the third row.

Acceleration from the 3.5-liter engine is good if not exciting or heart-pounding. The engine felt smooth and powerful, and the transmission showed us quick, positive shifts up and down. The brake pedal feel and power were very good for a vehicle this heavy.

The Flex's ride quality was also very good, without a lot of body roll. The low ride height makes it easy to get in or out. The simple instrument package, the 8-inch display screen, the center stack, and the wood, leather and chrome trim all fit together well and are easy on the eyes, with tight gaps throughout the interior.

With its refreshing design, easy-to-live-with low ride height, big tires and wheels, quiet and spacious interior, and the all-around solid performance, we think the new Ford Flex should be a big success in the marketplace. Especially in a competitive field that looks old and stodgy by comparison to this entirely new shape, size and style of family wagon.

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