2009 Ford Flex Expert Review:Autoblog
When the Ford Fairlane concept bowed in Detroit in 2005, it proved that Ford could design a stylish crossover recognizable from a mile away. Unfortunately, Ford didn't exactly have a stellar record of bringing hot concepts to market, so expectations were low that we would ever see the Fairlane reach production. Fast forward to 2008, and the Ford Flex is born. It's bigger than the Fairlane, yet it looks very much like the outlandish wagon that we saw in Motor City a few years earlier. Does the Ford Flex have the style, capability and appointments to be a player in the suddenly crowded large CUV market? Or is this modern day Woody just another oversized people hauler that misses the mark? Hit the jump to see how the all-new Flex fared during its stay in the Autoblog Garage.
All photos Copyright ©2007 Chris Shunk / Weblogs, Inc.
While the Ford cupboard is full of crossovers of various shapes and sizes, only the Edge slightly stands out for its styling. That changes with the arrival of the Flex. Its boxy, love it or hate it looks signals that Blue Oval designers have finally learned the recipe for generating some type of enthusiasm from the American buyer. The square dimensions, low ride height and massive 19-inch rims give the Flex a truly unique appearance in the market place, and the distinctive features don't end there. Our Cinnamon Clearcoat Metallic tester arrived with a White Suede roof, which contrasted nicely with the exterior hue. Black and silver lids are also available and the raked side panels accentuate the length and brawn of the Flex while also giving it some old school Woody flare. The available chromed rear end makes things appear more interesting out back.
With a steady stream of new cars and trucks to test, we're used to hearing comments from on-lookers about what we're driving. Of the vehicle's we've reviewed in the past couple years, the Flex garnered more attention -- good and bad -- than most. Three neighbors wanted to take it for a drive. One guy said it looked like a hot fudge sundae with whipped cream on top (he wasn't impressed). A woman even walked into the barber shop and asked who was driving the Flex. She wanted to take a closer look, and then waited for me to finish getting my trim before scoping out the boxy people mover. The Freestyle/Taurus X has never received that kind of attention and it speaks volumes about the quantum leap Ford took with the Flex.
The Flex is in a league of its own with regards to styling (good or bad), but at heart it's simply a seven-passenger family hauler. The interior is a very important place for soccer moms and dads, and since the Flex is Ford's defacto minivan, it has to be comfortable and full of things families want and need. Our tester carried a $43,250 price tag, and included a massive 8.5-inch navigation system with Travel Link, a Vista moon roof that spans all three rows, all-wheel-drive, and a refrigerator/freezer located at the second row console.
When we first had the chance to sit inside a Flex at the 2007 New York Auto Show, we were met with the same hard plastic that adorns the Taurus X. Fortunately, Ford performed a complete 180 for the production model, and the result is a level of refinement that is unsurpassed in the Ford lineup, stacking up nicely against the Honda Pilot and Buick Enclave. Plastics are high quality, feel great to the touch, and have plenty of cushion in all the right places. The center arm rest is made of leather, the steering wheel is thick and pleasant to the touch, and the seating surfaces are well-bolstered with ample thigh support.
There were plenty of options on our Flex, and Ford's new navigation system with Travel Link was our clear favorite. It's bright, simple to operate, and has clever features like a gas station finder that can sort by proximity or price. The Vista roof is massive, and the kids loved it, but it's tough to justify at $1,400. Without the shade drawn, the interior temperature skyrockets and causes the air conditioner to work overtime -- not to mention the weight penalty it adds to the already hefty, two-ton Flex. The second row refrigerator, at $760, was another option that we would omit from the options list. It's minuscule, costs as much as a 25 cubic foot Frigidaire, and just doesn't provide much bang for the buck. We'll stick with a $15 cooler and a half bag of ice if we want to travel with cold beverages.
Out on the open road or in congested traffic, the Flex provided plenty of comfort and capability. Ford's 3.5L V6 performs its task well, providing 262 hp for the driver to play with. It won't strike fear into the hearts of radials and it isn't Lexus smooth, but it'll get you onto the freeway without much fuss. The 6F50 six-speed transmission, co-developed with GM, was smooth as butter, though we would have liked to have a manual mode to play with in place of Ford's standard "PRNDL" fare. Fuel economy was right in line with that of the AWD competition, averaging 20.6 mpg in mixed driving. FWD models score about two mpg better in the EPA cycle, so if fuel economy is a top concern, you may want to skip out on the ability to move all four wheels at the same time.
The Flex is underpinned by a reworked version of the Taurus-X platform, and the ride is very smooth while providing some driver feedback that other crossovers miss. Ford engineers did an adequate job of giving drivers steering feel, and while the result is better than what we've experienced in the Edge, we'd still like a little more feedback. Since the Flex has a relatively low center of gravity, body roll is well controlled, but predictably, the 19-inch wheels don't soak up bumps quite as well as vehicles with more moderately sized rollers.
Over the past couple years, the number of crossovers on the roads has skyrocketed. Ford has invested plenty of time and money on the segment, and after coming close to getting it right with the Edge, the Blue Oval has struck gold with the Flex. It has the technology customers crave, its interior is world class, and it turns heads everywhere it goes. Does the Flex have enough of what customers want to make it a hit? We think Ford finally struck the bulls-eye.
All photos copyright Chris Shunk / Weblogs Inc.
Click above for high-res gallery of the Ford Flex
As things turned out a brand new Ford Flex turned up the Ypsilanti branch of the Autoblog garage just a week after my friend Chris had one. While Chris used the Flex as a daily hauler, my family and I used the Flex to make a trek up to Traverse City in the opposite corner of Michigan's lower peninsula for a vacation. Our all-wheel-drive Flex was slightly less loaded than Chris' unit, missing the navigation system and built in refrigerator. The gray vacation mobile also had the base 18 inch wheel package rather than the 19s on Chris' tester.
Since we had rented a house by lake, we decided to bring a bunch of food and assorted other stuff so that we wouldn't have to eat out all the time. The massive interior volume of the Flex made loading up the back a breeze. The well behind the third row seats easily holds a full-size cooler and folding the rear seats forward provides a perfect platform for suitcases beach towels, floaties for lounging on the water or whatever else you choose to bring along. Read the rest of my impressions after the jump.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.
Once we were all ensconced in the Flex we headed out on the 260 mile trip and Ford's new crossover proved itself to be close to the perfect family hauler. While Ford calls this a crossover, the reality is that this is the 21st Country Squire wagon. It drives like a very capable car which is essentially what this is. The Flex shares the same revamped suspension with the Lincoln MKS although with a 5 inch longer wheelbase. Through some twisty roads outside of Traverse City, the Flex body stayed parallel to the pavement and held on tight over rough pavement. The interior of the Flex was also very quiet and relaxed and the seats remained comfortable over the five hour drive.
As Chris noted the Flex attracts a lot of attention. While driving a car like the Audi R8 gets a lot of looks, few people actually walk up and ask questions about it. Not so the Flex. From the senior gentleman at the drugstore who queried me about what it was like to drive to the kid in his early 20s at the kayak rental place, everyone wanted to know what kind of mileage it got and how much it cost. The response to the styling seemed to be almost universally positive. This is certainly a change from the Freestyle which almost no one even noticed existed.
For those that need the extra interior volume, this new wagon is certainly one of the best choices out there. If I were buying I'd probably pass on the all-wheel-drive and the $1,495 vista moon-roof (or BAMR as one of my friends that works for Ford calls it) and keep the price closer to $30K. Over the course of 10 days with the Flex we averaged an impressive 21 mpg. Lose the rear axle driver hardware this would probably climb another mpg or two. There is really only one functional change I would make to the Flex. The long second row doors should be sliders, rather than hinged. Unfortunately people would then see this as one of the dreaded minivans rather than the more popular crossover so that's not gonna happen. But we can dream can't we?
Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.
Those of you who follow the auto industry as obsessively as we do will immediately recognize the all-new 2009 Ford Flex as the production version of the well-received Ford Fairlane "People Mover" concept from the 2005 Chicago Auto Show. The suicide doors are gone and the front has been opened up a bit to allow the engine to breathe... but Ford's execution from concept to production is, for the most part, dead-on. Ford recently gave us the opportunity to drive the new Flex in Southern California, so follow the jump to read our first impressions of the Blue Oval's new people mover.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Michael Harley / Weblogs, Inc.
A simple two-box design, the Flex borrows styling cues from the MINI Cooper, Honda Element, and Scion xB. Refining the shape, Ford designers have sculpted four horizontal grooves running lengthwise into the side door panels. Making this Ford both unique and interesting, the design element visually stretches the vehicle and emphasizes its long wheelbase (hint: cargo capacity and smooth ride). The roof is also separated from the body by an all-black greenhouse (a first for Ford). Standard tinted glass on all rear windows emphasizes what Ford calls "...mystery and intrigue in the design" while chrome and bright metallic accents highlight the rear liftgate, door handles, trim, and mirrors. The face of the Flex features Ford's three-bar grille, with headlights and fog lamps following the common theme with their bright surrounds.
In a deliberately non-minivan style, two front-hinged passenger doors open wide on each side, while a power-operated tailgate takes up the rear. The bottom of the doors merit notice as the rocker sills have been integrated in the door itself. This innovative feature allows passengers to step several inches closer to the Flex when climbing in or out, and they take dirt and grime away with the swinging door (while it never rains in Southern California, this will be a boon in most normal climates). Making pumping gas a bit simpler, especially with a gloved hand, the Flex introduces a "capless" fuel system called Easy Fuel. Ford wanted us to try the rather simple system (it involves a gasket on the filler door) but we don't get pleasure out of pumping gas-even on someone else's dime.
Inside, this top-of-the-line Limited model had roomy seating for six (drop the optional 5-qt. fridge/freezer with its own built-in compressor, and you can put a third passenger in the middle row). Concentrating on interior quality, Ford utilized multiple materials, textures, and colors within the cabin. While it is upscale (kudos to the contrasting stitches on the leather) and very inviting, the high-gloss acrylic coating on the "wood grain" is just too plastic for our tastes. The primary gauges are easy to read, but the myriad of buttons on the center stack will have you pulling your eyes from the road to hit them, even long after you are accustomed to the panel.
As vehicles become more technology-laden than a 757 passenger jetliner, the Flex follows the trend with Ford's popular SYNC with next-generation navigation and Sirius Travel Link. Navigation, weather, movies and even current gasoline prices are displayed on the 8-inch touchscreen within easy reach from the front seats. We cannot fathom why Ford included the too-low-to-be-useful analog clock on the center cluster (does anyone remember the Infiniti QX56?).
Even with power-adjustable pedals, the driving position for our six-foot two-inch frame wasn't optimal. The steering column adjusts for rake, but does not telescope. To get the legroom we needed, our arms were forced awkwardly outstretched. The headrests, oversized to limit head and neck injury in a crash, rested uncomfortably close to our heads even after we tweaked them. The firm and wide front seats, however, were very comfortable and leg room was accommodating. Second row passengers (Ford calls it "Business-class") have a generous amount of room keeping all but the worst misfit kids from kicking the back of the front seats. Adults will occupy the third row without protest, and still remain on speaking terms with the others. With above-average legroom, and skylights overhead in our Limited model, it is far from claustrophobic sitting in the "way-back." Ford thoughtfully placed a button on the interior B-pillar that springs the second-row seat up and out-of-the-way for easy third-row ingress/egress, and it really works.
There are three different Flex models: SE, SEL, and Limited. All share identical mechanicals, with the exception of front- or all-wheel drive drivelines. Ford brought more than a dozen Flexes (Flexi?) to Southern California for us to peruse, but all of them were the top-of-the-line Limited AWD models. With a twist of the conventional key, the engine cranked over and we headed out of Santa Monica for the Pacific Coast Highway and the twisty Mulholland Drive above it. It is immediately obvious that Ford engineers did an impressive job keeping the enemy - weight and torque steer - at bay. Had we not been told the Limited model we were driving tipped the scales at about 4,400 pounds, and was sending all of the engine's power through the front wheels, we would never have guessed.
While the Flex isn't going to be the car of choice for your next autocross (if pushed, it plows), the tuning of the four-wheel independent suspension kept body roll to a minimum, and driver confidence in sweeping corners high. As mentioned, the model we tested was equipped with permanent all-wheel drive. Under normal conditions, all of the torque goes to the front wheels. However, if the system detects slip or conditions that warrant otherwise (e.g., hard acceleration from a standstill), power is immediately sent rearward. The AWD system in the Ford Flex can send 100 percent the engine's power to the axle that needs it the most - automatically.
As the price of fuel continues to go nuts, it is worth first mentioning the efficiency of this new Ford. Painstaking engine tuning and near-complete fuel cutoff during deceleration help the new Flex earn impressive fuel economy ratings of 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway (16/22 in AWD trim). That trumps all of the 7-passenger full-size SUVs (even the Hybrid GMC Yukon), popular minivans and many crossovers of varying size. We should add that the Flex is designed to sip regular unleaded fuel, as well.
With fuel economy taking precedent over brute power (ergo no V8), the Ford Flex features the familiar Duratec 3.5-liter V6 rated at 262 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque. Mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission that is designed to pull away in first gear, the Flex easily moves itself around without hesitation. Only in the canyons did we find ourselves getting a bit frustrated with the transmission's electronic brain. The slushbox wanted to save fuel. We wanted torque. The Ford guy in the back seat (no, your car will not come with one) suggested we hit the "O/D" button. Designed for use while towing, it locks out sixth, holds gears longer, and will downshift automatically on braking. With a quick stab of that little button on the side of the shifter, we got what we were looking for.
Isolating passengers from unnecessary noise was also a key design goal of the Ford team. To achieve the goal, the front windshield (and all side glass panels on upscale models) is acoustically laminated to cut down on wind roar. A relatively low drag coefficient (.355, to be precise) and foam injected pillars and panels also keep the noise away from the passenger's ears. During our stint behind the wheel, we found the Flex to be notably quiet. Even our pre-production model was free of the expected squeaks and rattles. We spent about four stress-free hours inside the Flex's cabin. With the optional DVD entertainment center and Sony 7.1 surround system, and a stocked fridge, this could be the ultimate road-trip vehicle.
It seems Ford's objective was to deliver a stylish alternative to the boring minivan, and one-up the cookie-cutter competition. In doing so, it has also created an excuse to drop the gas-thirsty full-size SUV in exchange for an innovative, impressively fuel efficient, 7-passenger crossover. Whatever the case, with the precision of a GPS-guided projectile, Ford appears to have hit its target.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Michael Harley / Weblogs, Inc.
New Car Test Drive
Stylish and refined, a 21st century station wagon.
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.
Flex SE ($28,295) comes standard with cloth seating surfaces, single-zone air conditioning, seven-passenger capacity (2-3-2 seating), six-way power driver seat, manual tilt steering wheel with hub-mount audio and cruise controls, fog lights, power door locks with autolock, power mirrors with manual-folding bezels, remote keyless entry, retained power, AM/FM/CD six-speaker audio with MP3 compatibility, center-stack screen display (for audio, compass, temperature), message center with trip computer, front-row center console, 10 cup holders/bottle holders, power windows, carpeted floor mats, rear privacy glass, three 12-volt power outlets, 235/60R18 BSW tires, and 18-inch painted alloy wheels.
Flex SEL ($32,070) adds bright exterior trim, 18-inch machined alloy wheels, dual-zone A/C, Sony AM/FM/6-CD/MP3/satellite radio, leather seating surfaces, heated first-row seats, 10-way power driver seat, six-way power passenger seat, universal garage door opener and interior woodgrain trim. Flex SEL AWD ($33,920) adds all-wheel drive. The SEL Convenience Package ($985) adds 110-volt power inverter, power adjustable pedals with memory, power liftgate, memory driver seat and side mirrors, door-mirror mount puddle lamps.
Flex Limited ($34,705) adds HID headlamps, power multi-function door mirrors with puddle illumination, power-opening liftgate, P235/55R19 BSW tires, 19-inch polished alloy wheels, 110-volt power outlet, power-adjustable pedals with memory, ambient lighting, second-row footrests, perforated leather seating surfaces (for first and second rows), first-row memory seats and Microsoft SYNC system. Flex Limited AWD ($36,555) adds all-wheel drive. The optional navigation system ($2375) for the Limited features a rear backup camera and Sirius Travel Link services with real-time traffic information, national weather information, fuel prices, sports scores/schedules, movie listings.
Options include a Class III Trailer Towing Prep Package ($570) with receiver hitch, wiring harness with 4/7 pin connector, engine oil cooler, tire mobility kit; second-row 40/40 reclining seats ($770); second-row floor console ($100); rear console refrigerator ($760); DVD rear entertainment center ($1020); deep-tint Vista roof ($1495); steel roof panel in contrasting White Suede or Brilliant Silver ($395); tri-coat paint ($395); Microsoft SYNC system ($395); roof rack side rails ($100); 6 CD with satellite radio ($430); remote start system ($295).
Safety features include the federally mandated dual driver/passenger front airbags plus side-impact and safety canopy airbags, dual-stage deployment front airbags, front passenger airbag sensing system, rear door child-safety locks, perimeter alarm, seatbelt pre-tensioners, reverse sensing, passive anti-theft system and tire pressure monitoring system. A wiper-activated automatic headlamp on-off switch and a tire pressure monitoring system come standard. Active safety features include anti-lock brakes (ABS), Advance Trac electronic traction control, RSC Roll Stability Control, yaw control, brake assist, electronic brake force distribution (EBD). Adjustable pedals come on the Limited model to help short and tall drivers achieve the ideal driving position. All-wheel drive is available for the SEL and Limited for improved safety in adverse weather. The rearview camera that comes with the Limited navigation system greatly enhances safety for its ability to help the driver spot children and adults behind the vehicle when backing up.
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 235x19 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.
Ford Flex SE FWD ($28,295); SEL FWD ($32,070); Limited FWD ($34,705); SEL AWD ($33,920); Limited AWD ($35,555).
Oakville, Ontario, Canada.
Options As Tested
second-row power-fold heated seats ($870), vista roof ($1495), navigation system with rear backup camera ($2,375), white roof ($395).
Ford Flex Limited AWD ($41,690).
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