By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Flex started out as the Fairlane Concept at the 2005 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and was to be built on the CD3 platform that was just making its debut under the 2006 Ford Fusion/Lincoln Zephyr. (It was so long ago Lincolns still had names instead of “MK Whatever” designations.) This six-passenger, three-row people mover was Ford’s answer to those who wanted the convenience of a minivan, but not the stigma attached to driving “Mom’s Taxi”. And though it had your typical unrealistic concept car touches — three-way rear door; a wood-topped instrument panel; a flip-down work area with a refrigerator, cutting board, and utensils; stainless steel cargo floor; and “suicide” side doors with no B-pillar — it was a reasonably accurate reflection of the Flex that was to come three years later. Except that the production model would be larger, more slab-sided, and dispense with almost all of the concept car kit, except the refrigerator.
It was upsized in order to replace Ford’s Freestyle/Taurus X station wagon-like crossovers and the Freestar minivan, while not competing with the similarly sized Ford Edge. Moving it to the Volvo-developed D4 platform gave it a good bit more room than the concept car, but had the knock-on effect of robbing it of its trim size and the crispness of the concept’s styling. Nevertheless, the Flex has proven to be a strong seller on both coasts, despite not living up to the original — overly optimistic — sales projections.
If you come to the Flex from a smaller vehicle, especially a car, your first impression might be of driving a bus. The upright pillars, squared off back and flat hood heighten the sensation of driving a large people hauler. However, no bus was ever this well equipped, maneuverable or comfortable. With space for seven across three rows in a 2-3-2 arrangement, the Flex is neither crossover nor minivan as it combines features of both. (Order the optional refrigerated console box and the seating arrangement becomes 2-2-2.) The low roof, available all-wheel drive and four doors follow the crossover norm, while the long wheelbase and space for seven (adults will fit in the third row) is more like a minivan. Like both, the cargo well is deep, but not very long with the third row seats in place. Folding them raises the platform height (the cargo well is filled by the cushions of the folded seats), but liberates room for long or bulky items. Folding the second and third rows gives almost enough room to do carrier launches and traps in a jet fighter.
To gain access to the third row, the outboard seats of the second row fold and tumble forward, and because they are inset from the side of the body, there is a reasonable passageway. However, because these third-row seats sit on the rear floor, your legs feel as though they have less support, despite the fact that your feet fit into a well behind the second row. It’s comfortable enough for short-to medium-length trips, but not a place you’d want to be for any length of time. It’s best to use this row as a pair of rear-facing stadium seats when tailgating.
Tick the Limited trim level box on the order form, and you get all the luxuries. Chief among them is Sync with MyFord Touch coupled to a Sony branded 390-Watt, 12-speaker audio and navigation system. This unit is highlighted by a gloss black panel with Sony branding just below the large touchscreen. Along its lower edge are buttons for the climate control, while the rest is dominated by the audio controls, especially the large circular knob that controls volume (outer ring), tuning, power and seek/scan functions. To either side are touch bars for source and sound. It is a tight coupling of functions, but one that allows the driver or front seat passenger to control these functions using deeply ingrained gestures learned in the days of switches and knobs. I’m sure this system worked well in the test lab, but on the road it’s easy to get multiple responses, especially on bumpy roads. In no time, you find yourself two or more stations/tracks further along than you wanted. Oddly, however, these touch-sensitive switches don’t work well if you are wearing thick gloves, nor does the outer ring due to its thinness; it’s hard to grasp when gloved. I understand the desire to get rid of mechanical switches in order to improve quality and reliability, but this is one case where they would work better than the electronic type used. As an alternative, you can always use voice commands to perform these functions.
Thankfully, the rest of the Flex is free of such foibles, though there are a few shortcomings you might not expect on a $48,000-plus vehicle. One is the lack of express up/down control on all but the driver’s door window. Why? It can’t be that Ford was worried about children activating the windows without supervision, there’s a switch on the driver’s door that prevents anyone but the driver from doing that. More likely it was cost, which is a strange concern on such an expensive vehicle, or the inability to add this item in a timely fashion without major changes to the part or its supplier. I fully expect global express up/down windows on the next generation Flex, as well as a heated steering wheel. After all, this convenience is an option on the new Dodge Dart and Kia Forte, hardly expensive vehicles.
Other necessary improvements include a faster power adjuster for the steering column. It takes what seems like ages for the column to extend or shorten/raise or lower when entering the car. You can always go into the settings menu and disable this feature, but then why have it at all? Then there’s the rear window wiper. It doesn’t pull away more than an inch or two from the glass, making it impossible to set at a right angle prior to a snow storm or clean under it with a brush afterward. And do all Ford vehicles fitted with MyFord Touch have to use the same instrument cluster? I know this reduces cost, but I don’t want to sit in a Flex, Explorer and Fusion (the three Ford vehicles I had back-to-back) and see the same speedometer/display layout in each one. I can only hope Ford will switch to a large reconfigurable gauge display in the future that, while the same physically, will allow each model its own look.
On the road, the Flex eats up the miles. It rides more like a luxury car than a crossover, though the weight of the optional 20-in wheels and tires can make their presence — and weight — felt over large bumps and potholes. The steering is firm with decent weighting, and makes a decent compromise between road feel and isolation for a vehicle with mild off-road tendencies. (The all-wheel drive is best thought of as something best used in deep snow or on the dirt roads to the family cabin.)
Under the hood sits a twin-turbocharged, direct-injected 3.5-liter V6. This EcoBoost engine allegedly combines the power of a V8 with the fuel economy of a V6. Sort of. To access the power you have to dip into the throttle quickly or deeply, almost as if Ford preferred you use the engine’s non-boosted output whenever possible in order to keep the gas tank from emptying too quickly. It’s not a bad strategy in that, under normal circumstances, it isn’t necessary to spool up the turbos to get the Flex moving. However, when you need to tap reserve power, the V6 responds quickly with enough power to pull the 4,839-lb box along at obscene speeds. In everyday driving, the Flex returned just over 17 mpg, nearly one mpg below its EPA combined rating of 18 miles per gallon. On a long highway haul with a light load, it should be possible to match the 23 mph highway rating. However, in town you are likely to fall just below the 16 mpg city rating, especially if you are a typical American driver. This is not a vehicle that forgives racing from stoplight to stoplight and not planning ahead.
One major improvement comes with the logic for activating the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. An anomaly in what is a people hauler and not a gymkhana queen, the paddles no longer require that you place the transmission in manual mode to activate them. Just pull the appropriate lever, and you can call up an up- or downshift instantly. This despite the fact that most drivers are never likely to use them. The Flex is not the type of vehicle you expect to see racing down a challenging road with the rear seat occupants faces plastered to the widows as the driver tries to clip the next apex. Even though the large and heavy people mover would handle the task reasonably well, no owner is going to want to set the carpets awash in children’s’ vomit, even though the supple leather covering the seats promises to be easy to clean. This is more a car for hauling the family on vacation, couples to the theater or groceries from the market than it is for carving up your favorite road.
TVD Rating: 3.5 out of 5
The Flex is a hybrid, not in terms of its drive system, but in the way that it marries the functionality of a minivan and crossover in a single vehicle. It can carry seven in surprising comfort, quietly pile on highway miles without complaint, and carry tons of stuff when needed. It is not, however, the car it set out to be: a right-sized luxury transport with enough flair for the Hamptons and style for Rodeo Drive. Compromised by use of a lengthened Volvo platform, it nonetheless has the interior space, luxury and technology real people desire. One can only hope that, in its next incarnation, it can recover some of the Fairlane Concept’s style while adding those options and accessories a buyer ready to drop nearly $50,000 expects.
2013 Ford Flex Limited AWD
Options: Equipment Group 303A (P255/45R-20 all-season BSW tires, Adaptive cruise control with Collision Warning, Power fold third row seat), $3,295; Titanium appearance package, $495; Black roof, $0; 20-in machined aluminum wheels, $0; Inflatable rear seatbelts, $195; Equipment Group savings, -$315.
Destination charge: $825
Price as tested: $48,345
Engine: Transverse 3.5-liter, twin-turbocharged, direct-injected V6. Aluminum block and heads. Dual over head cams with intake variable valve timing, and four valves per cylinder.
Horsepower: 365 @ 5500
Torque: 350 lb-ft @ 3500
Transmission: Six-speed automatic with paddle shifters.
EPA mileage rating: 16 city/23 highway/18 combined.
Steering, Suspension and Brakes
Steering: Electrically assisted power rack and pinion.
Suspension F/R: Gas-charged MacPherson struts, rear-facing L-shaped lower control arms with hydro bushings, fully isolated subframe and anti-roll bar. /Fully independent multi-link suspension with upper and lower control arms, sully isolated subframe and anti-roll bar.
Brakes F/R: Ventilated front/solid rear discs. 4-channel ABS, electronic stability and roll stability control.
Dimensions (in inches)
Width: 88.8 (with mirrors)
Fuel capacity (gallons): 18.6
Cargo capacity (cu. ft.): 20.0 (seats up), 43.2 (behind second row), 83.2 (behind first row)
Anti-corrosion: 5 years/Unlimited miles
Powertrain: 5 years/50,000 miles
Vehicle: 3 years/36,000 miles
Roadside Assistance: 24-hour roadside assistance for 5 years/60,000.