I'm not one to heap abuse on automakers for their missteps; the market provides all the punishment or reward deserved, but I have to note that by coming along six model years after Honda proved the concept worked with its Pilot, Ford needed to bring something different to the segment. Though there's nothing new here in terms of features or technology, the Flex looks way different, treats occupants to more room than average and comes through with oh-so-important basics that are quite well-executed.
Exterior & Styling
The Flex is different indeed, shaped like a box — a long box — where the competitors have gone with a sleeker approach, and none sleeker than the CX-9. Comparisons have been many, but I mainly see some Land Rover in the front end and an overgrown Mini Cooper Clubman from the side — mainly because of our test car's optional white roof. Some folks seem to like the styling and some hate it, but few people are lukewarm on it. This is usually a good sign, as it portends above-average sales.
Where the Flex surprises me is in how low it looks. It's not a small vehicle, but its roofline is roughly at my eye level, and it seems like it's a good foot shorter than the hulking GMC Acadia. In truth it's within a couple inches of its competitors, but something makes it look like a ground-hugger, and I can't say what. It's probably that Ford made no effort to emulate an SUV, so the tires fill the wheel wells, and the lower-body treatment draws the eye downward. The most controversial elements beyond its general boxiness are the creases in the doors and liftgate. I'm not sold on them myself, but I don't think I'd want to see the car without them; I envision a shipping container on wheels. Overall, I think the styling was a wise move on Ford's part.
The Flex is long indeed, a couple inches longer than the CX-9 and a foot longer than the Pilot and Veracruz. It's as long as the Buick Enclave and an inch longer than the other GM siblings. As a result, the Flex needs a wide berth, with a turning diameter of 40.7 feet. In comparison, the GMs are 40.4 feet, but the other guys turn a tighter circle: 38.8 feet for the Highlander, 38.6 for the Pilot, 38.4 for the smallish Dodge Journey, 37.4 for the CX-9 and 36.6 for the Veracruz. I found the Flex reasonably maneuverable and parkable, but the numbers here don't lie when it comes time to hang a U-turn or cut a tight corner.
Emphasis on Occupant Space
As the table reflects, the Flex emphasizes occupant space over maximum cargo volume, but it has the benefit of above-average space behind the third-row seats. The GM models all offer more, but you have to consider the fact that their passenger volume is lesser (and their second-row legroom especially suffers).
|Three-Row Crossover Interior Dimensions|
|Passenger volume (cu. ft.)||Cargo volume|
(all seats folded*/
third-row seat folded/
behind third-row seat, cu. ft.)
|Legroom (front/second row/third row, in.)|
|*Excludes Flex's folding front passenger seat|
Based on the numbers alone, the Flex's front-seat legroom is at the bottom of the range. I had no problem with the legroom per se, but I found a serious drawback in the lack of a telescoping steering wheel. I think all cars should have this feature for the sake of comfort and to distance drivers properly from the airbag. Just on principal, for an all-new 2009 model to go with a tilt adjustment only is inexcusable. But it gets worse: When I had the seat where I found it most comfortable — all the way back — the steering wheel was too far away. Note that my Flex had the power-adjustable pedals, as part of the optional Convenience Package, which serve a similar purpose, but this demonstrates why they're not always enough. I put the pedals all the way forward, and still I wanted the steering wheel closer. It's called the Flex, for Pete's sake; where's the flexibility? Apart from that, the front is plenty roomy, with noticeably wide seats. I omitted the headroom figures from the table above because the Flex pretty much beats the competition, front to rear.
The interior quality is decent, but it should be better to compete with the likes of the GM crossovers and the CX-9 (which is from the same parent company, remember). Some of the materials are nice — including our Flex SEL's faux wood trim — but here and there are plastic panels that several people singled out as substandard. They recall similar materials in the Taurus and Taurus X. The leather upholstery, which is standard starting on the SEL trim level, also drew some scorn. The seats' center panels are awfully shiny, and they use a "gathered" design, where the leather is loose and pleated. This approach is always risky and is best used sparingly; it's just too easy for it to look like, well, a mistake. It blankets the front seats and seems to impress no one.
Interiors don't change for years after an introduction or total redesign, and that means the already-superior other models are likely to improve further before the Flex gets a chance to even catch up.
The Mother of All Backseats
The Flex's big selling point is its second-row seat, which is huge. As we've come to expect from the Taurus and other cars on this platform, the legroom is ample. It's a shame that these seats don't slide forward and back as many newer models' do, because it lets you allocate space to the passengers or the cargo area, whichever needs it most. In all but the SE trim level you can replace the three-seat bench with two captain's chairs for $770 and add a center console for another $100 or a little refrigerator for $760. On the downside, this is just another drain on energy, which translates to more fuel burned.
The two-seat third row is easily accessed by pulling a single lever on the second row, which drops its backrest then tumbles the whole seat forward. As the table shows, the third-row legroom leads the competition by as little as a tenth of an inch to as much as 10 inches — but the numbers seldom tell the whole story back there. At 6 feet tall, I found the seat workable, but I definitely would have benefited from a sliding second row — especially when you consider that there's more legroom up there than most people would ever need. My main complaint is that my knees were raised more than I'd like. Compared to other models, including the CX-9, the legroom is good, but I'm a bit disappointed because this platform offers even more comfort in the much-smaller Taurus X wagon's third row.
Cargo & Towing
The Flex's ample wayback space comes from a deep well behind the third-row seats and from its boxy shape; the CX-9 trades interior volume for its sloping liftgate. Folding the seats could hardly be easier. Pull the second-row seat's lever and the backrest folds, period. There's so much room between it and the front seats that not only do you not have to remove the head restraints, you can leave them fully raised. Plenty of access to the footwells remains. On one hand this provides additional carriage space, but on the other it makes for a shorter cargo floor. Though the maximum cargo volume behind the front seats trails the competition, a standard fold-flat front passenger seat is a coup. With it folded, you get about 10 continuous feet between the dashboard and closed liftgate — albeit with a gap in the floor between the first- and second-row seats.
The 50/50-split third row has two numbered straps, accessible from behind. No. 1 folds the backrest, and No. 2 allows you to flip the whole shebang back 180 degrees into the floor.
At 2,000 pounds, the Flex's towing capacity is typical. The Pilot and Veracruz are rated at 3,500 pounds.
The Driving Experience
Along with the room comes a quiet cabin and very nice ride quality. The handling is surprisingly balanced and much better than it has a right to be. Perhaps it's the low stance, but the Flex feels especially grounded for such a large vehicle, and an electronic stability system is standard. The 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic also do a nice job. It's not a rocket, but my front-wheel-drive model was more than quick enough when empty and definitely adequate when full. It's typical for the added weight of all-wheel drive (an $1,850 option on the SEL and Limited trim levels) to slow things down, but the Flex's adds less than 200 pounds, which is reasonable. My recommendation is that you sell your teenage kid and use the proceeds for the AWD option. The onboard weight is net zero.
At 17/24 mpg city/highway with FWD and 16/22 with AWD, the Flex's gas mileage is competitive, though the GM crossovers are expected to pick up 1 city mpg due to a drivetrain change for 2009, which gives them an edge. Currently the V-6 with its 262 horsepower at 6,250 rpm and 248 pounds-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm is the only engine offered, though Ford says an EcoBoost version — with direct injection and turbocharging — will come along and increase power, possibly well above 300 horsepower. Though efficiency is one of the claimed benefits of EcoBoost, this engine is intended to provide a relatively efficient alternative to V-8s; it's not expected to improve on the current engine's mileage.
As a new model, the Flex has not yet been crash tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The standard safety features include antilock four-wheel-disc brakes, an electronic stability system with traction control and Roll Stability Control — the only feature on the market that senses the inception of a rollover and acts to forestall it. In addition to the required frontal airbags are side-impact airbags for the front seats and curtains that cover the side windows of all three rows of seats; they deploy for side-impact protection and in the event of a rollover. All seven seats come with adjustable head restraints.
Flex in the Market
To say that the Flex is late to the three-row-crossover party is to suggest that the party is ongoing. With gas prices high and Americans accepting that they're likely to stay that way, the largest vehicles are less attractive than they were just six months ago. And while the Flex's entry-level price is in keeping with its category, the jump to the SEL trim level is sizeable — and none of these crossovers are exactly cheap. The economy will blunt demand. All the same, some buyers want or need vehicles this large, which still improve upon their truck-based forebears in fuel economy and interior space; Expedition owners need somewhere to go.
While the party may be entering a lull, I suspect it's far from over. When you show up late to the party, though, you need to bring your A game — if I may force together two completely incompatible metaphors. I give the Flex a solid B+.
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