By Mike Levine on July 20, 2009
Forty years ago, in what arguably remains mankind’s most significant technological achievement since the invention of the car engine, Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface. Ever since then we’ve pondered other not-so-significant challenges with the question: If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we … ? As in, if we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we keep our cereal from getting soggy? Or, if we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we buy a family-hauler that both mom and dad can enjoy driving?
Ford has just answered that last question.
Last year, Ford introduced the Flex, a seven-passenger crossover (nee wagon) with a fresh design that broke almost every styling rule in the people-mover segment. Its upright, two-box shape is readily identifiable amid a sea of jelly bean-shaped minivans and SUVs. Simple touches, like cleanly scalloped body panels and two-tone roof and body paint, give it an air of sophistication and individuality.
My wife and I really appreciate the Flex’s utility, having driven our family a thousand miles from Los Angeles to the Grand Canyon, as well as around New York and New Jersey, in a 2009 Flex. She likes the third row and rear space. I like its optional hands-free Sync system that connects your cell phone and iPod to the car’s audio system. Our two kids like its second-row features, like the optional cooler for food and heated seats for cold-morning starts.
But even with cool looks and high efficiency, I found that the Flex’s 262-hp, 3.5-liter Duratec V-6 sometimes struggled to move its 4,600-pound heft (all-wheel-drive model). Yes, it got us where we wanted to go, but it wasn’t exactly inspiring in doing so.
Ford has fixed this gripe, and then some, by granting the 2010 Flex one of the first applications of its 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6. The all-new twin-turbo, direct-injection gasoline engine is rated at 355 hp and 350 pounds-feet of torque. That’s an increase of 35% horsepower and 41% more torque than the Flex’s standard 3.5-liter V-6, while returning the same 16/22 mpg city/highway gas mileage (again, with all-wheel drive).
I recently spent a day driving the EcoBoost Flex in Colorado, from Denver’s plains to high into the Rockies.
My first driving opportunity in the EcoBoost Flex was a 45-mile trip from Denver International Airport to Boulder, Colo. Both sit at about 5,400 feet elevation. It was mostly flat highway driving, with some rolling hills and a bit of stop-and-go traffic in Boulder.
Ford dangled a fuel-economy challenge in front of us for this segment, to which we responded by semi-seriously hypermiling the Flex to an average 24.9 mpg. That may not be stellar fuel economy compared with Ford’s midsize 2010 Fusion Hybrid sedan, but it wasn’t difficult beating the Flex’s EPA highway rating.
By introducing the EcoBoost Flex in Colorado, Ford really highlighted the powertrain’s strengths. It’s not just people that struggle to breathe as the air thins while climbing in elevation, so do internal combustion engines. Turbocharging an engine greatly reduces the effects of altitude by forcing air into the cylinders so power loss is minimized.
The second driving segment took us on an approximately 100-mile out-and-back route from Boulder to Estes Park, where we really enjoyed how fun and powerful the Flex could be on Colorado’s winding mountain roads, as we climbed to nearly 10,000 feet during this part of the trip.
We started off driving in a thunderstorm that mushroomed, squalled and blew itself out within 90 minutes. Sirius’ real-time radar showed us how deeply embedded we were in the storm cell, as the Flex’s all-wheel drive kept all four wheels firmly grounded on the asphalt.
We never had an issue or concern getting around another vehicle during our trip in the Flex. That’s good, considering the EcoBoost engine raises the Flex’s price to nearly $37,000. For that, it better handle highway passing with ease.
We also tried some modest towing duty with the Flex. Ford says about 10% of its crossover customers regularly pull recreational items, like motorcycles or Jet Skis, at least once a month, so they’ve equipped the Flex with a Class III hitch. We were able to tow 2,500 pounds to 60 mph in 22 seconds up an approximately 5 percent grade at 7,700 feet in elevation. It took only 9.5 seconds without the trailer. The Flex was also equipped with trailer-sway control, which independently brakes the vehicle’s right or left wheels if the Roll Stability Control system senses yaw from the rear of the vehicle while towing.
Few family-haulers can be described as having sporty handling, but Ford has improved this part of the Flex, too. The EcoBoost Flex is almost a half-inch lower and its suspension is firmer. The Flex’s 19-inch wheels and Goodyear RS-A tires gave great grip while keeping road noise to a minimum under 70 mph.
The steering almost always felt firm in my hands, unlike some other electrical steering systems that can give the driver a feeling of being disconnected from the road.
One benefit of electrical steering is the automated parallel-parking option. The car is able to automatically slide itself into a spot while the driver controls the speed and transmission. These systems were first offered in luxury cars from Lexus, but are making their way into more mainstream models.
All this power and innovation doesn’t come cheaply. The all-wheel-drive EcoBoost Flex SEL (one rung below Ford’s near-luxury Limited trim) has a base MSRP of $36,115, while the base, front-wheel-drive, non-EcoBoost Flex SE starts at $28,495. An Acura MDX starts at $40,990 with all-wheel drive and 300 hp.
So the question isn’t really can Mom and Dad find a family car they will both enjoy driving, it’s this: Is the EcoBoost Flex worth $7,620 more than the standard V-6 Flex for the extra power and technology it offers? That’s difficult to answer. The parent in me says that money would be better saved for my kids’ college education, but the driving enthusiast in me says to shoot for the moon — and I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut.
Mike Levine is the editor of PickupTrucks.com