EXPERT REVIEW

Mother Proof's view


I’m just gonna come out and say it: The Ford Flex is one of my most favorite cars on the road. I love that it looks completely different from everything else out there. I love that it drives smoothly and quietly and now, with the EcoBoost engine, powerfully. I love how comfy it is and how well it accommodates my life. I love the Sync system that listens to me better than my kids ever have. Sure, it’s not perfect or cheap, but the Flex rolled with my family and all our life throws at us and never blinked.

It’s an almost impossible combination of SUV, wagon and minivan that makes the Flex so easy to work with. My test model had all-wheel drive, so I had all the stability and security of an SUV, without the high climb or the roly-poly feeling in the turns. It was easy for my kids to climb in and out of it like a wagon, but it had a third row like a minivan. It seats seven, but looks cool, with an available two-tone exterior and retro styling. I know, I’m gushing, but honestly, the Flex may be the perfect family hauler.

The Flex rides really smoothly and quietly, even at highway speeds; turns and curves are just as smooth. The new 355-horsepower, 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 works like a turbo engine without the two-part acceleration, sending extra power through the V-6 so it feels more like a V-8. The EcoBoost engine is on SEL and Limited models with all-wheel drive. I gave the EcoBoost engine a run through some of our local hills here in the Los Angeles area and passing on an incline was no big deal.

In tight quarters, the Flex was less flexible. It’s somewhat cumbersome in parking lots. In fact, the grocery store parking lot is where I remembered that the Flex is actually a pretty big car.

One of my favorite new features is the optional Active Park Assist ($550). It seems like a gimmick, but it works like magic. Magic, I tell you! Active Park Assist parallel parks the Flex with no help from you, just your foot on the brake. I know how to parallel park my car. Sometimes I need some back-and-forth movements to fit into a tight spot, but I’m pretty capable unless I have to park on a one-way street on the left-hand side. Then I’m completely hopeless. But the Flex parks faster and smoother then I ever have. Push the button as you look for a spot, and the Flex alerts you when it’s found one. Then put the car in reverse, let go of the wheel and manage the brakes while the Flex does all the work. Zip, zoom, done. Magic.

Exterior

The Flex’s look is what the marketing folks call polarizing. Either you think it’s retro-cool with a side of awesome-sauce or a hearse made out of a couple of shoe boxes. All I can say is avoid the black-colored Flex. My test Flex was a super sparkly Dark Ink Blue Metallic with a white roof and 20-inch wheels, so I’ll call it retro-cool awesome-sauce.

The Flex reminds me of cool woodies from the ’60s, but without all the kitsch. In the front, it looks wide and low, with broad shoulders narrowing at the roof. The bold chrome grille sits in line with squared-off headlights, which gives it a serious tone. The large wheels also mean business and manage to make the Flex look smaller than it is. A narrow chrome strip and sculpting along the sides give it a sense of movement, while the two-tone exterior keeps things fresh. In the rear, an aluminum panel continues the horizontal movement while providing some texture.

While the Flex sits a bit higher than a traditional sedan, it’s not as high off the ground as an SUV. This makes it really easy to get in and out of. I’m not a big fan of hauling myself up into a truck or up and out of a sports car. It’s the “hauling” part I don’t like, and there’s none of that with the Flex. The doors open wide enough to allow you to easily help little ones in the backseat, but not so wide that they’re out of reach for kids to close them by themselves. The ceiling is nice and high, which not only makes for lots of headroom, but plenty of rear visibility, as well.

With the third row up, there’s enough room in the cargo area for a weekly grocery run. When you fold down the third row, you get a flat floor in the cargo area. It’s so roomy that I was able to stand my son’s bike with training wheels back there. Have I mentioned that I really like this car?

SENSE AND STYLE

Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Excellent

Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Good Times

Interior

Remember when domestic cars’ interiors were all cheesy and plasticky? The Ford Flex makes those days a distant memory, with rich cloth upholstery or soft leather seats, faux wood trim and clean instrumentation. The horizontal movement of the exterior is carried into the interior with strategic placement of the trim. In my test car, the wood trim began on my right, on the outer corner of the dash, then moved across the top of the steering wheel before continuing across the rest of the dashboard.

The leather seats are wide and comfy, with a faux-quilted look that gives them visual texture where things might have been plain. The instrument cluster is easy to read with blue-on-black dials and a small information screen. The center stack is wrapped in metallic-looking plastic trim, with a large, color touch-screen housing Ford’s amazing Sync system that does everything from navigation to reading your text messages. A small analog clock at the bottom of the center stack is a nice focal point. Little touches like that make the Flex funky and cool on the inside. Another is the ambient lighting that changes color with the push of a button. I usually chose purple to suit my regal nature.

Using the Sync system is absurdly easy. Push a button and a menu appears on the screen, so there is no fumbling around for the right commands. As you choose an option, the next set of commands appears. Need help? Say, “Help.” Want to hear a particular song? “Audio. iPod. Play song ‘Don’t Stop Believing.’ ” The Bluetooth connection is just as easy. Not only was my phone seamlessly integrated into the system, but the Flex played music off my iPhone via Bluetooth. This may be my favorite new-car feature. No cords, no indexing, no cumbersome menus, just my music playing automatically whenever I get into the car.

Life is pretty good in the backseat, too. I had the seven-passenger model, which means the second row is a wide bench seat. It’s super comfy and my kids adored it. My 6-year-old was especially thrilled with it. The seat belt fit him so well that I let him ride without his booster seat like a big kid (in California kids 6 and older can ride in the backseat using only a seat belt). However, my kids did get frustrated with the flobby seat belt receptors that make it difficult to buckle up on their own. The kids also loved the great views they had out of their windows and the four moonroofs. In the second row, they each had their own moonroof above their seat, with accompanying shade. A larger one sits over the third row.

A floor console houses the rear climate controls and two power sources, one of which is a regular 110-volt outlet. There’s also a pull-out compartment with storage and two cupholders. My kids could reach them, but smaller kids in child-safety seats won’t be able to. The six-passenger Flex has a large center console in the second row with more storage, cupholders as well as the much-ballyhooed optional refrigerated console ($795).

The second-row seats fold and tumble easily with one hand, making access to the third row pretty painless. The third row is surprisingly comfortable, and the passenger-side seat has a set of Latch connectors. The moonroof and large windows mean that even in the “way back” there’s no feeling of claustrophobia. There’s enough legroom in the third row that medium-sized adults will be comfortable. It’s not luxuriously roomy, but it’s more functional than many large SUVs on the road.

IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT

Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample

Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample

Safety

The Ford Flex gets great safety marks, which is not at all surprising when you take a look at the long list of standard safety features. It comes with stability control with antiroll control, antilock brakes with brake assist, and traction control. The Flex also has side curtain airbags for all three rows, in addition to the front- and side-impact airbags for the front row. On the top-of-the-line Flex Limited, a backup camera comes standard.

The Flex also comes standard with MyKey, a feature that should thrill parents with teen drivers. It allows owners to limit the Flex’s top speed, add more seat belt warnings and limit the car stereo’s volume for drivers using a specific, programmable key.

There’s plenty of room in the second row to accommodate rear-facing child-safety seats. The second-row bench is wide enough to fit three child-safety seats. In the second and third rows, the Latch connectors are hidden by the seats. However, they aren’t hard to access.

The 2009 Flex was named a 2009 Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Despite the 2010 Flex’s ratings of Good – the highest score – in frontal-offset, side-impact and rear crash tests by IIHS, the Flex hasn’t been named a 2010 Top Safety Pick. For 2010, vehicles must undergo a new roof-strength crash test; the Flex has yet to be tested.

FAMILY LIFESTAGE

In Diapers: A smooth, quiet ride and plenty of cargo space help ease life with a baby.

In School: Easy access to all rows makes this great for carpooling.

Teens: The programmable MyKey helps teen drivers stay safe on the road.

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