There's something about the 2010 Ford Flex.

Entering its second model year, the Flex is Ford's answer to people who need a big people hauler. It stretches more than 200 inches and can carry up to seven people, depending upon how it's configured. (Though I would suggest selecting the captain's chairs for the second row because they are so comfortable.)

For the vehicles it replaces -- the minivan and Taurus X (the crossover formerly known as the Freestyle) -- the Flex offers a much more stylish solution.

But sometimes it looks goofy. Take those big slab sides and pseudo wood panel grooves on its sides. It could almost pass for a giant Mini with dual chrome exhaust tips. Then at other times, the Flex looks intriguing. It's the John C. Reilly of vehicles -- you give it a pass on its looks because it can perform with the best of them.

For 2010, Ford has added its soon-to-be legendary EcoBoost engine. The 355-horsepower direct injection twin-turbocharged V-6 may have better fuel economy through technology, but it's also a beautifully powerful engine.

There is no turbo lag, that lull between hitting the accelerator and the car launching forward. It just takes off and keeps going. The idea behind the EcoBoost engine is to provide V-8 power with a V-6. And this engine surpasses many V-8 engine when it comes to power.

Additionally, while pushing a 4,400-pound seven-passenger vehicle down the road, it still manages to get 16 miles per gallon in the city and 22 mpg on the highway. Both respectable, though not overwhelming mileage figures.

During my week of testing, I averaged 19 mpg in a good mix of highway and city driving. And that was while using regular unleaded gasoline, which the engine has been designed to handle. To get the maximum power out of the Flex, you need to use premium fuel.

Nice driving features

The all-wheel drive system, which is standard on the EcoBoost model, also is excellent, helping you through corners and ideal for bad weather traction.

By dropping two cylinders, the Flex is also very quiet on the road. On the highway, no road noise leaks into the cabin and the engine makes hardly a peep. Around town, you don't hear anything unless you roll your window down.

The ride and handling are deceiving. The body doesn't roll much through corners and you often feel as if you're driving much slower than you really are. On the highway, it can easily hit 80 mph without a strain.

The upright seating position makes you feel like you're much higher than you really are. The electric power steering feels exact and provides nice feedback at any speed. This is another gas-saving technology that we will, no doubt, start seeing on more vehicles.

The electric power steering also makes it possible to use the Flex's active park assist. This is the self-parking system made famous by the Lexus LS460. But the Flex can park a bigger vehicle in a smaller space and it actually works great. As you cruise along the road looking for a parking space, the Flex will help with the search, and determine if you can fit easily into a spot. Then, once you're ready, it will take over and walk you through the parking procedure. It's easy to use, and while it's unnerving the first few times to watch your car do something you used to do, it quickly becomes a friendly feature.

And when you open the door and step out, you almost expect a big step down, like you would from an SUV. Instead, it's an easy jump out of the vehicle.

A luxurious interior

Much like its performance, the Flex rewards you with lots of little surprises inside the cabin.

The big seats are very comfortable and the thick stitching makes the interior feel a little more rugged. There's something trucky about the interior in a very good way. Tough and luxurious is the perfect combination for someone looking for a vehicle that is fun to drive but can withstand the stampeded of children.

The second row offers more legroom than the front (43 inches compared with 41 inches) and it's here that the Flex really stands out. If you choose the optional captain chairs over the standard bench seat, you may loose space for one passenger but did you really need it? You feel like Capt. Kirk in the second row of the Flex.

The second row seats also fold up quickly at the touch of a button. Because of the low step into the Flex, it's also easy to jump into the third row. While I wouldn't want to spend a day in the third row, it was comfortable enough for short trips and small children would be very comfortable.

Loaded with options

The Flex comes loaded with comfort and features. There are driving enhancements such as the blind spot detection system that is simple and direct. If someone is in your blind spot, a little yellow light appears on your outside mirror.

The Flex also comes with Sync, an infotainment system that I have probably raved too much over. But it's just that good. Sync, when incorporated with the navigation system, has the best touch screen set up in the automotive world. It's easy to use manually and just as easy through voice commands. Of course, Sync doesn't punish you if you don't get the navigation system, because it will still work easily without it. It's nice to have those choices.

There are a few silly options that feel more like kitsch than anything else. Flex offers a small refrigerator in the second row, which can hold a few cans of soda for those long trips. An Igloo cooler can do the same thing and costs hundreds of dollars less.

Finally, the Flex can even carry more than just people. The second and third rows can fold nearly flat and create more than 83 cubic feet of space. You also have the option of folding only one seat in the second row. The variety of options makes this space so useful.

The Flex may not be every person's cup of tea and that seems to be just what Ford wants. Some people may find the exterior downright ugly, other people may love it. At least it makes you think about it and in a day when so many crossovers look the same, the Flex stands out. Now, with the addition of the Ford's EcoBoost engine, it will stay in front of the competition.

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