Dinner conversation with friends who know what I do for a living, or with strangers who learn that I’m an automotive journalist, usually begin with “Why can’t American car companies build fuel efficient vehicles?” or “Why can’t they build quality vehicles, or innovative vehicles, or fun vehicles, or vehicles I’d want to own?” And almost invariably, these questions come from folks who haven’t owned an American car for at least 10 years, and haven’t even driven one in a decade or more.
|1. All-wheel drive versions of the Flex come exclusively with the same 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 as found in the SHO, making 355-hp and 350 ft-lbs of torque.
2. Fuel economy is the same as the standard V6 engine (with AWD) at 16/22 mpg (city/hwy).
3. Flex models start at $28,550, with the EcoBoost versions priced from $40,090.
4. The Flex can be had as a six or seven seater with either two second-row captain’s chairs or a three-seat bench.
5. Cargo room starts at 20 cu.-ft. behind the third row, expands to 43 cu.-ft. with those seats folded flat and a total of 83 cu.-ft. with the second row flat.
My standard response is that American car manufacturers do in fact make quality, fuel efficient cars that are innovative, technically sophisticated, and fun to drive. And they do stack up to anything that Japanese and European manufacturers build. But if you don’t take the time to shop American cars and test-drive them, you’ll never know it, and you’re cheating yourself if you pass them by without consideration.
After spending a week with the 2010 Ford Flex Limited AWD model, with the powerful EcoBoost engine, it just reinforced my opinion of American cars.
The Ford Flex crossover was introduced last year with one engine, a 3.5-liter V6, which puts out 262-hp at 6250 rpm and 248 ft-lbs of torque at 4000 rpm. It has adequate power and gets a very respectable 16 mpg city, and 22 mpg highway, in the all-wheel-drive version.
This year, Ford is offering the optional EcoBoost 3.5-liter twin-turbocharged V6, which puts out a strong 355-hp at 5700 rpm and 350 ft-lbs of torque at only 3500 rpm. And despite the added power, the gas mileage is exactly the same as the non-aspirated engine, although I actually managed to get 24 mpg highway. Plus, it takes non-premium fuel.
If Ford had used a V8 to get the same horsepower and torque numbers, it probably would have cut gas mileage by 25 to 30 percent. So the EcoBoost lives up to it’s name.
LOTS OF POWER FOR ACCELERATION OR TOWING
The EcoBoost motor is a brilliant powerplant that motivates the 4,800 lb. Flex from zero to 60 in just under 7 seconds. And with a very flat torque curve, there is always plenty of immediate power at you right foot to make a pass on two-lane roads, or scoot easily onto the highway. Plus, there’s even enough left-over power to tow up to 4,500 lbs with the optional towing package, which includes a trailer sway control system that helps the driver keep the vehicle in a straight line when towing a trailer in crosswinds.
The 6-speed transmission is basically the same, except that it has been beefed up for the added horsepower, and it ads a manual mode with dual paddle shifters on the steering wheel. It also has a hill descent feature for using engine braking while towing or just traveling down steep grades.
The suspension has been tweaked with stiffer springs and revised shock settings with a slightly lower stance. It gives the Flex a firm feel in the curves, but isn’t harsh. There is some body lean in turns, but with the wheels pushed out to the edges of the vehicle, the Flex feels stable and not at all top heavy. For a vehicle of this size and weight, it is remarkably nimble. The electric power assisted steering is another upgrade from the standard models, but feedback can be a bit vague.
Overall the ride quality is luxurious and the Flex handles quite well. The all-wheel-drive model, which is the only way the EcoBoost version is available, is seamless, and will provide excellent traction in the wet and snow. My test car had the optional 20-inch wheels, which added to the sporty ride as well as the crossover’s appearance.
WELL-APPOINTED CABIN WITH ROOM FOR SIX, OR SEVEN
My test car was the Limited model, so it had the more upscale interior. Everything is very well laid out in the vehicle, with the Nav system, radio and heating controls nicely placed in the center stack. The Nav screen is large, and puts a lot of useful information around the perimeter of the screen when the map is displayed, such as the time, radio station, outside temperature, etc. And it is a snap to input addresses. And with Ford’s Sync System, you can control many features of the Nav system along with the phone and audio controls by speaking commands, instead of punching a lot of buttons, striking a blow against distracted driving.
Adjustable brake and gas pedals are another nice standard feature, which allows shorter drivers to reach the pedals comfortably without having to sit with the steering wheel in your lap. And the steering wheel tilts and telescopes this year, to make the seating position even more comfortable for any size driver.
There is handsome wood trim on the dash, door panels, and above the gauge package in front of the driver. The leather and wood trimmed steering wheel feels great in your hands and has redundant controls for the cruise control and audio package.
The leather seats are spacious and comfortable, and they heat up in seconds. After a few minutes you have to either dial down the heat, or crack open an egg and fry it. There is a lot of storage between the door panels, glove box, and the large center console that has a USB port, Aux. plug, a 12-volt outlet, and a silly switch that changes the LED light colors for the footwell lighting and the lights around the dual cup holders.
There are climate controls for second row passengers as well as a 110-volt and 12-volt power outlets, along with a large pull out storage bin and cup holders, and bottle holders in the door pockets.
The main thing you notice about the cabin is how spacious it is. There is abundant headroom for all three rows of seats and legroom is limousine-like for the front and second row. And those second row seats, (my test car had two separate second row seats rather than a three-seat bench) slide fore and aft. That feature comes in handy and makes this the first three-row vehicle I’ve been in that actually has plenty of legroom for two adults to sit comfortably in that last row. And even when the second-row passengers slide their seats forward, they still have ample legroom. Plus, all seats fold flat for ample cargo room and easy access.
With the third row in place there is 20 cu.-ft. of space and a deep well for luggage and groceries. That row can be folded flush into the well for a flat cargo floor and 43 cu.-ft of space. Fold down the second row of seats and you can fill up the Flex with 83 cu.-ft. of cargo. Now you know why they named the vehicle Flex – because it offers the owner the flexibility to carry from 2 to 7 passengers or lots of gear for camping or hauling large items with ease.
LIKE A SCION xB, BUT ALL GROWN UP
Looking at the Flex from the outside, you’d think somebody took the tiny boxy Honda Element, Scion xB and Kia Soul and combined them to make one big boxy vehicle. But the styling easily grew on me with all the horizontal lines – from the three-bar chrome grill, to the grooved door panels. The contrasting white roof caps the all-black chopped side and back greenhouse windows, which blend into the high-waisted doors and fenders. It makes the Flex appear much smaller than it really is. Even with the optional 20-inch wheels, the Flex looks hunkered down. If Tonka wanted to make a mean looking, hot-rod toy truck, it would look like this.
The starting MSRP for the Flex is $28,550 for the base SE front-wheel-drive version, $31,350 for the up-model SEL, and $37,220 for the luxury Limited model. All-wheel-drive is available as an option on the SEL and Limited. My test car was the 6-passenger EcoBoost Limited and the base price was $42,010. Add $700 for the white roof and Candy Red Metallic paint, $750 for the dual second row seats, and $750 for the 20-inch wheels and tires and you get a bottom line of $45,590 with destination charge.
The Ford Flex in the Limited AWD EcoBoost trim is larger than most crossovers, gets better fuel mileage, has more power than others, and has a truly usable third row. You get a luxury ride, roomy cabin and excellent fit and finish. It can haul a lot of gear inside, and tow a 4,500lb trailer. And it looks good doing it. Anyone looking for a high mileage, versatile crossover vehicle that is fun to drive, should stop by a Ford dealer to check this model out.
I’m not a “buy American” guy. I believe that car shoppers should buy the vehicle that best suits their needs and requirements regardless of the manufacturer. But too many people are still hung up on old stereotypes about American cars, and they do themselves a disservice if they don’t check them out to help make a more informed purchase decision. Have you driven a Ford lately?