If you had a growing family, say a decade ago and needed a vehicle to haul them about, when it came to picking a Blue Oval product, your choices were limited (pun intended). You could have spun for a Taurus station wagon, or you could have gone for the Windstar minivan. This latter vehicle perhaps symbolized everything wrong with the Jac Nasser era at Ford. It wasn’t well put together, it wallowed along the road; suffered from a whole malady of electrical issues and the four-speed automatic transmission came with a built in self-destruct feature. When we finally bid farewell to it a couple of years ago (by then called the Freestar), few mourned its passing. However, aspiring soccer moms and dads were left without a suitable vehicle and Ford, it seemed, had given up its share of the people hauling pie to Chrysler, Toyota and Honda.
|1. With the front seat folded, Flex can swallow items up to 119.4 inches in length and boasts 83.2 cubic feet of cargo room with the 2nd and 3rd row seats folded. |
2. The 3.5-liter V6 produces 262hp and 248 ft-lbs of torque.
3. While 18-inch wheels are standard, massive 22-inch wheels are available as a dealer installed accessory.
Well, here we are in 2009 and suffice to say the folks from Dearborn haven’t forgotten those moms and dads. Instead they got their hands on a Scion xB, locked it in the dark, injected some Ford DNA and added Miracle-Gro. The result? The Flex – a boxy looking eight-passenger conveyance that’s full of surprises.
It’s a term favored by many automakers today, but suffice it to say there are few vehicles that can really be considered as such. However, we’ll go out on a limb and say the Flex is one of them. Its boxy styling is actually quite handsome and the contrasting color roof panel and broad shouldered hips (necessary to clear the big 18-22 inch wheels), give it quite a presence.
Like the F-150, it’s a machine that looks bigger and more imposing in the flesh than in pictures. Accentuating an image of sophistication (bear with us on this), are a range of exterior colors, many of which are metallics, including Dark Ink Blue, Brilliant Silver, Cinnamon, Sterling Grey, Light Ice Blue and Redfire.
Ford has made huge strides in quality control since the Windstar was current and it’s evident in the Flex, which boasts precision panel fit. From the well-aligned bumper caps and doors, to the chunky design of the switchgear and interior fittings, the whole thing feels like something a lot more expensive than it is. Who’d have thought we’d be saying that about a Ford product?
The cabin is perhaps the Flex’s major party piece. It is, quite simply, cavernous. From the driver’s perch it feels like there’s an acre behind you, the space accentuated by the optional Vista Roof (that boasts three sets of skylights) as fitted to our tester. The exterior design results in quite an incredible amount of useable space (there’s 60.3 cubic feet of room in the second row alone), plus there’s multiple storage bins, including a center console for each row of passengers as fitted to our Limited (the middle row unit featured an optional compressor driven mini freezer/refrigerator), plus door pockets, center stack and of course the glovebox.
Given this is 2009 and people like to be entertained on car trips, the Flex has a host of features that will hopefully keep boredom at bay on longer journeys. These include a 390 watt Sony Audio system, Ford’s voice activated SYNC technology; Sirius/XM satellite radio, Showtime screens that allow second or third row passengers to watch movies or play video games, plus a hard drive with nearly 10 gigabytes worth of storage that allows you to hold up to 2300 songs. You can also upload photos or use it to watch movies or TV shows (when you’re parked, of course).
The chairs also bear mention. In keeping with the uptown aspect of this vehicle, not only are the first and second row units heated on the Limited version; but it isn’t really fair to call them seats – thrones is more apt. You really feel like a king or queen sitting on them and that goes whether riding up front or sat way in back. The cushions are wide, comfortable and there’s plenty of room to stretch out. A whole raft of height adjustments on the front two means you can raise your perch to look down on the riff-raff as you motor down the highway. I can’t tell you the last time I felt this regal in a car and a people mover at that!
Speaking of on-road mannerisms, driving the Flex feels a bit like piloting a school bus. It’s a long vehicle, almost 201.8-inches from stem to stern, but has the on road solidity of a commercial grade hauler without most of the drawbacks; which, for the record, include noise, glacial speed and a tendency to get battered by crosswinds.
The Flex is built on an enlarged version of the D3 platform (Taurus, Taurus X, Volvo S60) so if it feels safe and strong while driving, that’s because it is. The ride is a bit on the firm side, even on the base SE with the 18-inch wheels, but ample sound deadening means exterior intrusion is kept to a minimum and those wonderful thrones take care of the rest. Outward visibility is exceptionally good, given the large glass area, and we noticed very little in the way of blindspots when maneuvering or merging with traffic, whether around busy urban locales or on the freeway.
The steering is decently weighted and at highway speeds, fairly solid and true. Not quite in the same league as the F-150 perhaps, but still, it’s far more direct than in a lot of vehicles this size. If there’s one gripe, the Flex, like many North American Ford offerings, could use a tighter turning radius with more wheel turns lock to lock, but otherwise it’s hard to fault.
A wide track means the Flex is quite surefooted despite its size and weight. It boasts a fully independent suspension – MacPherson struts up front and a double wishbone arrangement at the rear. As a result, even though the basic architecture is front drive, it doesn’t understeer or roll a great deal through sharper corners – credit that to a fairly low center of gravity, the big wheels and tires, plus, to a certain extent, Advance Trac and Roll Stability control; two driver aids which are standard on this vehicle. If you live in snowier climes, all-wheel drive is available as an option on the SEL and Limited grades and quite welcome, especially considering our evaluation was done up north during early spring, where it can get quite slippery at times.
The system is able to transfer as much torque to the front or rear wheels as needed and it’s one of the better ones we’ve seen from a mainstream manufacturer in recent years. Braking is sure and strong, big four-wheel discs and four-channel ABS haul this thing down from speed with good authority and minimal dive, though like some other Ford vehicles of recent vintage, pedal feel is a little muted and it takes a little while for the anchors to feel like they’re really kicking in.
In terms of performance, the Flex’s single powertrain, a 3.5-liter V-6, teamed with a six-speed automatic gets the job done. It’s no hot rod combination, but in most driving situations the 262 horsepower and 248 ft-lbs of torque don’t often leave you found wanting. Having said that, even with the smooth shifting transmission, fuel economy is not a strong suit of the Flex with 17 mpg city and 24 mpg highway. According to Ford, a new 3.5-liter twin-turbo Ecoboost engine is on the cards for the near future. From what we’ve already heard about this engine it should address the only two tarnishes (performance and fuel economy) on the Flex’s otherwise impeccably clean slate.
As for pricing, the Flex SE starts at $28,550, the SEL at $34,175, while the Limited begins at $34,960 before options and taxes. Given the level of quality, feature content and cachet this vehicle offers, that’s mighty competitive and something that, at present, rival manufacturers with their porridge minivan equivalents can’t really match; no matter how many gizmos or whiz-bang marketing strategies they come up with.
Tons of interior space Good fit and finish Comfortable seating
Wide turning circle Mediocre fuel economy Could use a bit more power