The Ford Flex hasn't seen much sales success since it first hit America's streets back in 2008, and its boxy flanks have been decidedly hit or miss with the buying public. Still, when we first got a chance to drive the Flex, the big crossover was a revelation. It was smooth yet brash, comfy and luxurious all at once. In hindsight, one could argue that this big boat stands as a harbinger of Ford's revival. After the Flex arrived, a re-imagined Fusion, a much-improved Edge, the Explorer crossover and the new Focus all bowed.
The Flex was a big step forward for the Blue Oval in terms of refinement and bold design, but three-row crossover buyers are clearly looking for something more. Fortunately for Ford, the 2013 model year brings with it a refresh of its worst-selling Blue Oval-badged crossover, with more power, additional technology and a new face. Has Dearborn fiddled with the Flex formula enough to finally turn its most unique-looking crossover into a sales success? Only the market will determine that, but we spent a week with the vehicle to determine if it might have a shot.
While we've established that the Flex has spent some time under the knife, the changes don't quite pop out at you. The Flex retains its stacked parallelogram design, but the front fascia has been given a significant rework. For starters, the Flex no longer carries a Blue Oval badge or a three-bar grille. Instead, F-L-E-X is imprinted across the brow of the hood (just like on last model year's top-trim Titanium model), and a fine-looking single bar dominates the upper fascia. The headlight assembly has also been modernized, and the lower fascia drops the Ikea bookshelf motif in favor of three thin bars bookended by a pair of understated fog lamps.
Out back, changes have been relegated to a slightly reworked tailgate with Ford badging again being replaced in favor of more F-L-E-X text. Given the Flex's lukewarm reception among consumers, one might have expected Ford to soften the Flex's contours to appeal to a wider audience, but that hasn't happened at all.
One might have expected Ford to soften the Flex's contours to appeal to a wider audience, but that hasn't happened at all.
Our Tuxedo Black SEL tester arrived packing all-wheel drive and Ford's nondescript 202A package. That bundle (why not "Premium" or "Technology" or ANYTHING other than 202A?) adds leather-trimmed seats, blind-spot monitoring, a power liftgate with body-color applique, rearview camera and remote start. All told, the mega-package raises the price of this SEL-trimmed model from $36,000 (with $825 destination) to $39,000 all-in. Those prices, by the way, are $1,225 more expensive than last year's model.
One option that didn't get added to the MSRP was larger wheels, and that's too bad. The standard 18-inch wheels look bland, a bit discount, and not worthy of a price tag that is within a whisper of 40-large. Fortunately, the SEL model offers the option to choose 20-inch wheels for a reasonable $795. The 18s are wrapped in 235/60/18 all-season Goodyear rubber.
Inside, the big change is the addition of the the Blue Oval's next generation MyFord Touch system, which adds the now-familiar twin 4.2-inch LCD screens to the gauge cluster, replacing many buttons and knobs with touch-capacitive surfacing. Given that we've driven many MyFord Touch-equipped vehicles over the past couple of years, the technology is definitely getting easier to live with, but the system is still fiddly and at times slow.
We've said it before and we'll say it again – we miss the old switchgear. Perhaps that's why the dual five-way controls placed on the steering wheel works best for us. The thumb controls on the right enable the driver to control the gauge cluster LCD screens, with access to devices, entertainment, navigation and climate control. The left multi-way switch, meanwhile, supplies vehicle information like fuel economy and miles traveled.
We've said it before and we'll say it again – we miss the old switchgear.
Outside of the MyFord Touch-ified steering wheel and center stack, the Flex interior has been otherwise left alone. That's okay with us, if only because this three-row crossover already offers provisions that are at or near best in-class. The dashboard continues to delight with contrasting materials that are pleasant to touch. Seat bolstering is mostly absent, but the comfortable thrones offer ample thigh support and plenty of cushion for long family trips.
Second row occupants may have it best of all, with an absolutely ridiculous 44.3 inches of legroom. That's over seven inches more than the GMC Acadia, and more than five inches better than an Acura MDX. The Flex offers an also impressive 20 cubic feet of luggage capacity behind the third row, which is more space than any three-row crossover with the exception of the General Motors Lambda triplets. With the second and third row flat, the Flex unleashes 83 cubic feet of spaciousness, which doesn't compete with the space offered by the Buick Enclave or Honda Pilot, but it's more than enough cargo room for most buyers.
The base 3.5-liter V6 now boasts 285 horsepower at 6,500 RPM and 255 pound-feet of torque at an even 4,000 revolutions.
The Flex is at its best when looked at from the inside, but the boxy wagon also features an under-appreciated powertrain. The base 3.5-liter V6 now boasts 285 horsepower at 6,500 RPM and 255 pound-feet of torque at an even 4,000 revolutions. Those numbers compare favorably to the 262 horsepower and 248 lb-ft supplied under the hood of the 2012 model and the added grunt can be felt on the road. Power delivery is now stronger across the board and maximum torque arrives 500 RPM earlier, which leads to more impressive launches from a stop and increased passing power on the highway. Our pants-o-meter tells us we're traveling from zero to 60 in a scant seven seconds, which is remarkable when considering the Flex's 4,637-pound curb weight. And keep in mind that the more-powerful 3.5-liter V6 isn't even the most powerful engine in the Flex's arsenal. That honor goes to the 355-horespower twin-turbo EcoBoost model, which is available as a $3,250 option, but it's only offered under the bonnet of the Limited model.
Ford has managed to pull off the tough trick of increasing power while simultaneously managing to improve fuel efficiency of the 3.5-liter V6. The Flex AWD now manages 17 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway, or one mpg better in the city compared to the outgoing model. We managed 20.6 mpg during our time with the Flex, and when we added fuel, we were happy to see that Ford's capless fuel system has been added. The six-speed automatic transmission also continues to be among the smoothest in the industry, with buttery shifts that exude quality and prompt kickdowns when summoned with appropriate throttle inputs.
The Flex AWD now manages 17 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway.
The outgoing Flex might have been one of the best handlers in its segment, but it's still no canyon carver. We can appreciate the additional power and efficiency added to this crossover's engineering credits, but we're almost inclined to think that the Flex has gotten a bit softer around the edges. That could have something to do with the fact that this 2013 model is the first Flex we've driven that isn't riding on 20-inch wheels, which usually contribute to a stiffer ride. But the observation might also mean that Ford understands Flex buyers appreciate a smooth cruiser that rewards occupants with improved comfort on long drives and short commutes alike. We're also impressed with the new electric power-assisted steering that boasts a mix of variable assist weight that doesn't feel artificial and delivers just the right amount of sensitivity for a vehicle this size.
For 2013, the brakes have also been reworked on Flex models fitted with wheels larger than 17 inches. There's an up-sized master cylinder, new booster and Taurus SHO-derived larger vented rotors and pads at work. The change leads to effective stoppers with plenty of bite. All-wheel drive grip is now aided and abetted by a stability control system upgraded with Ford's Curve Control, a bit of silicon trickery that typically comes into play when the driver overcooks a corner. In these situations, Curve Control lightly drags the inside brake to keep the vehicle on its intended path. A new Torque Vectoring Control electronic limited-slip differential also helps with cornering, but our Flex displayed an undesirable amount of body roll, leaning into high-speed turns like a drunken carney on a merry-go-round. That might be a bit distressing for the typical enthusiast, but given the type of family-minded buyers that the Flex courts, it's an acceptable tradeoff for improved ride quality.
Speaking of family-minded buyers, the 2013 Flex is also available with all manner of active safety features, including new and industry-first inflatable seat belts, a blind spot system with cross-traffic alert and radar-based cruise control with collision warning and brake support. Newly optional creature comforts include remote start, along with power control for the tilt/telescope column and side mirrors.
We're convinced that Ford has delivered a crossover with more Flex than ever.
After a week with this new model, we're convinced that Ford has delivered a crossover with more Flex than ever. In other words, fans of the boxy three-row cruiser will love it even more, but we suspect detractors will continue to express their disdain or indifference. Unfortunately, that means that the 2013 refresh will likely do little improve the Flex's sales fortunes. That's okay by us. We still enjoy the Flex for its unique looks and plush ride, and we accept it for what it isn't – a sales success.