First Drive: 2009 Ford Flex Limited AWD

2009 Ford Flex – Click above for high-res image gallery

Those of you who follow the auto industry as obsessively as we do will immediately recognize the all-new 2009 Ford Flex as the production version of the well-received Ford Fairlane "People Mover" concept from the 2005 Chicago Auto Show. The suicide doors are gone and the front has been opened up a bit to allow the engine to breathe... but Ford's execution from concept to production is, for the most part, dead-on. Ford recently gave us the opportunity to drive the new Flex in Southern California, so follow the jump to read our first impressions of the Blue Oval's new people mover.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Michael Harley / Weblogs, Inc.

A simple two-box design, the Flex borrows styling cues from the MINI Cooper, Honda Element, and Scion xB. Refining the shape, Ford designers have sculpted four horizontal grooves running lengthwise into the side door panels. Making this Ford both unique and interesting, the design element visually stretches the vehicle and emphasizes its long wheelbase (hint: cargo capacity and smooth ride). The roof is also separated from the body by an all-black greenhouse (a first for Ford). Standard tinted glass on all rear windows emphasizes what Ford calls "...mystery and intrigue in the design" while chrome and bright metallic accents highlight the rear liftgate, door handles, trim, and mirrors. The face of the Flex features Ford's three-bar grille, with headlights and fog lamps following the common theme with their bright surrounds.

In a deliberately non-minivan style, two front-hinged passenger doors open wide on each side, while a power-operated tailgate takes up the rear. The bottom of the doors merit notice as the rocker sills have been integrated in the door itself. This innovative feature allows passengers to step several inches closer to the Flex when climbing in or out, and they take dirt and grime away with the swinging door (while it never rains in Southern California, this will be a boon in most normal climates). Making pumping gas a bit simpler, especially with a gloved hand, the Flex introduces a "capless" fuel system called Easy Fuel. Ford wanted us to try the rather simple system (it involves a gasket on the filler door) but we don't get pleasure out of pumping gas-even on someone else's dime.

Inside, this top-of-the-line Limited model had roomy seating for six (drop the optional 5-qt. fridge/freezer with its own built-in compressor, and you can put a third passenger in the middle row). Concentrating on interior quality, Ford utilized multiple materials, textures, and colors within the cabin. While it is upscale (kudos to the contrasting stitches on the leather) and very inviting, the high-gloss acrylic coating on the "wood grain" is just too plastic for our tastes. The primary gauges are easy to read, but the myriad of buttons on the center stack will have you pulling your eyes from the road to hit them, even long after you are accustomed to the panel.

As vehicles become more technology-laden than a 757 passenger jetliner, the Flex follows the trend with Ford's popular SYNC with next-generation navigation and Sirius Travel Link. Navigation, weather, movies and even current gasoline prices are displayed on the 8-inch touchscreen within easy reach from the front seats. We cannot fathom why Ford included the too-low-to-be-useful analog clock on the center cluster (does anyone remember the Infiniti QX56?).

Even with power-adjustable pedals, the driving position for our six-foot two-inch frame wasn't optimal. The steering column adjusts for rake, but does not telescope. To get the legroom we needed, our arms were forced awkwardly outstretched. The headrests, oversized to limit head and neck injury in a crash, rested uncomfortably close to our heads even after we tweaked them. The firm and wide front seats, however, were very comfortable and leg room was accommodating. Second row passengers (Ford calls it "Business-class") have a generous amount of room keeping all but the worst misfit kids from kicking the back of the front seats. Adults will occupy the third row without protest, and still remain on speaking terms with the others. With above-average legroom, and skylights overhead in our Limited model, it is far from claustrophobic sitting in the "way-back." Ford thoughtfully placed a button on the interior B-pillar that springs the second-row seat up and out-of-the-way for easy third-row ingress/egress, and it really works.

There are three different Flex models: SE, SEL, and Limited. All share identical mechanicals, with the exception of front- or all-wheel drive drivelines. Ford brought more than a dozen Flexes (Flexi?) to Southern California for us to peruse, but all of them were the top-of-the-line Limited AWD models. With a twist of the conventional key, the engine cranked over and we headed out of Santa Monica for the Pacific Coast Highway and the twisty Mulholland Drive above it. It is immediately obvious that Ford engineers did an impressive job keeping the enemy - weight and torque steer - at bay. Had we not been told the Limited model we were driving tipped the scales at about 4,400 pounds, and was sending all of the engine's power through the front wheels, we would never have guessed.

While the Flex isn't going to be the car of choice for your next autocross (if pushed, it plows), the tuning of the four-wheel independent suspension kept body roll to a minimum, and driver confidence in sweeping corners high. As mentioned, the model we tested was equipped with permanent all-wheel drive. Under normal conditions, all of the torque goes to the front wheels. However, if the system detects slip or conditions that warrant otherwise (e.g., hard acceleration from a standstill), power is immediately sent rearward. The AWD system in the Ford Flex can send 100 percent the engine's power to the axle that needs it the most - automatically.

As the price of fuel continues to go nuts, it is worth first mentioning the efficiency of this new Ford. Painstaking engine tuning and near-complete fuel cutoff during deceleration help the new Flex earn impressive fuel economy ratings of 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway (16/22 in AWD trim). That trumps all of the 7-passenger full-size SUVs (even the Hybrid GMC Yukon), popular minivans and many crossovers of varying size. We should add that the Flex is designed to sip regular unleaded fuel, as well.

With fuel economy taking precedent over brute power (ergo no V8), the Ford Flex features the familiar Duratec 3.5-liter V6 rated at 262 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque. Mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission that is designed to pull away in first gear, the Flex easily moves itself around without hesitation. Only in the canyons did we find ourselves getting a bit frustrated with the transmission's electronic brain. The slushbox wanted to save fuel. We wanted torque. The Ford guy in the back seat (no, your car will not come with one) suggested we hit the "O/D" button. Designed for use while towing, it locks out sixth, holds gears longer, and will downshift automatically on braking. With a quick stab of that little button on the side of the shifter, we got what we were looking for.

Isolating passengers from unnecessary noise was also a key design goal of the Ford team. To achieve the goal, the front windshield (and all side glass panels on upscale models) is acoustically laminated to cut down on wind roar. A relatively low drag coefficient (.355, to be precise) and foam injected pillars and panels also keep the noise away from the passenger's ears. During our stint behind the wheel, we found the Flex to be notably quiet. Even our pre-production model was free of the expected squeaks and rattles. We spent about four stress-free hours inside the Flex's cabin. With the optional DVD entertainment center and Sony 7.1 surround system, and a stocked fridge, this could be the ultimate road-trip vehicle.

It seems Ford's objective was to deliver a stylish alternative to the boring minivan, and one-up the cookie-cutter competition. In doing so, it has also created an excuse to drop the gas-thirsty full-size SUV in exchange for an innovative, impressively fuel efficient, 7-passenger crossover. Whatever the case, with the precision of a GPS-guided projectile, Ford appears to have hit its target.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Michael Harley / Weblogs, Inc.

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