When the Ford Fairlane concept bowed in Detroit in 2005, it proved that Ford could design a stylish crossover recognizable from a mile away. Unfortunately, Ford didn't exactly have a stellar record of bringing hot concepts to market, so expectations were low that we would ever see the Fairlane reach production. Fast forward to 2008, and the Ford Flex is born. It's bigger than the Fairlane, yet it looks very much like the outlandish wagon that we saw in Motor City a few years earlier. Does the Ford Flex have the style, capability and appointments to be a player in the suddenly crowded large CUV market? Or is this modern day Woody just another oversized people hauler that misses the mark? Hit the jump to see how the all-new Flex fared during its stay in the Autoblog Garage.
All photos Copyright ©2007 Chris Shunk / Weblogs, Inc.
While the Ford cupboard is full of crossovers of various shapes and sizes, only the Edge slightly stands out for its styling. That changes with the arrival of the Flex. Its boxy, love it or hate it looks signals that Blue Oval designers have finally learned the recipe for generating some type of enthusiasm from the American buyer. The square dimensions, low ride height and massive 19-inch rims give the Flex a truly unique appearance in the market place, and the distinctive features don't end there. Our Cinnamon Clearcoat Metallic tester arrived with a White Suede roof, which contrasted nicely with the exterior hue. Black and silver lids are also available and the raked side panels accentuate the length and brawn of the Flex while also giving it some old school Woody flare. The available chromed rear end makes things appear more interesting out back.
With a steady stream of new cars and trucks to test, we're used to hearing comments from on-lookers about what we're driving. Of the vehicle's we've reviewed in the past couple years, the Flex garnered more attention -- good and bad -- than most. Three neighbors wanted to take it for a drive. One guy said it looked like a hot fudge sundae with whipped cream on top (he wasn't impressed). A woman even walked into the barber shop and asked who was driving the Flex. She wanted to take a closer look, and then waited for me to finish getting my trim before scoping out the boxy people mover. The Freestyle/Taurus X has never received that kind of attention and it speaks volumes about the quantum leap Ford took with the Flex.
The Flex is in a league of its own with regards to styling (good or bad), but at heart it's simply a seven-passenger family hauler. The interior is a very important place for soccer moms and dads, and since the Flex is Ford's defacto minivan, it has to be comfortable and full of things families want and need. Our tester carried a $43,250 price tag, and included a massive 8.5-inch navigation system with Travel Link, a Vista moon roof that spans all three rows, all-wheel-drive, and a refrigerator/freezer located at the second row console.
When we first had the chance to sit inside a Flex at the 2007 New York Auto Show, we were met with the same hard plastic that adorns the Taurus X. Fortunately, Ford performed a complete 180 for the production model, and the result is a level of refinement that is unsurpassed in the Ford lineup, stacking up nicely against the Honda Pilot and Buick Enclave. Plastics are high quality, feel great to the touch, and have plenty of cushion in all the right places. The center arm rest is made of leather, the steering wheel is thick and pleasant to the touch, and the seating surfaces are well-bolstered with ample thigh support.
There were plenty of options on our Flex, and Ford's new navigation system with Travel Link was our clear favorite. It's bright, simple to operate, and has clever features like a gas station finder that can sort by proximity or price. The Vista roof is massive, and the kids loved it, but it's tough to justify at $1,400. Without the shade drawn, the interior temperature skyrockets and causes the air conditioner to work overtime -- not to mention the weight penalty it adds to the already hefty, two-ton Flex. The second row refrigerator, at $760, was another option that we would omit from the options list. It's minuscule, costs as much as a 25 cubic foot Frigidaire, and just doesn't provide much bang for the buck. We'll stick with a $15 cooler and a half bag of ice if we want to travel with cold beverages.
Out on the open road or in congested traffic, the Flex provided plenty of comfort and capability. Ford's 3.5L V6 performs its task well, providing 262 hp for the driver to play with. It won't strike fear into the hearts of radials and it isn't Lexus smooth, but it'll get you onto the freeway without much fuss. The 6F50 six-speed transmission, co-developed with GM, was smooth as butter, though we would have liked to have a manual mode to play with in place of Ford's standard "PRNDL" fare. Fuel economy was right in line with that of the AWD competition, averaging 20.6 mpg in mixed driving. FWD models score about two mpg better in the EPA cycle, so if fuel economy is a top concern, you may want to skip out on the ability to move all four wheels at the same time.
The Flex is underpinned by a reworked version of the Taurus-X platform, and the ride is very smooth while providing some driver feedback that other crossovers miss. Ford engineers did an adequate job of giving drivers steering feel, and while the result is better than what we've experienced in the Edge, we'd still like a little more feedback. Since the Flex has a relatively low center of gravity, body roll is well controlled, but predictably, the 19-inch wheels don't soak up bumps quite as well as vehicles with more moderately sized rollers.
Over the past couple years, the number of crossovers on the roads has skyrocketed. Ford has invested plenty of time and money on the segment, and after coming close to getting it right with the Edge, the Blue Oval has struck gold with the Flex. It has the technology customers crave, its interior is world class, and it turns heads everywhere it goes. Does the Flex have enough of what customers want to make it a hit? We think Ford finally struck the bulls-eye.
All photos copyright Chris Shunk / Weblogs Inc.