We were headed on a road trip, because that's what you do when the summer draws to a close and something as gigantic as the Ford Flex rolls into your driveway. Destination: Brooklyn. Five miles into the journey, the Sony audio system belts out the Beastie Boys' "No Sleep Till Brooklyn," and the two sub-five-year-olds in tow agree. But we had an ace up our sleeve: our Flex SEL tester was packing a six-shooter augmented by Ford's EcoBoost turbo system, good for another 100 horsepower over the standard model. If the trip was going to be hellish, at least it would be short.
There's a price premium to pay for the heavy breathing, but even at $40,000 as-tested, the kitted out Flex stickered for less than expected, and mitigating drawbacks seems to be a running theme with the EcoBoosted Flex. Its EPA estimated fuel economy in all-wheel drive trim of
In search of some kind of glaring downfall, we kept the Flex EcoBoost for a while, trying to suss out what penalties you might ultimately pay for the added brawn. Follow the jump to see how the big Ford fared.
Photos copyright ©2009 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.
The Flex's T-square styling strikes some as boxy, others as handsome and broad-shouldered. Our sampler looked great in metallic black with a contrasting silver roof, though that color combination does little to quell the occasional comparison to a hearse. The optional 20-inch wheels, with a design echoing the high-speed turbines underhood, aren't coated in garishly shiny chrome, but for a performance model, the Flex EcoBoost would look far more sinister with a dropped ride height to tuck those massive hoops into its bold arches.
Only a small Ecoboost badge on the tailgate denotes this Flex as anything different from its lesser brethren, and other than the oddly tall stance, the overall demeanor is fitting, from the dark paint to the dual exhaust tips out back; this may be a wagon, but it's not a mamby-pamby Mike Brady thing.
Like the outside, the interior of the Flex is styled with a combination of contemporary and classic mid-century-modern forms. With a dash contour inspired by classic Electrolux vacuums of the Fifties, it would have been easy to go all retro inside, but thankfully, the Flex interior has been rendered in timeless forms. Who wants to remember those old three-row wagons from the old days, anyway? Those are the cars that made the minivan and SUV so popular by not being wagons in the first place.
Nothing inside the Flex is overly styled, but it's all styled well. The gauges are clean and simple, with four clean dials rimmed in chrome. The leather-covered seats with contrasting stitches are not just attractive, but living room comfortable, too. There's a mixture of textures and materials, from typical plastic graining that imitates leather to a pattern evocative of post-war household appliances. Faux wood, plated plastic, and a flat silver center stack complete the interior fitment. However, the silvered plastic does a bad imitation of aluminum – if that's what it's there for – and over the years, we suspect it will not wear gracefully. The rest of the materials inside are high quality, better than you'll find in the GMC Acadia, one of the Flex's main competitors.
Usability of the controls in the Flex is tops, with or without the formidable list of technology that Ford makes available. There's virtually no need to open the manual to operate the secondary controls. There are knobs for the audio system's volume and tuning, as well as the climate control's temperature setting. We did keep grabbing for a non-existent fan knob, and occasionally had to stare at the buttons for the audio system before discovering which of the multiple like-sized ones we needed. Cupholders sprout like dandelions in the spring aboard the Flex, and other niceities like rear-seat HVAC controls and a 110- volt outlet are packed in to make long journeys just a bit more comfortable.
This is an ideal car for gobbling up the miles while dragging a modest brood and their stuff, or carrying a bunch of people armed with credit cards for when you arrive. There's not a huge amount of cargo room when running sold-out seating, but passengers will enjoy good comfort and room, though your more compact acquaintances would be better served in the third row. Besides people hauling, the other trick the Flex excels at is hauling goods. There's a deep well behind the third row, and folding those seats down is an easy strap pull away. The second row seats operate in much the same manner, and when folded, there's a cavern at your disposal. Visibility from the driver's seat is very good, though the sheer size of the Flex may make parallel parking or reversing a little unsettling for the unpracticed. Dark tinted glass out back adds to the difficulty at night, though big mirrors and an available backup camera help. The car-based Flex, however, is immensely easier to position than most truck-based 'utes.
Our interest in this Flex centered on what's packed under that dining room table-sized hood. The EcoBoost engine is strong, yet it doesn't feel laggy in the least, despite (or perhaps because of) the pair of turbos feeding it. There's no wheezing or huffing and puffing, either. Ford's EcoBoost is very much like BMW's lauded twin-turbo six – brawny and drama-free. The EcoBoost even matches BMW's 100 hp/liter output, with the V6's 3.5 liters serving up 355 horsepower. The muscular engine and all-wheel drive system team up to make the Flex confident without exhibiting any bad behavior. It's a relaxing vehicle to drive despite its size.
The standard Duratec 35's 263 horsepower work constantly to keep the Flex going, but the EcoBoost engine only ups the thrust when needed and turns off the huffer when it's not, so the mileage penalty is negligible. More power means not having to flog it so much, too, and the well behaved powertrain would be interesting to sample in something lighter (Taurus SHO notwithstanding). The substantial weight of the Flex smothers some of the EcoBoost's impressiveness, though it will hike up its skirt and zip along quickly without hesitation.
Better still, Ford's six-speed automatic transmission is smooth up and down the ratios, easily one of the best behaved automatics currently on the market. While other transmissions are reluctant to kick down and take an eternity to do anything, Ford's tranny is responsive when left to think for itself and gives drivers what they ask for in an obedient manner. It may be that the engine's big torque mitigates some of the economy-minded shift behavior, or more likely, Ford's put the time into powertrain development to make it good. One bit of ridiculousness is the Flex's paddle shift capability, which seems out of place in this application, but they hardly cost anything, so no harm, no foul. As it is, the transmission is good enough the paddles can be ignored, but if you want to play race driver, they're present, although perhaps not as responsive as Family Foyt would like.
Even though the Flex is a big, weighty thing with big power, it's not like the old land yachts with big cubes up front and handling that mimics a pat of butter on a hot griddle. All-wheel drive puts the turbo twist to the ground with no drama at the helm. When it's time to change direction, the steering is direct and weighted well, and while lacking in feel, maneuvering the Flex is not like playing a video game, either. On the open road, the wheel settles down and holds straight ahead, making it easy to roll up the odometer without fatigue. Brakes don't seem to lack any effectiveness in practice, though other vehicles on this same platform have posted rather unfortunate braking numbers and fade resistance. The big discs at all corners have a good, progressive feel with a firm pedal, assuming you don't go torching a mountain pass.
A looser suspension calibration with all the power at hand could be truly scary. Thankfully, the Flex has a well-behaved chassis. Quick lateral moves don't upset it. Bumps and suspension impacts don't perturb it much, either. The size is definitely something you're aware of, but the power and solid underpinnings make the Flex EcoBoost an easy plus-sized dance partner on the superspeedway of the everyday commute. There's enough go and control that the Flex EcoBoost drives 500 pounds lighter than it is. The engine is a revver, and the noise up high gets a little gravelly. It's never harsh or offensive though, and the interior of the Flex is quiet and relaxed.
Even the regular-strength Flex is difficult to dislike. It's a well thought-out family vehicle without being a van or SUV (or carrying the associated stigma). And although the price is higher than you'd prefer for a Ford wagon, the Flex is more on par with the Expeditions people eagerly snapped up not so long ago. It's cavernous inside and enormous outside, yet drives better than any silly truck-cum-wagon ever could. And with the Ecoboost V6 under hood, all the standard Flex's attributes are there, just amplified – without a trade-off on the fast-approaching horizon.
Photos copyright ©2009 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.