By Andrew Ganz
Friday, Jul 17th, 2009 @ 7:04 am
 
The basic two-box people-hauler has seen many iterations: From touring car to station wagon to SUV and, beginning about a decade ago, buyers began moving en masse to so-called "crossovers." A difficult segment to define, it has included all shapes, sizes - and, now, powertrains, thanks to the twin-turbo, 355 horsepower Ford Flex EcoBoost.

Consumer reaction to the new-for-2009 Flex was tepid at first, but sales have ramped up to the point that, even with its limited fleet sales, it will almost certainly unseat the Explorer this year.

We liked the Flex on our first encounter with Ford's boxy four-door tall-ish wagon, but, in typical auto scribe fashion, we saw fit to grumble about the middling power and sloppy handling.

Detroit's shining star of the moment, Ford, listened and answered with a package that will seal the deal for many ex-SUV buyers. Another 90 horsepower, the flattest, broadest torque curve this side of a Mack truck and a lowered and stiffened suspension were just what the doctor ordered. Add in the ability to parallel park itself - faster and in a smaller space than the Lexus LS460 - and Ford has created quite the package.

EcoBoost means power
This isn't the first time we've encountered Ford's much-ballyhooed EcoBoost powertrain that will also see duty in the Taurus SHO and Lincoln MKS and MKT, but it might be the best transformation.

The 355 horsepower and 350 lb-ft. of torque produced from the 3.5-liter, twin-turbo and direct-injected V6 boasts a torque curve flatter than Nebraska from 1,500 rpm to 5,250 rpm. That's enough to help the Flex move from a stop to 60 mph in seven seconds, but more importantly, it helps out with real-world midrange acceleration and towing.

From our starting point in laid-back Boulder, Colorado, where Subaru positively owns the market, we ventured through winding switchbacks as we climbed to Estes Park - situated about 7,500 feet above sea level and the home of the Edwardian-style Stanley Hotel that inspired Stephen King's The Shining.

Even at high altitudes, the Flex simply never felt underpowered and the steepest grades we encountered along our drive barely forced the six-speed automatic with paddle shifters to downshift. The powertrain is both smoother and quieter than the standard V6, meaning that even with the climate control switched off and the windows rolled up, the engine is barely audible. This might dismay enthusiasts seeking a nice growl or even a turbo whistle, but it should satisfy the mainstream buyers Ford must covet.

The Flatirons' steep descents helped us test out a new grade assist system that uses engine braking to keep the Flex at a constant speed while heading down hill. The system worked as advertised and would be an asset for those living in mountainous areas. Throw in the rev-matching downshifts courtesy of the new shift levers and color us satisfied.

Estes Park is also known for its elk, which meander into town without fail every afternoon. Though we didn't try our own elk avoidance test, we think the Flex would have passed. To go along with the power increase, Ford lowered the Flex about 10 mm, added higher-performance Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires and increased damping and spring rates. Electrically-assisted power steering was made standard, rather than traditional hydraulic, and it was tuned for more feel and feedback.

The transformation was astounding. Where the stock Flex wobbles and floats over bumps and through corners like the crossover that it is, the EcoBoost felt downright sporty. That's no small achievement for a 4,600 lb. tall wagon. Crisp handling, a rarity in a world of electric power steering, and a taut but composed ride gave the Flex a truly world-class feel that we haven't encountered in its Japanese or domestic rivals.

Ford is planning an entire EcoBoost family of lower-displacement, turbocharged and direct-injected engines designed to offer strong fuel economy for their power. The Flex EcoBoost thus averages a reasonable 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway - figures that won't win it any accolades at the pump but are impressive considering the level of performance. They're also identical figures to the standard 262-horsepower V6.

Playing with the big boys
Ford hopes to lure buyers out of big SUVs, like the Chevrolet Tahoe, Toyota Sequoia and, inevitably, even the automaker's own Expedition. To do that, it knew that its car-based crossover would have to offer a little more utility. Though its towing capacity maxes out at 4,500 lb. due to its unibody construction, Ford put a lot of effort into making the Flex a capable rig for the lighter loads most buyers might haul.

With the optional Class III towing package and Ford's Trailer Sway Control, which applies the stability control if it senses a trailer is slipping, we found the Flex EcoBoost to be a formidable rig. Despite attaching 3,500 lbs. to the hitch of our tester, the Flex's performance gave little indication that it was towing nearly double its weight.

Compared to the Chevrolet Suburban 4x4 (with the 5.3-liter V8) and even the more powerful Toyota Sequoia 4x4 (with the 5.7-liter V8) that Ford had on hand for comparison, the Flex felt both more confident and more composed with the trailer attached.

Ford readily acknowledges that some buyers will need more towing ability, but for light-duty utility trailers, jet skis and even small sports cars, the Flex will be more than ample and way more comfortable.

Crossover competition
Realistically, most shoppers will compare Flex to the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander and General Motors' Lambda-platform Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave. Though not offering the ground clearance of those, the Flex counters with a firmer, more European ride, dramatically more power and a luxurious, feature-laden interior.

The well thought-out digs inside don't change much for the EcoBoost; a telescoping steering wheel is a new line-wide standard for 2010, but otherwise the road trip-friendly interior is just as comfortable and well-executed as before.

The two more upscale all-wheel-drive trim levels will offer the EcoBoost engine, a roughly $3,500 upgrade that brings with it $800 worth of 20-inch alloy wheels. That's a hefty premium, though it brings with it a much sharper and more dynamic offering on the whole.

Leftlane's bottom line
If Ford can lure shoppers into showrooms, they'll either look past or embrace the eccentric styling and find the most complete, thorough and interesting crossover in the class. We don't generally get excited about crossovers, but Ford's high-performance, decent value Flex pushes all the right buttons for enthusiasts, recreational users and families alike.

2010 Ford Flex SEL AWD EcoBoost base price, $39,165.
2010 Ford Flex Limited AWD EcoBoost base price, $42,805.

Words by Andrew Ganz. Photos by Mark Elias.