By Mark Elias
Thursday, Jun 12th, 2008 @ 12:00 am
 
At a time where it is no longer cool to be associated with minivans, and even SUVs, Ford has tried to create a new niche that aspires to blend the virtues of both bodystyles, while inheriting the downsides of neither. With the 2009 Flex, have they succeeded? Let's have at it.



What Is It?

A slab-sided, updated product that looks as though it derived from another time, the Ford Flex is a fresh stab at a station wagon, or a minivan. Or is it a crossover? It's big, or little enough to fit into any of the above categories.

What's It Up Against?

Logical competitors to the Flex would be the GM Triplets, otherwise known as the Buick Enclave, Saturn Outlook and GMC Acadia. Toss in a Chrysler Town & Country, Nissan Quest and Toyota Sienna for good measure, and you have all the usual suspects. We haven't had the chance to drive Toyota's new Venza yet, but we suspect the so-called "crossover sedan" might attract a similar customer.

There's just one problem here: it looks like none of the above.

Boxy in more than just its shape, it has a demeanor to match. Equipped with an imposing profile, featuring an all-black greenhouse, it's one that you will either love or hate.

Any Big Breakthroughs?

Well, for one, the shape. I can't recall in recent time anything so box-like. Except for the cardboard box our refrigerator came in. But getting past the obvious, it has much to add in visual interest. Like the flat sides with styling strakes that streak along the lower flanks from front wheel-well to rear. And the two-tone characteristics of the car, including the Mini Cooper-esque white roof. Further down towards the floor, the rocker panels have been wrapped underneath the Flex so they are no longer liable to cause dirty pants legs or worse.

Next comes the noise. Or in this case the lack of it. The Flex is one of the more quiet vehicles we have tested in a longtime, which is amazing considering the last time we drove a boxy vehicle down a highway, it whistled like a teapot at full boil. Not so with the Flex. NVH engineers must have worked overtime on this joint.

Ford's EasyFuel capless refueling system makes one of its first appearances in a Ford vehicle, which will make gassing up an easier and cleaner affair. Expect it to spread across the entire line of vehicles.

Inside gets its share, too, with the "between-middle-seat" icebox that will keep sushi and drinks cold on long trips where you can't live without a raw fish fix. But more about that later.

How Does It Look?

Starting at the front, the familiar three-bar chrome treatment allows the Flex to let the world know who's its daddy. The grille gives way to an area so flat you could lay a tablecloth across the hood and set dinner for six. On either side are quad grooves, which are the Flex's signature touch.

A mild ground effects appearance is incorporated into the rocker panels which have been cleverly designed to open with the doors, offering a straight drop down when entering and exiting the Flex, so as to avoid rubbing pants along muddy or wet door sills.

Fog lamps on the model we tested look like they are straight from the corporate parts bin, and our test car rode nicely on optional 20-inch tires mounted on 10-spoke aluminum wheels. A passing glance as it rides by reminds us of a chop-topped and slammed Ford Explorer with doors that have been grooved on. And as much as the Flex is a clean slate, no pun intended, it is a fresh new piece of canvas for those who care to modify it.

At the end of the day, the unique styling will come down to personal preference. It's not the most badass vehicle on the road, but when compared to the rather bland competition, at least it will turn heads -- that is, until there's one at every supermarket, movie theater, and fast food joint. And this leads us to an important question: how will this look stand the test of time? There were pundits early on who said the Cadillac's Art and Science look would quickly become dated. Seven years later, it's clear they were wrong. We'll give Ford the benefit of the doubt on this one -- for now.

And Inside?

The first thing you notice is how much space is inside. It seems to be as wide as the Hummer H1 in full military spec. No, not really, but you get my drift. That it's built on the same platform as the Volvo XC90 and Ford Taurus, should give a clue as to what the designers have been able to work with both inside and out. Legroom, especially in the rear is copious.

A strip of faux wood trim punctuates the wide expanse of the dashboard. In an interesting turn, the same strips serve to bisect the gauge cluster, as well as offer a contrast on the nicely padded, leather-wrapped steering wheel. Typical Ford controls occupy places in the center stack, and they are all logically placed and easily identifiable. A Sony audio system supplies aural entertainment, and controls are operable by way of Microsoft's Sync system, which does offer iPod connectivity. We especially like the cool seats that were offered in the version of the Flex we tested. (The seat design itself was typical. We are fans of anything that blows cold air up".oh, never mind.)

Speaking of cold, there are secondary a/c controls in the back portion of the storage bin for second seat passengers, as well as an auxiliary power port, and 110-volt outlet. The frigid theme continues with the between-the-seats refrigerator in the second row to keep food and drinks cold.

Further back is a full array of folding seats that allow access to the third row or fold completely forward to allow for bulky cargo and a volume of 83.2 cubic feet behind the first row, and 43.2 cubic feet behind the second. A grocery net fills in the very back, and the auto-opening rear door allows easy entry to the rear cargo areas. It also comes in handy during frequent rain showers that are so prevalent here in South Florida.

We mentioned earlier that the Flex looks as though its roof has been "chopped" (lowered) as it was being designed. What's amazing is that the headroom inside is still substantial.

But the Flex gets an added assist from the multi-panel Vista Roof on our SEL model, which opens up the closed confines of the middle and back rows. It's really not necessary but is an attractive piece of eye-candy.

But Does It Go?

Well, it's no sports car, but it is powered by Ford's Duratec 3.5-liter V6 engine with 262-horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque, and mated to the firm's six-speed automatic transmission. Although our test vehicle was not equipped, an intelligent all-wheel-drive (AWD) system is available with predictive traction control. The Flex is not a lightweight by any stretch, but it is a competent cruiser, and displayed the ability to get out of its own way when needed. For those counting gross tonnage, the FWD weighs in at 4498 lbs. The AWD gingerly tips the scales at 4661 pounds.

Handling is as you would expect in any large vehicle. Which is to say that this is not really a corner clipper. Special attention needs be paid while parking and lane changing, as one would with a minivan. The Flex tracks true with pretty direct input from the rack and pinion steering, and road irregularities are soaked up nicely through the Flex's gas charged McPherson struts in front and multi-link independent rear suspension. Lane changes occur without any undue effort.

Ford estimates fuel economy at 17 city / and 24 highway mpg for the front wheel drive version and expects the AWD variant to achieve 16 city / 22 highway mpg. We realize that gas was not at the four dollar a gallon stage when the Flex was penned in Dearborn. But with no end to price increases in site, we hope the manufacturers have a few more tricks up their sleeves as far as fuel economy is concerned. Three years ago 17/24 was acceptable. In today's market, it just might be a deterrent to sales.

Why You'd Buy It

If you need a seven-passenger people-hauler that features innovative looks, and resembles a Mini Cooper Clubman on steroids, the Flex is for you. Ditto, if you can't live without a refrigerator on wheels! Or, a vehicle that could haul a refrigerator, for that matter.

Why You Wouldn't

If you favor curves in your life, this slab-sided meat wagon isn't for you. Like I said, you'll either love or hate the styling. And make no mistake, for most folks, the styling will be the deciding factor.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.