2009 Ford Flex Limited AWD Review
By Chris Haak
By now, most everyone has seen the ubiquitous commercials or magazine ads for Ford’s all-new Flex crossover. In case you haven’t, they’re catering to a young, urban, upwardly-mobile clientele. Jim Farley, Ford’s well-regarded head of marketing, didn’t want to limit the Flex’s appeal to only families with children, so Ford’s launch strategy for the Flex was to basically market the vehicle as an image-booster to younger adults without children, then assume that the people with children would latch onto its practicality, and the vehicle’s advertising-driven image would close the sales.
Unfortunately for Ford, the Flex has struggled to crack through the noise of an ever-crowded crossover segment, in spite of its unique (boxy, overgrown Mini Cooper-esque) shape, comfortable interior, and efficient-for-its-size powertrain. The Flex’s lack of initial sales success probably has everything to do with the unfortunate timing of its mid-2008 launch – you know, when gas prices were spiking to $4.00 per gallon and above – as consumers abandoned large vehicles in droves. I can, in fact, testify to the fact that there’s nothing wrong with the Flex that should harm its sales. And I’m not even going to gloat about how I predicted more than a year ago (July 10, 2007) that I didn’t buy into the hype about the Flex’s prospects for success.
Questionable marketing strategy, unfortunate timing, and unique shape aside, the Flex is a pretty cool vehicle. It was intended to be Ford’s replacement for its unloved Aerostar/Windstar/Freestar minivan franchise, promising minivan utility combined with un-minivan-like styling. Unfortunately, in the process of distancing the Flex from the minivan stigma (which, by the way, I very much believed in until our second child was on the way and saw that an SUV was no longer practical for our family), the Flex also lost some of the practicality of a minivan. In spite of the marketing hype surrounding large crossovers, that they have the “utility of a minivan with the styling of an SUV,” in fact a modern minivan is roomier inside and affords easier passenger access via its sliding doors. I’d consider car-based large crossovers such as the Flex and Chevy Traverse to be more of a halfway point between the unnecessarily heavy and built-up traditional SUVs and a minivan, and for some people, that might be the right mix.
While the Flex is a large vehicle, and is pretty spacious inside (particularly in the first and second rows), it actually looks fairly small in person when parked next to something such as a full-size pickup, where it’s probably 18 to 24 inches lower. The vehicle sits very close to the ground, and although it’s basically a tall-roofed wagon, the designers did a great job of disguising the roof’s height with the visual trick of the (optional) white-colored roof panel. The visual effect, then, is one of “longer, lower, wider” – the Flex appears to hug the ground, and has fairly substantial overhang behind the rear axle. Even viewed from behind, it has an un-trucklike stance that is wider than it is tall. The Flex’s design is at its fundamental level a fairly straightforward, two-box setup (with the emphasis on ‘box’), yet designers weren’t satisfied with leaving only two boxes. There are grooves in the doors to break up the monotony of the side, large 19 inch wheels (at least on my Limited test vehicle) that filled the wheel openings nicely, and a three-bar chrome grille that’s flanked by Xenon HID headlamps dress up the front end.
Stepping into the Flex, unlike many vehicles in its class, you don’t step up or even step over; you nearly step down to get into it. Without knowing the exact measurements, the Flex’s hip point appears to be similar to that of the Taurus/Sable upon which it’s based; that is, the vehicle’s floorpan is close to the ground, but the seat is placed a little higher than you’d expect, which is possible because of the high roof. The first thing one notices when entering the Flex is the attention to detail apparent throughout the interior. There are large drink holders in each door, several large storage cubbies throughout the interior, and a fairly tasteful combination of fake wood and fake stainless steel trim. The top of the dashboard closest to the front seat passengers is soft-touch material, but about half of the interior – including the parts of the dashboard that are harder to reach, and the parts of the door panels and lower dashboard that aren’t typically touched – is made of hard plastic. At least the plastic doesn’t sound hollow when knocked on, and its pattern/grain is consistent with that of the softer materials adjacent to it. I was impressed by the leather on the seating surfaces, especially considering that this is a Ford and not a Lincoln; they were soft leather (vinyl/leatherette on the sides, of course) with a neat diagonal pattern sculpted into them.
Between the second row captain’s chairs is a full-size console, which in my test vehicle, contained the Flex’s optional ($760) refrigerator/freezer. While it would be nice to have for a LONG trip, it has limited value most of the time, as it only operates when the vehicle is on. This means that if you buy a half gallon of ice cream and put it into the freezer at the store, the freezer won’t be freezing unless you happened to plan ahead and turn it on when you left home, then hoped that its insulation will be good enough to keep the cool air in there while you’re shopping. Also, the fridge isn’t very large; it will hold probably a dozen soda cans (maybe less), and I was able to fit one half gallon ice cream carton into it.
Another slick touch in the interior included user-configurable accent lighting colors (the lights at the rear of the front console, in the front footwells, and most obviously in the front cupholders could be toggled among yellow, red, orange, blue, green, purple, and white to change-up the nightclub atmosphere inside the Flex. Although it’s a gimmick, I did find myself playing with the mode each time I was in the vehicle to suite my mood. While this lighting feature serves no practical purpose, I found that the rest of the interior was very pleasant, and I congratulate Ford for trying new things with design and materials inside the Flex; the overall package works well together.
Second row passenger space was better than average, and the second row seats recline and slide forward or backward on a manual track. Furthermore, the second row seats in my Limited tester featured a power folding feature that made access to the third row easy – if there aren’t car seats installed in both second row seats. Getting into the third row with child seats meant the choice between climbing over the second row console or removing a child seat, neither of which is an ideal alternative. I found the third row to be about average in terms of space, but the optional Panoramic Vista Roof that my test Flex had made the headroom seem more spacious in both the second and third rows. There is one enormous exterior glass roof panel covering the second and third rows, but inside the Flex, there are individual windows on the outboard positions in the roof, then a single sunroof-like window in the center of the third row. None of the rear sunroofs opened, but all three had spring-loaded retractable shades that were difficult to operate quietly with a sleeping baby in the car. I was disappointed that there were no retractable sunshades on the side windows for the rear seats; Toyota includes these in upper-level Siennas, Sequoias, and some others and they’re a much better alternative in terms of appearance and safety to the aftermarket SpongeBob SquarePants retractable shades that you can buy at Babies ‘R Us.
The Flex is not a vehicle that enjoys being hustled. It’s easy to feel its tonnage when driving, as the V6 is fairly muscular on paper, but the power-to-weight ratio needs a little improvement, which is supposed to be coming next year in the form of EcoBoost turbocharging. Driving around with my family in the Flex, like a responsible good citizen, the car did fine and never felt underpowered. Trying to hustle it a little bit, though, is a lesson in futility. The six-speed automatic makes the most of the engine, but Newton’s laws are laws and not just theories, after all. A downside to the six-speed auto is that it does not allow any manual shifting whatsoever. There are only two choices for forward gears on the gearshift- D and L, with the ability to disable overdrive as well; the Flex’s competitors all allow at least some degree of additional flexibility in picking a gear ratio.
It actually didn’t seem to handle very badly, though I didn’t really want to press my luck with a top-heavy, 2,000 miles-young vehicle. Steering feel was better than in many Toyota products (my wife’s Sienna, for instance), and braking felt about par for the class.
I observed fuel economy of about 16 miles per gallon in mixed, mostly city driving. When driven calmly and steadily, I saw a trip touching 20 mpg, and I’m fairly confident that the Flex’s EPA ratings of 16 city/22 highway (AWD models) are achievable with moderate throttle use and keeping speeds below 75 miles per hour.
Pricing on the 2009 Flex Limited AWD starts at $37,255 including destination. My tester had basically everything but a rear seat entertainment system, including a Class III towing package ($570), auto folding second row 40/40 seats ($870), Panoramic Vista roof ($1,495), second row floor console ($100), rear console refrigerator ($760), navigation system with rear backup camera ($2,375)(!!), and a white two-tone roof ($395). The total MSRP came to $43,820, which is almost exactly what a similarly equipped Acadia or Enclave would cost. That’s a lot of money, but the Flex is a lot of vehicle. For buyers who prefer the traditional (and I’d argue inching toward extinction) practice of buying their vehicles by the pound, the Flex is a nice, solid vehicle. It has more style inside and out than anything else in its class, except for perhaps being tied with the Buick Enclave (though the Enclave takes a completely different design direction than does the Flex), but still can’t match the utility and convenience of a minivan. But it’s not a minivan, and that’s a pretty big selling point in its own right for many buyers.
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