2010 Ford Flex SEL AWD EcoBoost Review
By Chris Haak
Last year when I tested the 2009 Ford Flex Limited AWD, I came away impressed with the vehicle. With its avant-garde styling, high-quality interior, slick interior features like a built-in refrigerator, adjustable mood lighting, and a roof covered in windows, it was an impressive family hauler. Now Ford has taken the very good Flex and given it a giant shot of horsepower – nearly 100 more, in fact. If the Flex was impressive last year, surely the Super Flex (my name, not Ford’s) would be even better, right?
I don’t think that I could have more eagerly anticipated the Flex’s scheduled arrival at 100 Full Metal Autos Plaza. I actually don’t know quite why I was so excited for it to arrive – sure, it has a lot of power and torque (355 horsepower, 350 lb-ft), but I’ve driven many vehicles far faster than the Flex EcoBoost, and especially in AWD trim (which is mandatory on the EcoBoost model, probably wisely so), it’s somewhat hefty, clocking in at 4,839 pounds. The standing-start acceleration numbers from buff books showed times in the low-six second range. Good numbers, but not particularly great (except compared to other grocery-getter crossovers).
When the Flex EB finally arrived, I was slightly disappointed. The test vehicle was rendered in Steel Blue Metallic with an Ingot Silver accent color on the roof. Coupled with the 20 inch polished aluminum wheels, suspension that’s lowered 0.4 inches at each corner, and two giant EcoBoost-exclusive round exhaust outlets exiting from under the bumper, it had the right look. The Flex EcoBoost that Ford provided for evaluation, however, was the mid-level SEL trim rather than a Limited as the previous year’s non-boosted tester was.
The big difference between the trim levels is found in the interior; the SEL excludes nearly all of the cool touches that make the Flex Limited’s interior someplace special. For instance, my tester lacked perforated leather seats (though it did have fairly soft leather seats, only they didn’t have little holes in them), the multi-pane glass roof, configurable accent lighting, wood steering wheel, second-row captain’s chairs, built-in windows shades, built-in refrigerator, and Ford’s best-in-class high-resolution navigation system.
Forgiving the lack of conversation pieces throughout the interior momentarily, the rest of the interior is very well executed. I prefer the SEL’s all-leather steering wheel over the Limited’s thin, phony-looking partial wood steering wheel treatment. The first two rows are spacious with plenty of legroom and nearly minivan-like elbow room. Quantitatively, the Odyssey kills the Flex in second row hip room (64.4 inches vs. 55.0 inches), third row hip room (48.5 inches vs. 41.1 inches), and pretty much doubles the Flex’s cargo volume behind the third seat, behind the second seat, and with all seats folded.
The Flex EcoBoost did have some features not present in the loaded 2009 Flex Limited that I previously reviewed. For one, Ford added a telescopic steering wheel adjustment to make finding a better driving position easier. For another, Ford added manual shift paddles behind the steering wheel. The 2009 Flex only gave drivers the ability to select either Drive or Low; this one lets drivers choose any of the six available ratios using the new shift paddles. The paddles are a welcome addition from a functional standpoint, but they are constructed of flimsy black plastic and both sides can do upshifts (with a tug) and downshifts (with a thumb push). My preference on shift paddle design is tugging the right paddle for upshifts and tugging the left paddle for downshifts, though I’m sure some folks like the setup that Ford has chosen.
The Flex comes with Ford’s excellent SYNC system. In this non-navigation equipped model, it was still incredibly easy to pair my iPhone with the audio system over Bluetooth. The system turned out to be even more user friendly than I had hoped, with it allowing the single Bluetooth phone pairing session to also work for streaming Bluetooth audio from the Flex to my iPhone. Playing songs from an iPhone or other Bluetooh-equipped media player made me feel as if I was operating my own radio station.
I know people would love to sideline the minivan and large SUV segments by claiming that large crossovers such as the Flex combine the best of both. The reality is, however, the Flex is not as roomy as a Suburban or a Sienna inside. The third row is more cramped in the Flex than it is in those aforementioned vehicles, and headroom is more limited. Too, the Flex’s cargo area behind the third seat has a well as modern minivans do (and the Suburban does not), but the third-row seats do not completely fold into the cargo well. Instead, they form a flat load floor when folded by lying across the full cargo area. It does give a flat floor, but at the expense of available cargo height. The fact that the Flex already has a fairly low roofline for is class means that you can’t haul the tall cargo in it that you can in a Honda Odyssey, for instance.
The low roofline, coupled with the lowered suspension in the EcoBoost-equipped models and the large 20 inch wheels gives the Flex a really cool, contemporary, sporty appearance. The seating position, however, is slightly compromised by the Flex’s design considerations. All seats are low to the ground, and for a 6’4” driver like myself to have decent headroom, my bottom is sitting really close to the floor. For 2010, Ford improved the Flex’s driving position adjustability by adding a much-needed telescoping feature to the steering wheel. In spite of being a crossover, the Flex’s hip point isn’t much higher than in a standard passenger car. This means that the oft-cited advantage of being able to see over traffic when driving a crossover isn’t really present in the Flex.
So, most people would buy a Flex to haul their family around rather than hauling ass (Ford expects a take rate of only about 15 percent on the somewhat-expensive EcoBoost option). But someone like me, who needs a spacious family hauler and wants to have some fun driving, the driving experience surely becomes more important. (You can feel free to question my credibility in making that last statement after I tell you that my own family hauler is an AWD Sienna minivan, but in my defense, if I the Flex’s drivetrain was available with a modern minivan’s body, I’d almost definitely opt for the motor making the big numbers.)
It’s in driving experience that the Flex excels, particularly compared to its less-sporty competitors. The Flex’s 3.5 liter EcoBoost V6 is an absolute gem of an engine. Ford has learned, as have several other manufacturers, that combining direct injection with turbocharging eliminates many of the usual downsides inherent in turbocharging a vehicle’s engine. For one, the EB V6 in the Flex does not require premium fuel to prevent knocking during combustion. For another, turbo lag is nearly non-existent. Stomp on the accelerator, and by the time the six-speed automatic kicks down a few gears, the turbos have spooled up, and you can take off.
It is possible to find turbo lag if you really look for it, but that’s not something most drivers would typically encounter. In case you want to find it, move the shift gate to “M.” This initially actives tow/haul mode. Once you tap a shift paddle, the transmission goes to manual model and tow/haul mode is turned off. From a low gear (say, first or second), there is a momentary delay between when the pedal is depressed and boosted power really kicks in. It’s nothing serious, and although it may hamper efforts to power out of corners in aggressive driving, may I remind you again that this is a family vehicle?
The EcoBoost V6 emits a nice, aggressive growl. I didn’t mind it, but it’s somewhat contrary to the otherwise-hushed interior ambience of the Flex. Despite the boxy shape, wind noise is not an issue in the Flex. Suspension tuning in the Flex EcoBoost is somewhat more sporting than it is in the garden-variety Flex, and that greatly solidifies a driver’s confidence compared to the non-boosted model.
My test vehicle was also equipped with electric power steering, whereas the 2009 Flex Limited that I reviewed had traditional hydraulic power steering. The advantage of using the electric setup is in improved fuel economy and the inclusion of an optional new Active Park Assist feature, similar to the one in the Lexus LS600 hL, but simpler to use. My tester did not include the self-park feature. The shortcoming of electric power steering is usually a lack of steering feel and communicativeness, but I have no issues with the way the Flex’s steering feels relative to its competition. It does not feel artificial, robotic, or over-boosted as some earlier-generation EPS systems do.
I had the opportunity to drive the Flex over 300 miles during its week in my possession, and as with many high-horsepower vehicles, my observed fuel economy was abysmal. I blame the addictive nature of the power underfoot. I observed just under 17 mpg over the course of my time with the Flex EcoBoost, though that is similar to what I observed from the Flex Limited last year. Unsurprisingly, the EPA ratings of both powertrains are identical. The EPA rates the AWD Flex (both EcoBoost and non-EcoBoost) at 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway, while the FWD Flex (non-EcoBoost) is rated at 17 city/24 highway.
The most curious aspect of Ford’s marketing of EcoBoost (whose original pre-launch name was to have been TwinForce) is that the current implementations of the technology (all in high-horsepower 3.5 liter V6s right now) don’t have a fuel economy penalty versus their naturally aspirated counterparts, but also aren’t improving mileage in any way. The real benefits of EcoBoost will come not in higher-performance applications, but when Ford begins reducing engine sizes (and cylinder counts) and supplementing those deletions with the addition of forced induction. For instance, the Flex EcoBoost’s engine would probably power an Expedition rather smartly and improve its fuel economy while dropping two cylinders and 1.9 liters of displacement if it moved from a 5.4 liter V8 to a 3.5 liter V6. The same goes for midsize cars like the Fusion when they get EcoBoost four cylinders.
There aren’t really any other crossovers that combine the Flex’s powertrain performance with a fairly moderately-priced non-luxury brand vehicle. True, the $40,000 price tag isn’t cheap, but that’s in the ballpark of its comparably-equipped peers. From a pure numbers standpoint, though they are not direct competitors, the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 outperforms the Flex, and has far less interior space and gets far worse fuel economy. The Chevrolet Traverse isn’t available with an engine that tops 300 horsepower, much less topping 350 as the Flex EcoBoost does. The power and torque do a good job of hiding the Flex EcoBoost’s size and weight. There is no sensation of having to overcome the vehicle’s weight when accelerating, and it’s surprisingly easy to quickly jump into relatively small holes in traffic with the power on tap. When it comes time to bring the fun to a stop, however, the brake pedal is too soft and spongy. Unfortunately, as with many of Ford’s higher-horsepower vehicles, the stopping isn’t necessarily keeping up with the going. That being said, I never felt that the brakes were unsafe or that they could not stop the Flex, just that for spirited driving (which I had to do without my family in the car), the brakes probably should have been upgraded along with the suspension and powertrain.
Ford has built a compelling package in the Flex EcoBoost. You’re definitely paying a substantial premium for the EcoBoost engine, but that motor has a lot of technology behind it, and I can’t argue with its production. Though the price would top even the roughly $40,000 as-tested price of my tester, my preference would be going for a Limited EcoBoost with all of the option boxes checked. That way you can have the cool interior features and comfort items to go along with the interesting exterior. I only wish I could put the Flex’s engine and transaxle into my wife’s Sienna. Could we be seeing the makings of a horsepower war in family haulers?
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