To me, the Ford Flex is still the sharpest-looking minivan alternative on the market, but its boxy, ground-hugging appearance isn't for everyone -- and the low roofline sacrifices utility.
New this year is a top-of-the-line Titanium version that adds some interesting visual cues without changing the three-row Flex's basic formula. It's visually closer to a Land Rover Range Rover luxury SUV (which costs nearly three times as much as a base Flex) than it is to the SE, SEL and Limited trim levels below it. All-wheel drive is optional on all but the SE, as is Ford's turbocharged EcoBoost V-6. We tested a front-wheel-drive Flex Titanium with a standard 3.5-liter V-6.
Since it arrived in late 2009, the Flex held an incidental resemblance to the Range Rover. With unique 20-inch wheels and a darkened, emblem-free grille with "FLEX" mounted in all caps above it -- similar to Land Rover's grille-top lettering -- any notion of accidental resemblance will disappear. Applaud the effort or scoff it, this is the Flex doing its best Rover impression.
Changes inside include Alcantara seat inserts and new faux-metal dashboard trim. Still, no one will mistake the Flex Titanium's interior for a luxury SUV. The materials are excellent in some areas and conspicuously low-rent in others; it's not the most consistent job. Major controls are easy to operate -- and far simpler to use than Ford's button-free MyFord Touch panels, which will probably make their way into the Flex not too far down the road. Get one now before it's too late.
The Flex's modest height -- at 68 inches, it's shorter than a Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, Chevy Traverse or Dodge Durango -- might suggest less headroom or seating that's too low to the ground. But the Ford exhibits neither: the second row has both decent seat height and good headroom, and both the first and second rows are easy to get into. With either a three-position bench seat or two captain's chairs, there's legroom to spare in the second row. For a three-row crossover, the Flex's third row is habitable enough for short trips. Accessing it requires tumbling the second-row seats forward. It's not as easy as some competitors' sliding seats, but the space it leaves to climb in back is big enough.
Unfortunately, the Flex's height does hurt cargo room. Behind the rear seats is an impressive 20 cubic feet of cargo volume, but you may not be able to stand a lot of things upright: The cargo area's height is just 31 inches. I had to dismantle my stand-up grille to get it and other tailgating accoutrements inside. It's little wonder the Flex's maximum cargo volume is just 83.2 cubic feet with the second and third rows folded. That's in the same neighborhood as the Durango and Pilot, but it trails the Highlander's 95.4 cubic feet and the Traverse's 116.4 cubic feet. (Incidentally, this underscores how spacious a minivan is. Most of those have more than 140 cubic feet of maximum volume. If cargo space is your priority, crossovers are no match.)
On the road
Even with four adults and a cargo area full of gear, Ford's 3.5-liter Duratec V-6 pulled our test car up to highway speeds swiftly enough. Although the Flex's six-speed automatic can upshift a bit harshly around town, it kicks down quickly on the highway. The car accelerates smoothly from 60 to 70 mph in 4th gear, and the automatic wastes little time getting there.
Should you want more oomph, the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 makes a robust 355 horsepower, versus the normally aspirated V-6's 262 hp. With standard all-wheel drive, the EcoBoost Flex feels like it has a V-8 -- and a strong one at that. One caveat: Ford recommends premium gas for maximum performance, versus regular for the 262-hp Flex. The EcoBoost V-6 can run on regular, but doing so means a slight loss in performance. Both all-wheel-drive variants get the same 18 mpg in combined EPA ratings. The front-drive Flex gets 19 mpg. Those figures are competitive for a three-row crossover, though the Flex's 4,500-pound maximum towing capacity remains at the low end of the segment.
The suspension settles in fine on the highway, but the Titanium's P255/45R20 tires will cost you ride comfort over major bumps. Potholes and manhole covers are rather jarring; lesser Flex trims, with their higher-profile tires, smooth those out. Automotive bling comes at a cost. Consider yourself warned.
The steering tracks well enough on the highway, but the Flex's boxy shape makes it a victim to crosswinds. Hit the interstate on a gusty day, and the steering wheel will need constant attention if you want to stay on course. At lower speeds, many drivers will want more power assist. For a large crossover, the Flex requires too much effort to wheel around a parking lot, and its awful turning circle doesn't help: At 40.7 feet, the Flex eclipses even the larger Traverse. The Durango, Pilot and Highlander all come in under 39 feet.
Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard. The pedal takes some getting used to, exhibiting a truck-like mushiness in the first inch or so of travel. Farther down, the response is more linear.
Safety, features and pricing
In crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Flex earned the top score, Good, across the board, making it an IIHS Top Safety Pick. The Flex has not yet been crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration using its new testing standards. Standard safety features include three-row curtain airbags, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system.
Reliability has been average, though the EcoBoost Flex has fared better than other variants. The Flex SE starts at a hefty $29,220 -- close to the Traverse but more than $1,000 more expensive than the Highlander and Pilot -- but comes standard with front and rear air conditioning, 17-inch alloy wheels, a power driver's seat and steering-wheel audio controls. Many of those features are optional on the other three. Options on the Flex include the usual luxury upgrades -- heated leather seats, a navigation system and the like -- as well as Ford's iPod/USB-compatible Sync system, a self-parking system and a moonroof with three additional rear skylights.
All-wheel drive is an $1,850 option on the SEL, Limited and Titanium. It's required for the EcoBoost V-6, which tacks on another $2,995. Load up an all-wheel-drive EcoBoost Titanium, and the tab can top $53,000.
Flex in the market
Despite rising gas prices, three-row crossovers are steaming along. As of this writing, the Traverse, Highlander and Pilot -- the segment's three leading sellers -- have all seen steady sales improvements this year. The Flex, for all its distinctive styling, hasn't been lifted by the same tide: Sales are in a free fall.
Why? It seems shoppers haven't warmed to the styling -- especially since Ford's more conventional-looking Explorer was redesigned to a crossover platform this year. Although it's a bit smaller on the inside, the new Explorer has three rows of seats standard and outsells its boxy sibling by a ratio of 6.5-to-1. It seems Ford shoppers are flocking toward the venerable SUV nameplate and paying little heed to the nearby Flex; a Titanium edition will do little to change that.
$29,355 -- $45,520
EPA Fuel Economy:
City: 16 -- 17
Highway: 21 -- 24
262-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 (regular gas)
355-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 (premium)
6-speed automatic w/OD
6-speed automatic w/OD and auto-manual
New or Notable
* New Titanium Edition
* Front- or all-wheel drive
* Available twin-turbo (EcoBoost) V-6
* Seats up to seven
* Optional onboard refrigerator
What We Like
* EcoBoost acceleration
* Quiet cabin
* Roomy second row
* Settled highway ride
* Distinctive styling
What We Don't
* Wide turning circle
* Mushy brakes
* Cargo area not very tall
* Inconsistent quality of cabin materials
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