Oregon Bound - 2009 Ford Flex Limited Long-Term Road Test

2009 Ford Flex Long Term Road Test

2009 Ford Flex Limited: Oregon Bound

December 23, 2008

555 int by S Jacobs.jpg

To almost no one's surprise, I've got the keys to the 2009 Ford Flex in my pocket for our annual holiday trip north to Oregon.

We're all looking forward to it. It has plenty of room for us to stretch out, plenty of room for our stuff and it's loaded with plenty of toys to keep the miles from wearing us out. We'll put the navigation system, satellite radio, Sync iPod connection, Bluetooth connection, rear DVD screen, and built-in cooler to very good use.

We don't actually leave until the day after Christmas, so I have a couple of days to watch the weather and plan my route. Snow is going to be unavoidable this year because we're adding a side trip to Bend to see my sister-in-law. We have to cross the Cascades to get there from the coast.

California and Oregon are militant about the need to carry tire chains and use them. They set up checkpoints. They're dead serious about it. And many times they don't care if you have AWD. This might not be a problem if you're a local and you have snow tires. But if you're driving up from sunny SoCal, you need chains. And the 10-day weather forecast shows that pesky little snowflake icon up north the whole time.

In fact, as I write this, a colleague in our video production department is already in Oregon and he just called not 5 minutes ago from the roadside while installing chains on the Ford Edge. 'Front or rear?' he asked with chattering teeth. I'm not making this up.

And this is where the Flex has a potential problem: The Flex's owner's manual says you can't put chains on a Flex, even so-called S-type cable chains. Chains won't fit, they say, over the standard 18-inch tires as well as the 19 and 20-inch optional ones. (Our front-wheel drive Limited has the 19's.) I've never heard of such a thing on a volume family product. Who signed off on this?

There is one Flex model that can accept chains: the 2WD SE base model can be ordered with an optional 17-inch tire 'downgrade.' They're 1-inch shorter, you see. They provide one-half inch more radial clearance in the fender wheels. The AWD's final drive ratio is borrowed to keep the gearing straight.

But besides a paltry options list, there is a catch: Ford says they only sell this option in 'snow states.' What 'snow state' denizen would go for 2WD and chains? Sounds like a fleet special, to me. And I'm sure places like California and Arizona aren't considered 'snow states,' but both have high mountains and real ski resorts. Folks who live outside snow areas and visit occasionally are the ones who need chains, not the locals who live in it. But I digress.

After a bit of frantic research (the keys to the Grand Caravan were long gone so I had to make this work), I learned a few things:

SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) standards require 15 mm of clearance (about 5/8 inch) for S-type chains, roughly speaking.

The optional 17-inch tires have the same width as my 19's, but by being shorter they gain 12.7 mm of radial clearance. That's the difference I have to make up.

I found a brand of cable chain that exceeds SAE S-type requirements. They only need 6.3 mm (1/4 inch) of clearance -- a savings of 8.7 mm.

Using these slim-fit cable chains with my 19-inch tires reduces the descrepancy to only 4 mm -- just over 1/8 inch. I'm sure Ford didn't cut it that close, so I think I'm good. But just to be sure I went down to the garage for some measurements.

555 chain clearance strut.jpg

The clearance between the tire and the strut isn't really close. There's almost a full inch there. No problem. The fender lip looks good too.

555 chain clearance fender liner.jpg

The closest point seems to be the distance between the tread and the rear of the fender liner at full lock. Even with these 'big' tires, it looks really close to the required 15 mm. I easily see more than a half-inch -- significantly more than the 1/4 inch required by the slim-fit cable chains.

I'm going for it. At worst I'll simply call my sister-in-law in Bend and tell her we can't get through.

And as Paul in the next cubicle said, going through all of this trouble and buying chains means that Murphy's Law will now protect me with sunny skies and clear roads.

Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing @ 13,232 miles

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