Reno to Mammoth Lakes - 2009 Ford Flex Road Trip, Stage 6 Long-Term Road Test
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2009 Ford Flex Long Term Road Test

2009 Ford Flex Road Trip, Stage 6: Reno to Mammoth Lakes

August 20, 2009

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Today's theme was a dual one: mountains and ghost towns. Our 2009 Ford Flex took us up and down several steep grades on the way in and out of the mountaintop mining towns of Virginia City, Nevada (population 1200-ish) and Bodie, California (population 0).

Without any advance plan to do so, the day turned into a test of the Grade Assist function built into the Flex's transmission software.

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Grade Assist is activated by this button on the shifter. It may look like a familiar 'O/D off' (Overdrive off) button that simply disables the highest gear -- making a 6-speed into a 5-speed or a 5-speed into a 4-speed. The intent is to lessen gear hunting on ascents and limit downhill speed and save the brakes on descents.

But Grade Assist doesn't quite work that way.

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When activated, this icon appears, an icon that happens to match the one on the button.

At first, nothing much happens and downhill speed creeps up as usual. But when I step on the brakes and linger on them a few seconds after I stabilize my speed, the system recognizes what I'm trying to do and downshifts so that I don't have to continue to ride the brakes.

I can then ease off the brake and let the system hold my desired speed. It worked great on the steep 30 mph grade out of Virginia City, using a gear that couldn't have been any higher than 3rd. It also held my desired 60 mph descent speed on the steep grade south of Bridgeport, California, probably by using 5th or 4th.

Because it seems to work at different speeds and use different gears (and responds appropriately to variations in the grade all the way down), Grade Assist is doing something far more sophisticated than a simple O/D off function. There is an element of downhill cruise control here, even when cruise control is off.

But it doesn't work on every grade at every desired speed. Example: It wouldn't hold my desired speed when descending the 35 mph downgrade from the Mammoth ski lodge. I tried 35 mph and 40 mph, but I had to stay on the brakes to control my speed.

I guess that's no surprise, because there's a nearly limitless variety of grade profiles and descent speeds out there. The software and hardware can't be tested and massaged to work on all of them.

Which brings me back to the shift lever. I've said it before and I'll say it again: The Flex needs more choices than 'D' and 'L', Grade Assist notwithstanding. And that applies equally to the standard V6 engine and the new twin-turbo V6 mill.

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Bodie sits at 8,375 feet. It was founded in the mid 1800's, when prospectors ventured to the most remote locations in search of a repeat of the gold rush. They found it here, and in it's heyday about 10,000 people lived in Bodie. Everyone was gone by 1941.

The site was proteced in 1962, by which time only 5% of the buildings remained. Today the Bodie ghost town is kept in a state of arrested decay.

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You can find Bodie 14 miles east of Highway 395, at the end of a side road that departs 395 about 6 or 7 miles south of Bridgeport, California. The first 11 miles are a narrow winding road with the worst frost damage I've seen west of the Mississippi. The last 3 miles are a washboard dirt road. There are two or three other pure dirt road routes across BLM land that you can use if you want to turn your visit into an off-road trip. Access in winter is pretty much limited to snowshoes, cross-country skis or snowmobiles. Really.

Go here if you care to find out more.

Needless to say our Flex is getting pretty filthy after all the dirt roads and the numerous clouds of bugs.

Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing @ 31,323 miles


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