James Riswick, New and Used Car Editor
"Hey, that's a cool car," says a 13-year-old boy as he gives a good long look at the 2009 Ford Flex parked in the driveway. A three-row, six-passenger family vehicle shouldn't in theory draw this sort of reaction from a generation devoted to its text messaging, skater boy fashion sense and that quasi-punk band we don't know the name of. But here is such a vehicle connecting with a pretty indicative member of that generation — plus several others. If that doesn't send Ford's hard-up head honchos into a celebratory Carlton Banks dance, nothing will.
However, under that boxy silhouette, white roof and ribbed body panels lie the mechanical bits and pieces of the practical and decidedly uncool Ford Taurus X. The last time one of those visited the Edmunds garage, the general consensus was "smart packaging, loads of room, decent to drive, but the interior stinks and it couldn't possibly look more dull." Well, the Ford Flex comes off the same way — only the two major "buts" have been soundly taken care of with several pluses to boot. In other words, a redo well done.
In our time with the 2009 Ford Flex, this crossover wagon proved itself as a practical family-toting appliance. The fact is, though, any number of new large crossovers can do that. What they can't do is elicit the sort of reaction the Flex does. "Hey, that's a cool car" is probably all the incentive moms and dads will need.
Weighing in at 4,828 pounds, the 2009 Ford Flex is an awfully big box — and that's when it's empty of passengers and their stuff. Still, with a respectable 262-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 aboard, our all-wheel-drive Flex Limited managed to get up from zero to 60 mph in 8.8 seconds — which is just a hair slower than the last all-wheel-drive Saturn Outlook and Mazda CX-9 we tested. Better news can be found when going from 60 to zero mph, as the Flex bucks Ford's recent trend of horrendous braking performances with a very respectable emergency stopping distance of 128 feet.
As always, we drove the Flex on a wide variety of roads and, not surprisingly, it was most happy out on the highway. Around town and in parking garages, the wide boxy front end can give the impression that you're about to hit every mailbox and pedestrian around. Nose-in parking can be a pain and smaller drivers in particular should take note of this on a test drive. On the upside, the steering is reasonably precise for this type of vehicle, being light enough at parking speeds and weighting up well at higher ones. The Flex quite competently handled the winding, rolling roads of Ontario cottage country. If, however, you find yourself taking ski vacations into mountains, something more involving like the Mazda CX-9 is a much better choice.
Besides the steering, such a mountain road journey will quickly show one of the Flex's more frustrating points. Geared to achieve the best fuel economy possible (16 mpg city/24 mpg highway and 18 mpg combined), the Flex's smooth six-speed automatic transmission likes to change up to the highest gear possible and takes an ample bit of coaxing to downshift. This got annoying on the high-altitude climb up to Big Bear Lake, California, as the transmission perpetually hunted for gears. Some sort of manual override — like those found in competitors — would be helpful for such situations, but Ford only offers a mostly useless L gear.
Passengers of all shapes and sizes tended to jump into the Flex's seats and immediately declare them to be very comfortable. In fact, despite being able to flip and fold better than Nastia Liukin, the two rows of backseats are nearly as comfy as those up front. The optional second-row captain's chairs slide and recline, providing tons of space for anyone (although they lack inboard armrests without the optional center console). A child seat is also very easy to install whether rear- or forward-facing.
The third row comfortably accommodated a pair of 6-footers on an afternoon drive. The ample amount of space helped here, but the Flex's big rear quarter windows and our test car's optional dual-pane skylight provided an airiness that no three-row vehicle (short of a Dodge Sprinter) can match. Standard and optional amenities like rear climate controls, a 115-volt house-style power outlet and a rear-seat entertainment system make the kids feel at home.
Mounted high off the ground and offering a wide range of motion, the front seats provide good leg and body support on long drives. Unfortunately, like the Taurus it's based on, the Flex does not feature a telescoping steering column. This is the Flex's most glaring fault, as average-to-tall drivers end up with an uncomfortable arms-out driving position. Our test car's adjustable pedals don't really help, as they're more beneficial for shorter drivers.
With either the Limited trim's 20-inch wheels or the SEL's 18-inchers, the 2009 Ford Flex feels well planted and never floaty like minivans of yore. But neither does it provide the sort of assuredness characteristic of GM's large crossovers like the Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia. Road noise is well muted (better with the 18-inchers), while wind noise is most noticeable around the B- and C-pillars. Not bad, though, given that the thing is shaped like Wyoming.
A box is an inherently functional design. There's a reason United Van Lines doesn't use Buick Enclave-shaped cardboard to transport Grandma's china. So despite having less overall cargo capacity than large crossover SUVs like the Enclave, its GM siblings and the Mazda CX-9, the Ford Flex more than makes up for any deficiency thanks to its boxy shape. Storage bins and cupholders aplenty add to the practical capabilities.
In particular, space behind the third row is better than all the aforementioned crossovers because of the deep, minivanlike well. This area is ideal for groceries (they won't fall out when you open the power tailgate) and can even hold several stacked roll-away suitcases. When folded, the third row creates a perfectly flat load floor for those times you don't have passengers six and seven. The second-row seats also fold flat to expand cargo space further, while they flip forward with the press of a button to grant access to the third row. Parents be warned, though; this button is within easy reach of mischievous third-row children (or automotive editors) and the seat can move with someone in it. Nothing dangerous, just something potentially aggravating (and/or hilarious).
Our Flex Limited test car came with a rockin' Sony surround-sound system and Ford's latest navigation system, featuring Sync voice-activated commands and a very large touchscreen with crisp new graphics. Included is Sirius Travel Link that provides up-to-the-minute traffic, weather, sports scores, movie times and probably even your horoscope if asked nicely. However, with the navigation system, Sync's usually quick-and-easy voice commands for the iPod (and Bluetooth phone) are rendered quite frustrating as you continually have to go through at least three to four prompts just to select a new track or playlist. It takes too long, and the Sync found in the nav-less Flex SEL is much quicker to operate.
Design/Fit and Finish
The 2009 Ford Flex sports the nicest interior Ford has ever created — nicer even than the various Lincolns. Soft-touch materials abound, while switchgear is of high quality. Everything appears to be screwed together well. Contrasting leather stitching, cool blue illumination, restrained faux wood trim and the Limited's diamond-pattern leather upholstery lend a classy feel that should justify its lofty price. However, we'll leave you to decide how much is too much for a Ford.
Who should consider this vehicle
A family with two or more children seeking a kid hauler with the type of style that hides the fact mom and dad are driving a kid hauler. We think that'll apply to a great many.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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