Now that the 2009 Ford Flex has arrived, the Fourth of July celebration at the big campsite in Pinckney, Michigan, will never be the same.
There we'll be in the sticky summer heat with our sweaty, loose-fitting clothing, our unruly snot-nosed children, our ugly dogs, our half-broken camp chairs and our tired barbecue grilles, and behind us will sit the rocking, inner-city 2009 Ford Flex, as if a gathering of Scion United had inexplicably landed in the middle of a grassy field in a Michigan township. Will we love the Flex life? Will we play loud music? Will there be tattoos (washable, of course) for everyone?
Every generation has its signature people-moving automotive instrument. Consider the surf woody, the VistaCruiser station wagon, the Volkswagen microbus and the Boogie van. Now it appears we've moved beyond the minivan and found something new, and the 2009 Ford Flex is it.
Embrace the Box
For all the snarky things said about it, the one-box vehicle is always with us because nothing else moves a bunch of people with such effortless efficiency. As we learned in our comparison of a minivan, a crossover and an SUV, once you've had twin sliding doors, you can never go back. And yet no one has nice things to say about the box, maybe because no one wants to be seen at the wheel of a vehicle where the passengers are more important than the driver.
The Ford people have stomped on this wimpy, middle-class squeamishness about the box with the Flex, adapting design elements as wacky as character lines inspired by Streamline Moderne canister-type vacuum cleaners of the 1950s. Ford has cast aside the whiners who don't really want a box anyway and reached out instead to the kind of early adopters who eagerly anticipated something good from the 2001 VW Microbus concept (recently revived by those cowards at VW who initially cancelled production plans), and found delight in the fashionable utility of the Nissan Cube and Scion xB.
As soon as people saw us driving this 2009 Ford Flex, they asked, "What is it?" And you have to think that this is a good indication that the Flex has a look that breaks its bonds with traditional minivan culture of the recent past, and that's got to be a good thing.
Not Like McDonald's
When you open any kind of minivan door, you can't help but expect to find some kind of McDonald's fun zone, all kid-size hamster tunnels and a giant nest of multicolored plastic balls. But the Flex is an adult-rated utility vehicle, more like a Mercedes R-Class than your neighbor's grimy Windstar. This elaborately optioned interior of the Flex Limited looks utterly dramatic in its diamond-pattern leather upholstery and satin chrome accents, and it successfully expresses fine design in a way that represents a real breakthrough from the relentlessly stodgy Ford design studios.
More important, the Flex is a fine vehicle in which to be a passenger. The conventional doors open wide, the step-in height is low and there's a generous gap behind the front seats so even adults can easily take a seat. The sliding second-row seats afford 40.5 inches of legroom. The window glass is blacked out in every trim level, yet the windows are low and broad, so great visibility forestalls that terrible claustrophobia that only an 8-year-old can really appreciate. Those who get the privilege of the way-back third row will find a useful 38.7 inches of legroom when they get there.
Most important, the rear seats flip and fold to accommodate seven passengers or just you and your purchase from Home Depot. The Flex is not quite a box van -- and indeed not as vast as a big GM crossover -- but within its 201.8 inches of overall length, you'll be able to fit 20 cubic feet of cargo behind the third seat (there's a well beneath the load floor), 43.2 cubic feet of cargo behind the second row and 83.2 cubic feet behind the first row. When you add up all the space, you get 155.8 cubic feet of SAE-certified passenger volume.
The Car Experience
Despite that vast expanse, when you're in the Flex, you always feel like you're riding in a car, not a box. The seats feature deep cushions, just like the living-room furniture at your parents' house, while the whole environment has been wired for sound, just like your college dorm room. Aside from the customary optional rear-seat DVD display, there's also 5.1 Sony surround sound, while Ford's Sync interface makes it possible for even the driving-while-distracted to operate everything.
And nothing feels cheap or generally junky, which just hasn't been the case in recent products from the big green glass house in Dearborn. The Flex's shifter, for instance, doesn't feel like it can be torn from the console accidentally with a single muscle-bound shift into Drive.
With the Flex, Ford actually delivers a true luxury environment. Its interior is better designed and better appointed than anything else in the portfolio of Ford vehicles, plus it's more carlike than you'll find not only in a minivan but also in the world's current crop of crossovers.
We won't kid you; this thing certainly weighs as much as a bus, some 4,828 pounds on our scales (some 172 pounds of which comes from all-wheel-drive hardware). This compares with a fully equipped 2008 Buick Enclave's 4,865 pounds or a similarly fully equipped Honda Odyssey's 4,550 pounds. And all that weight plus a 117.9-inch wheelbase help deliver the poise of a luxury car, and the carefully damped ride motions recall something European instead of some kind of springy minivan that feels like its tires are overinflated.
We were surprised, too. Pleasantly so. Beneath the Flex, you'll find the revised platform of the old crossover-style Ford Freestyle (or was it the Taurus X?), itself derived from the Volvo XC90. Except the Flex doesn't drive like the usual thing that you find clogging up the big circular drive at the neighborhood pre-school.
Driving the Bus
When you're behind the wheel, the Flex feels low to the ground and comfortably sure-footed, kind of like a really big Ford Taurus, only good. The Ford engineers have done their best to ensure that the Flex maintains its carlike persona by calibrating the safety net of electronics to keep the speed down so nothing unfortunate should happen when you've got a load of passengers. So the Flex circles the skid pad without drama at 0.77g and then calmly carves through the slalom at 59.2 mph with the electronics intervening almost every step of the way.
Yet the Flex does betray its size and heft when it comes to braking. The travel of the brake pedal is fairly long, in keeping with Ford's preference for control feel that won't quickly lead to bad things in a panic situation, and the Limited's optional P255/45R20 Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires put enough rubber on the ground to help bring the vehicle to a halt in 128 feet. Yet perceptible brake fade sets in quickly, which makes you think twice when there are a bunch of passengers behind you.
Ford's familiar DOHC 3.5-liter V6 is on duty under the Flex's flat hood, yet it feels far more authoritative than you'd expect from its unimpressive output of 262 horsepower at 6,250 rpm and 248 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm. The reason lies in the six-speed automatic transmission, which glides between ratios so smoothly in daily driving that the V6 seems far more capable than it should be.
Of course, the Flex is still pretty relaxed when it comes to acceleration, as it takes 8.8 seconds to find 60 mph (8.5 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip), and the quarter-mile eventually arrives in 16.5 seconds at 84.4 mph. Even so, this is as quick as the similarly powerful front-wheel-drive Honda Odyssey Touring, which is 278 pounds lighter.
The Flex Future
The 2009 Ford Flex drives like a car, not a crossover. Just as its appearance promises, it shatters your expectations about the whole people-moving paradigm and delivers a luxurious, adult-rated experience. It's both functional and artful, like one of those pieces of kitchenware on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Flex might just be the best thing with a Ford badge that you can buy.
Yet we'll have to see if the Flex is really the kind of utility vehicle that Americans really want. Do families really want so much style in the driveway? We're a plain people, and the reason you see so many crossovers, minivans and SUVs with insipidly designed interiors with slick, wears-like-iron interior materials is our cultural preference for the family room, where we can leave our dirty clothes, broken toys and spilled Cheerios without shame. Even in its plainest versions, the Ford Flex is more like the living room, and the failure of the Mercedes R-Class to attract a sizable audience with its similarly high-style presentation has to make you wonder about the Ford's future. It's a point underscored by the $42,390 price tag of this Flex, a pretty rarefied place for a Ford minivan (although it reminds you that a fully optioned minivan from Honda will take you to the same place).
So the Flex is really the most successful crossover yet, genuinely half car and half utility vehicle. But it will take some time to discover whether real Americans at the Fourth of July celebration in Pinckney are complimenting the Flex or criticizing it when they ask, "What is it?"
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Senior Vehicle Evaluation Engineer Albert Austria says:
The styling of Ford Flex is love it or leave it. Is it a horizontal fridge or "Pimp my hearse?" Fortunately the good stuff is on the inside, where the Flex is full of pleasant surprises. Although it has a great interior and plenty of usable space, it's the new convenience and advanced infotainment electronics that set this vehicle apart.
Take for instance the way the second-row seat folds up so you can gain access to the third row. Just push a single button. That's it, because the second-row seatback folds down and the entire seat tilts forward, allowing easy access to the third row. Raising or lowering the third row itself is also quite easy, although it requires pulling a few straps attached to the split seats. Fortunately the excellent instructions on the back of the seats make this task a breeze.
The Sirius Travel Link available as an option on the Flex is the real mind-blower. It will not only greatly impress your friends and family, but also actually prove useful in your Flex lifestyle. Or course it has the now-requisite real-time traffic information with crash-incident alert, but also adds five-day weather forecasts and ski condition reports in most major metro areas in the U.S. Not impressed? How about up-to-date sports scores from several leagues, plus the upcoming schedules, an easy-to-use "Where-am-I?" vehicle-position locator and individual parental-channel lockouts for the satellite radio? Still unconvinced? You can get current fuel prices (sorted by distance, price or alphabetically), movie theater locations along with show listings and times, and a valet mode to lock it all down so those pesky parking attendants don't mess with your settings.
If you think Travel Link is all marketing nonsense and completely useless, please deposit your 3G mobile phone or Blackberry in the nearest recycling bin.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
Ford's Flex is the right car at the right time. It meets people where they are, doesn't require any compromises and somehow makes the familiar family wagon seem fresh and contemporary.
It's easy to knock Ford for having a decidedly un-sporty lineup. Yes, we know that the European Focus is better than the U.S. version and everyone loves the Ford Mondeo (until the bill comes). But Ford is onto something with vehicles like the Focus, Fusion and Flex; it's proving that its planners listen to buyers first and gearheads second. Oh, Ford will still have a hundred high-performance versions of the Mustang, but real people with real money to spend want an effortless car with a little style, a car that effectively transports the family to and from baseball practice, church and Chili's. The Flex is that vehicle.
Personally I love the tech features like Sirius Travel Link and the new Sony audio system. Though they might not seal the deal with buyers, the nice-looking cabin, quiet interior environment, comfy third-row seat and decent driving dynamics will.
Ford's not pretending that the Flex is a sport wagon or a touring hatchback, and for that I'm grateful. The Ford Flex is simply an alternative to the minivan and SUV, and a good one at that.
2009 Ford Flex Audio System
Overall Grade: B-
Navigation with Rear Parking Camera package (Sony Audio standard on SEL and Limited)
Price if optional:
6-disc changer, in-dash
Bluetooth for phone:
How does it sound: B-
Ford audio systems have typically been lackluster in terms of┐well, in terms of everything. The look of the head unit, the features and the sound quality have generally been subpar when compared to both domestic and import competitors. Thankfully, the new Sony audio system paired with Ford's Sync is a huge step in the right direction.
Although sound quality is not perfect, it is pretty good. The bass is prominent and deep. Highs are prominent as well, though maybe a little too out front. The highs are where distortion creeps in and many vocals squeak, even at moderate volume. Sadly, there's no midrange adjustment and some pop tracks tend to sound hollow as a result; the inability to dial down the mids a little also contributes to a lack of separation, which can be tiring. Highs and mids are not distinct while listening to pop, rock or country, and the resulting sound character becomes tedious after awhile.
The prominent midrange causes another problem, because the surround-sound feature doesn't add the distinct, well-rounded sound you might expect but instead gives all kinds of music a sort of jumbled, chaotic feel. Leave the surround-sound off and bump the bass adjustment up a few ticks and everything sounds much better.
How does it work: A-
Our test Flex came with a stunning array of standard and optional electronics features. Sync, Sirius Satellite Radio, Sirius Travel Link, six-disc CD changer and the Sony audio system with hard drive all run through the navigation system's screen. Amazingly, it all works together quite well. Most major functions are easy to figure out without even cracking the manual.
One exception is the Travel Link. Its main screen is called up by pressing the "i" button rather than Menu. The Menu button controls functional settings like screen brightness and language selection. To Ford's credit, major audio and information functions are handled by a combination of hard buttons and touchscreen controls. You hit the hard button to get in, then use the touchscreen to manipulate the finer points.
Sirius Travel Link is a new service that turns an ordinary navigation system into an entertainment and information powerhouse. Features include five-day weather forecast, national weather map, ski conditions, local gas prices, real-time traffic, sports scores and schedules, plus movie listings. Add Ford's stellar voice-controlled Sync system and the Flex is like a rolling iPhone.
Conclusion: Early adopters and the tech-savvy will fully appreciate and actually use the Flex's many electronics features. Sync alone would be enough, but once you add Travel Link, the Ford Flex is a perfect example of high-tech that actually makes life simpler. -- Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
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