The biggest single improvement that the 2010 Ford Flex with EcoBoost brings to everyday American life is a telescoping steering wheel.
Yes, there is that whole twin-turbo 3.5-liter V6 pumping out a quite impressive 355 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque beginning at a low, low 1,500 rpm (assuming you pump it full of premium fuel). Then there's the retuned suspension, which lowers the boxy body and provides even better roll control than the standard Flex, already a pretty handy thing considering its size. But all of that increased performance doesn't make for a great-feeling vehicle if you're uncomfortable, no?
It's hard to imagine how Ford failed to include a telescoping steering wheel on a vehicle that costs as much as even a standard 2009 Ford Flex. But we take it as a good sign that the company is listening closely enough to critics and customers to add the telescoping wheel to the standard equipment list just one year after the model's introduction. And best of all, the new wheel is standard on all Flex models for 2010.
But we're supposed to be writing about the EcoBoost motor and its transformative effect on Ford's family hearse, right? OK. The much-ballyhooed twin-turbo direct-injection engine is not transformative. This is not a knock against the awkwardly named Ford Flex with EcoBoost. That's because the standard Ford Flex, powered by a normally aspirated, 262-hp, non-direct-injection 3.5-liter V6, is already an impressive thing.
We do not recall knocking the standard 2009 Flex for being underpowered, despite its substantial weight of nearly 4,600 pounds once completely equipped with every last option. Perhaps we were simply too busy complaining about the non-telescoping steering wheel to notice. More likely, the straight-line performance of the standard Flex neither impresses nor disappoints enough to bother mentioning. It'll get to 60 mph from a standstill in a reasonable 9.1 seconds (8.8 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip), a half-second later than one of its primary competitors, the Chevrolet Traverse. The two utility vehicles reach the quarter-mile mark in essentially the same amount of time.
The Ford engineers call the EcoBoost engine GTDI for gasoline turbo direct injection, and we will too for the remainder of this story. The GTDI motor should chop 2 seconds off the standard vehicle's 0-60-mph time. That means the Flex GTDI should be able to get the deed done in a bit less than 7 seconds, according to Ford. Not too shabby.
Yet GTDI, which is spreading quickly through Ford's and Lincoln's large-car and crossover models, is most impressive in day-to-day passing situations. There's simply no substitute for a big, thick torque curve. And this big ol' beast can now pass dawdlers with the same lack of forward planning as a car. As in other applications, the GTDI doesn't make a screamer out of any of the vehicles it powers. This is really only disappointing in the Taurus SHO, though. Our performance expectations are more conservative for the others.
And while the maximum tow rating of the Flex GTDI remains the same 4,500 pounds as the standard Flex, we have no doubt it'll be more pleasant to tow something in the turbo version.
...And No Loss of Eco
And we cannot dispute the fact that, even while lugging around 4,839 pounds, the Flex GTDI feels as powerful and torque-rich as a V8. The Flex GTDI also delivers on the other EcoBoost promise of fuel economy that resembles that of a normally aspirated V6. At 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway, the GTDI delivers identical fuel-efficiency to the standard all-wheel-drive Flex. That's what's known as a win-win.
How is that possible? Well, the direct-injection system brings with it some fuel economy improvement compared to the port-injected normally aspirated V6. But Ford has also fitted the Flex GTDI with the 3.16:1 final drive that normally comes with the front-wheel-drive Flex instead of the 3.39:1 ratio that helps the normally aspirated all-wheel-drive Flex feel not too leaden. The Flex GTDI six-speed automatic shares its gear ratios with the transmission in the non-turbo Flex. It's been a bit beefed up compared to the standard unit, though, to handle the additional torque.
So what's the downside here? Well, there isn't a large one, unless you consider paying an extra $2,995 to be large. The Flex is not a cheap thing in any configuration. And you won't be able to get a stripper version with the turbo motor. It's available only on the midline SEL and the top-of-the-line Limited versions. And it can only be had with the all-wheel-drive system.
So the least expensive Flex GTDI starts at $36,890, or $2,995 more than an all-wheel-drive SEL with the base motor. The Flex Limited with GTDI breaks the $40,000 barrier, with a base price of $42,785. Go nuts with the options sheet and you can break $50,000 for a loaded Limited GTDI. That's a lot of scratch. But keep in mind, that price does include an onboard refrigerator. That will put you within a few thousand of a similarly equipped Lincoln MKT, a vehicle that shares the Flex GTDI's powertrain and chassis and is, to our way of thinking, its most natural competitor.
Autocross Chassis Tuning
The Flex GTDI shares essentially the same chassis tuning as the MKT EcoBoost, too. Compared to the standard Flex, the turbocharged version comes with 20 percent higher damping rates and 12 percent firmer spring rates for its front struts and rear multilink suspension. All Flex and MKT models share the same front and rear antiroll bars. The body is also dropped 0.4 inch on the GTDI model. The turbo Flex also is fitted standard with the 20-inch wheels and 255/45R20 all-season tires that are optional on normally aspirated SEL and Limited models.
We've been generally quite impressed with the way the big and heavy Flex gets down the road, and we must say that without an immediate back-to-back drive of the turbo and standard Flex, the suspension changes don't dramatically change the feel of the new model. The Flex GTDI simply does not lean much. This makes it feel impressively nimble for something as big as it is. Push the vehicle a little bit and the weight and size become more apparent. But we don't think many buyers are expecting it to be a canyon-carver. And compared to anything else on the road with this much passenger and cargo capacity, the Flex GTDI is very handy, indeed.
Hate Turning a Wheel? Try Active Park Assist
The GTDI motor also brings with it an electronically boosted steering system in place of the hydraulic arrangement in the standard Flex. This is a mixed blessing.
The electronic power assist steering (EPAS) helps the turbo Flex post its relatively impressive fuel economy figure compared to the standard car. And with EPAS comes the option of Ford's surprisingly good Active Park Assist ($550). Active Park Assist, which is also offered on the Lincoln MKS and MKT EcoBoost models, searches for a parallel parking spot at the push of a button and then takes control of steering, to accurately fit the Flex into a spot. All the drive needs to do is work the gas and brake. Shockingly, this all works very nicely and quickly. Even a driver who can already parallel park would benefit from the system. That's something we cannot say about the only other competing system on the market, the effectively useless system offered on the Lexus LS 600h. Active Park Assist cannot be fitted to the standard Flex.
As is often the case, we prefer the hydraulic steering to the electric boost in terms of feel. But the EPAS in this application is not objectionable. However, we noticed that at full lock in parking lots and such, the EPAS system has a disconcerting tendency to fight the driver by forcefully trying to rotate the steering wheel in the opposite direction. Oh, and the Flex GTDI comes with BMW-style shift paddles behind the steering wheel. We suspect these devices, which are covered in a rubberized black plastic, will be used by few owners because of their awkward thumb-push downshift and finger-pull upshift arrangement. Also bothersome is the fact that initiating a shift requires first that the driver move the console-mounted shift lever into a dedicated Manual slot and then operate the paddles. The "live-in-drive" arrangement, which allows for paddle shifts while in Drive, is a more convenient setup, and therefore one that's more likely to see use.
Same as It Ever Was
It's going to take a keen eye to spot the Flex GTDI as something special on the road. The only visual differences, assuming you can't judge a fractionally lower body, are a leafy EcoBoost badge on the hatch and wide-spread dual exhaust tips.
So despite Ford's huge (and apparently successful) push to convince people that EcoBoost is a brand or model or savior of mankind in and of itself, the Flex GTDI is really just an engine upgrade option. It's an impressive one at that, even for $3,000. With no penalty in fuel economy, we would choose the turbo motor.
Neither the suspension changes nor the addition of electric-assist steering are likely to sway a potential buyer one way or the other. Have we mentioned we really like the telescoping steering wheel?
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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