Wouldnít you expect a cushy, eye-catching seven-passenger Ford family hauler to puff up our collective pantsuit and sell well? Me, too. But, except in California, the Flex has never achieved the success that it deserves. Part of the problem may be that no oneís ever figured out exactly what it is. A van? A sport-utility vehicle? A station wagon? Truly, itís about equal parts of all three. Itís got the square corners and flat roof of a van but the two-box silhouette of a wagon ó and, at almost 17 feet long and 6 feet wide and tall and with spacious seating for five plus two, itís as roomy as a full-size SUV. The Flex can be had with all-wheel drive too, although it lacks the high stance and crowís-nest driving position that people like in a sport-ute.
But thatís a plus. Sitting as low as it does, the Flex doesnít sway much in the corners and itís more aerodynamic. (Still, our SEL model with the 285-horsepower Duratec V-6 only got about 18 miles per gallon overall. Thatís fine if youíve moving six people around, but itís painful for doing errands.)
Then thereís the name: ďFlexĒ makes some people think itíll run on corn oil or pork drippings along with gasoline. Nope. Other people expect a wildly configurable interior layout with bunk beds and a fireplace. Sorry, no ó although it is, well, flexible.
Name and stance aside, the Flex was also a victim of plain old bad timing. Ford proudly rolled it out in early 2008 just in time for the Great Pucker, when sales of everything, especially large and thirsty cars, shut down. Flex numbers finally began to improve along with the economy, but never to the levels that Ford predicted.
Credit the company, however, for not giving up on a capable machine. For 2013 the Flex got a smoother, more tucked-in front end along with a bit more power, a bit more braking, and some dashboard and cabin upgrades to keep pace with newer Fords. As well, the list of available options (not short to begin with) got longer. If youíve been waiting for power-fold wing mirrors or a thumb-shift button on the six-speed automatic transmission, nowís your time to buy a Flex.
If these improvements are underwhelming, itís because the Flex was already a good package before. Short of a diesel engine and an 8-speed transmission, which might boost fuel mileage into the high twenties, Iím not sure what Ford can do to draw more attention to the Flex.
In fact, its chopped-and-channeled, factory-hot-rod style gets plenty of attention already. Richard Gresens, who designed the Flex, is a connoisseur of vintage Electrolux vacuum cleaners, the horizontal canister types of days gone by. He added wheels at the corners, windows at the sides, and voilŗ ó a neo-retro Ford.
Page 2 of 2 - Slip behind the wheel and fire it up, and the conundrums go away. The Flex makes no difficult demands. The door openings are large and squared-off; getting in and out require no awkward bending. The windows seem huge. The seats sit high but not out of reach and theyíre surrounded by plenty of space for feet, legs, hips, heads and shoulders. Even clambering into the third row is fairly easy. Both sets of rear seats can fold flat, to accommodate a major kitchen appliance, and way in the back is the usual bay for groceries or gear. The tailgate opens and closes easily, and power assist is an option. Want reclining, heated bucket seats in row two? Check. A built-in fridge? Check. Then thereís Sync voice-activation and a system that can parallel-park this behemoth when no one else wants to try.
Active and passive safety features abound also. To name just three examples, a blind-spot monitor with cross-traffic alert is an available extra, as are Fordís unique inflatable rear seat belts; and the cruise control can be upgraded to an adaptive, radar-guided version that includes collision warning and braking support.
Sticker prices start at about $32,000 for the SE model and proceed well past $40,000 for a Limited with all-wheel drive, a twin-turbo V-6 and the top-shelf entertainment and luxury packages. Along that continuum the Flex gradually evolves from a family workhorse to an executive car-pool express. Quite flexible, the Ford Flex.
Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of the International Motor Press Association whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.