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2009 Ford Flex Takes The Car Connection for a Ride

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Last year at the New York auto show, we brought you a full preview for the new 2009 Flex. And as Ford preps for the media launch of the Flex this summer, before putting them into showrooms in the fall, they offered us the chance to get a "first ride" in the big crossover during the New York auto show press days.

Ford's Kate Pierce, who heads up marketing for the new crossover, went along for the ride on a rainy afternoon in Manhattan and refreshed us on the basics of the Flex package. A big, big vehicle based on the Ford Five Hundred chassis, the Flex gets a 3.5-liter V-6 with more than 260 horsepower. A six-speed automatic is the only gearbox, and all-wheel drive is going to be an option.

Pretty standard stuff -- but it's the Flex's rectilinear shape that's grabbed eyeballs all over the city in the past few days, as Ford kept a generally low profile during the New York auto show but made sure plenty of Flexes were on the road to distract showgoers from cars like the new Pontiac G8 GXP. (The pics you see here are handouts; our ride took place during a downpour, and looked about as colorful as a rental-fleet Taurus.)

The Flex takes the place in the Ford lineup of two vehicles, a traditional minivan and a modern-style crossover. Pierce says that as the concept bubbled up within the company, they tried a variety of door types, including rear-hinged "suicide" doors, but ultimately decided that the strength of the Flex would be on its style, its upgraded interior and new technology.

The Flex still strikes us as a catchy riff on British car mania, driven down the road of American wagon nostalgia. The two-tone roof treatment in particular gives it some MINI whimsy, and will be offered in white or silver with certain trim levels. It's an appealing shape because it's not a conventionally SUV-influenced crossover, Pierce says. And with the options for roof color and trim, "It's a chameleon," she says. "It's very bold, very polarizing," she adds as our driver needles in and out of traffic expertly.

You can't tell much about a vehicle in a 25-minute crosstown ride in the middle-row seat, but I could tell that the Flex's ride quality seemed pretty well sorted out over manhole covers and Manhattan's patchy streetwork.

I didn't lack for room. Interior space is cavernous: With six inches of headroom above me and a few inches of kneeroom in front, the middle row is clearly the place to put senior adults, non-designated-driver buddies, even child-seated kids. There's enough room to cross a leg over a knee, without even brushing the front seatbacks -- and with the seats all folded flat, including the front passenger, a total of 10 feet of carrying space is freed up. It's much bigger than Ford's smaller Taurus X crossover, and Pierce says Ford will own the size competition, with best-in-class head and leg room, and not by fractions of an inch, she says.

The Flex sizes up against competitors like GMC's Acadia and even Mazda's own CX-9, but the psychographics are way different for the Flex, Pierce says. When a marketing clinic asked customers which company built an unbadged Flex, only 2 percent picked Ford as the manufacturer. Land Rover and Scion got some nods.

Who will the Flex appeal to? Moms leaving minivans behind might be a percentage (Pierce thinks a percentage will come from minivans, in the "low teens") but realtors and executives who have to shuttle clients will be a big market. We can see a base model as a taxicab, replacing Ford's waning Crown Victoria in fleets.

The Flex will come in three trim levels -- and Pierce says clinics have pointed out even the base interior gets high marks from consumers for fit and finish.
All sorts of interior technology promises to set it apart from GM's big crossovers -- stuff like Ford's next-generation navigation system, a Xanavi unit with a flyover-style map.

Our test shuttle also had Sirius Travel Link, which adds real-time traffic information to the navigation mapping, as well as voice-activated controls, which should keep hands on the wheel. Ford's SYNC entertainment system will be offered, as well as Sirius and Sony premium stereo systems.

But the interior isn't cold techno - it's a pleasing, warm place in the Limited that pulled us up to the hotel, where doormen were watching with silent approval. It's a very adult look, with faux wood, seven-color ambient lighting, white-stitched black leather and a Vista Roof package that gives the middle-row bucket seats their own glass panes (along with a single pane across the third-row seat). Second-row footrests would feel in place in a Range Rover--as would the gentle ambient lighting that allows owners to choose seven different colors.

It's one of the best interiors Ford offers, and the Flex, Pierce says, is a good metaphor for where Ford stands today in its rebuilding effort. The Fusion was a good start; the Edge, a big step forward. The Flex, she says, "signifies the turnaround inside the company," she finishes as we pull up on Fifth Avenue.

Soon enough, we'll be able to tell you how the Flex feels firsthand. But until then, take a look at more high-res Flex photos, and stay tuned for our first drive coming this summer.
 
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