When it comes to big-box cars, Let's Make a Deal's Carrol Merrill can now present two Ford Flexes. You may select the base 3.5-liter (262hp) V6 or a twin-turbo 355hp V6. Opt for the latter and you'll get the more powerful EcoBoost engine with direct fuel injection that should deliver about the same mpg as the base engine.
EcoBoost comes with significant upgrades: all-wheel-drive, revised suspension tuning, backup sensors and voice-activated navigation system. My tester included wide 255/45 tires on 20-inch alloy wheels, red-candy paint, trailer towing package and a white-top. One nice change for 2010: the steering wheel that adjusts for reach and rake.
Other than some grittiness when you stab the vertical pedal, Ford's EcoBoost drives like a normally aspirated mill; power arrives in a linear fashion, not the OMG it's a turbo kick. And that probably also means you're not marching a parade of more densely packed regular-grade fuel molecules into this mill than necessary. Yet, it's nice to know that you can summon a big-brass attack when desired.
All-wheel traction minimizes wheel spin. The six-speed automatic transmission is smooth. Its manu-matic mode requires one to move the shifter into "M." Then, you squeeze or push steering wheel mounted paddles. That's not as friendly as types that immediately invoke the manual mode with a tap of the minus paddle on the left and revert to "D" by long squeeze of the right paddle. Don't expect diesel-like mpg: it's rated 16 city, 22 highway. I got 17.5.
The Flex is big and needs a stadium for maneuvers. Nonetheless, the motor-assisted steering, attached to a beefy steering wheel, has a hefty purposeful feel and a modicum of feedback. Those good traits fade, though, when pushed; the Flex runs wide and scrubs off speed. Nonetheless, it's a surprisingly drivable box.
My parents, hopped in for a ride. They liked the chair-like seats and found the third row habitable. Headrests were intrusive. They also gave high marks to the automatic climate control, firm ride control and voice-operated navigation system.
No one was particularly impressed with Ford's switchgear-it's too small and crammed too tightly together whether on the steering wheel or dash central. You can access most items via easy-to-learn voice commands, however. Further quibbles: lots of fit and finish flubs including adrift seat upholstery, uneven glovebox lid, visible screw heads, sharp-edge plastics, paint runs, and misaligned exterior trim. This isn't what one expects from a vehicle that lists for $45,600.
The Flex's ambidextrous interior can haul gear. And Ford says it can tow 4,500 lbs. In sum, the Flex is a great alternative to large SUVs-it has car-like handling and an agreeable ride that few trucks can ape. That's a good deal.