The boxy Ford Flex wagon isn't just fashionable; it would be on our shortlist of best vehicles to take on a cross-country trip; and for carrying six adults out for the evening; and for busy moms; and for all of an afternoon's ill-advised IKEA purchases.
It's classy, bold, and a little weird, all at the same time, and it stands out from the rest of the Ford lineup, whether you're comparing it to Ford passenger cars or SUVs.
And with some slight changes to the front and rear for 2013, those differences are even more exaggerated. Now Ford has removed any brand badging or even the blue oval from the front, instead adding broadly lettered 'FLEX' label at the leading edge of the hood, a la Range Rover, above an all-new grille—a thick chrome bar running all the way across, working crisp futuristic ways with running lamps and a boxy headlight design, plus unified, straight-across lower air-dam bars. And the only Ford mark on the vehicle is a blue-oval badge, on the lower right corner of the hatch.
Why the different badging? It could have something to do with the fact that about 20 percent of Flex models are sold in California, and that's a higher ratio that any other Ford model.
Utilitarian chic comes home
It's been widely hailed as the modern iteration of the Ford Country Squire, but—especially when in Portland, Oregon, where old Volvo 240 wagons are driven until they die, then driven again—we tend to think of it more as the modern iteration of that classic—even more appropriate as you can trace the Flex's roots back to the Volvo-influenced D3 platform.
As large as the 2013 Flex is (it's 202 inches long, with an also-long 118-inch wheelbase), it's surprisingly manageable to park and drive around the city. It doesn't exactly drive small, but it doesn't feel much more cumbersome than a mid-size sedan.
For 2012, Ford has added a bit more muscle to the base Flex—with a new version of the 3.5-liter V-6, incorporating Ti-VCT (variable camshaft timing) and making 287 hp and 254 lb-ft of torque. EPA fuel economy ratings improve by 1 mpg all around, without any change in gear ratios, to 18 mpg city, 25 highway.
In a drive route around Portland, and along tight, twisty roads over Oregon's Coast Range, we spent a few hours with an EcoBoost version of the 2013 Flex—definitely the most fun to drive. This model continues with its turbocharged, direct-injected 3.5-liter V-6, making 365 hp and 350 lb-ft. With the base engine you can get front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, but the top-of-the-line EcoBoost version comes only with AWD.
EcoBoost models churn out the torque, with a seamless wave as the six-speed automatic upshifts. Steering-wheel paddle shifters are included with this model. You can now give the paddle-shifters a yank in drive, and it'll deliver a quick downshift. The system is smart and considers yaw and steering-angle sensors, as well as throttle, so if you're in the middle of a corner or still climbing a hill, it will stay in the lower gear; but if you ease off the throttle it will go back to the upper gear in as little as ten seconds.
Better steering, stopping
The Flex was surprisingly able on a curvy road before, but with some improvements it's now almost in the fun-to-drive category. Ford's electric power steering system, which was previously only fitted to EcoBoost versions, is now included in all Flex models; it's also hard-mounted to the front subframe and has a quicker steering ratio this year. Brakes are also upgraded with more friction area and a larger master cylinder (plus different booster tuning) for improved pedal feel. Altogether, turn-in is now crisp, the steering loads up predictably, and there's even a little feel of the road coming through; the brakes have a noticeably stronger bite as well.
Inflatable seat belts are new to the Flex this year, and adaptive cruise control (with forward collision alert) and a blind-spot monitoring system are now available. All Flexes also include Curve Control and torque vectoring—both fancy terms to note improvements to the stability control system. AlsoFord has also found a way to replace the old headrests, that pitched your head uncomfortably forward, with a new four-position design that still protects well against whiplash.
The third-row seats are thinly padded, but it's impressive that even this 6'-6” editor could fit acceptably in the third row, with a slight hunch and knees slightly elevated; it would be fine for a jaunt across town, and it's relatively easy to get back there thanks to the roofline. The first two rows of seats are luxurious and have great long-distance comfort.Our test Flex—as all 2013 models except the base SE—was fitted the new, upgraded version of MyFord Touch, which includes improved responsiveness, a less cluttered look, improved fonts, and a better design for on-screen buttons. We came away mostly with a positive impression from the system, but noticed that there were still some delays or a dulled response for some menu selections. Because of the demanding driving roads and lack of a cellphone signal for much of the drive route, we'll update you with further impressions as soon as we again get a test vehicle with the system.
Touch, not tackle
The main instrument panel has been redesigned to go along with MyFord Touch, and a left panel can be reconfigured to show a number of different functions, including a graphic tachometer. Also new, just below MyFord Touch, is a capacitative panel that houses supplemental audio and climate-control buttons. There's a physical button for the hazard lamps, but all else relies on touch.
On coarse surfaces and over choppy sections of road, it's readily apparent that the Flex is much quieter inside; Ford has added a host of improvements to lower noise and harshness in the vehicle—like wrapping shock towers with sound absorbers, adding insulation behind the dash and under pass-throughs, and adding wheel liners.
A second-row refrigerated console is a feature that's not available in any other vehicle in this class. Other new features include rain-sensing wipers, passive entry and start, and a new feature that lets you go up or down a gear at a time on all models, not just those with paddle-shifters.
New for the first time this year is an Appearance Package that brings a black (as opposed to white or silver) roof—plus black mirrors, unique door-trim panels, and 20-inch machined aluminum wheels with painted pockets. In all, Ford says that there are six new wheel styles, with three of them 20-inch.
Design sells—but now it drives even better
Our test Flex, an EcoBoost Limited, had the black roof, in addition to the panoramic vista rood, the Titanium Appearance Package, the refrigerated console, rear inflatable seatbelts, and the 20-inch wheels—at a total of $52,055. And since the Flex's design is largely what sells, it's going to be worth the money if it's what you love.
We like the Flex even more with this latest batch of changes; and we only wish that it might do a bit better yet than its current gas-mileage ratings (we saw a 17-mpg average over about a hundred miles). And given that it's popular in greener California, where gas tends to be more expensive, we're surprised that Ford didn't target them with a Flex EcoBoost 2.0T.
We think the Flex is one of the most overlooked vehicles today, and we'd rather have a Flex than either an Edge or Explorer. Not only does it make more sense; it's more stylish, and at least next to the Explorer, it drives better. You get the interior packaging goodness of a minivan, without the mommy-wagon image. Plus, with this year's changes, a more cohesive design than ever and with the EcoBoost, a vehicle that drives like a sporty sedan.
Boxy is even more beautiful.