Flexing or Flexible: The 2009 Ford Flex
Alan Mulally is, quite honestly, the best thing to happen to Ford since their creation of the assembly line. Having seemingly taken the once-ailing manufacturer from struggling to keep up with Chrysler and GM to a proud position as the sole Detroit-based manufacturer to reject US government loans, his strategy was initially blasted by critics as being stagnant and slow to react, however, as the Ford Flex proves, it’s rewarded FoMoCo in the long run.
In a time when Chrysler and GM were implementing some of the most asinine incentive programs in order to move product to keep up with Honda and Toyota, Mullaly demanded a complete reinvention of the Ford brand. Making sweeping changes to the very design process, he placed the utmost importance upon excellence and quality in every aspect. And slowly, that diligence began to pay off. Perhaps the first clue as to what the Ford future had to hold, and one of the first vehicles to come out under Mullaly’s watch, the Ford GT supercar set a high standard for everything to follow as the budget supercar was universally praised as it was compared to cars costing up to four times as much, typically with a favourable outcome. Then, Lincoln’s Zephyr reignited interest in the dying luxury brand while the new Mustang took the ponycar into the 21st century with a level of quality that no one saw coming.
And now the Ford Flex enters the fray as another proud product of the Blue Oval brand. Having been introduced to it late last year at the product press launch, the Flex has already proven itself popular among buyers in the months since its showroom inception. Although competing in a wildly competitive market, the big seven seater brings a uniquely unorthodox look to the segment, with a squared-off, wide-set stance that is both burly and surf-wagon cool. Such detailing as scalloped flanks and a blacked-out greenhouse keep the eye entertained, while the availability of two roof colours (silver and white) ensure an appropriate match with whatever colour is selected for the bodysides. Interestingly, the well detailed body does an admirable job of shrinking the vehicle’s proportions, as the tall sides and vertical profile contrast with the low overall height to give the car a lower, leaner look. Parked next to many competitors, it surprises with its immediate girth.
However, from the driver’s seat, that girth disappears entirely, as the Flex has an uncanny ability to shrink around you. Perhaps a function of the squared-off footprint, there’s never any doubt as to where the corners are, with the hood tapering off abruptly at the leading edge and the rear pillars serving as markers for the rear end. Meandering around the chaotic parking lots Vancourites all know so well, the Flex moved amongst much smaller vehicles with the greatest of ease; it’s sharp corners and long, straight flanks giving your’s truly the utmost confidence. Once it’s out on the road, it retains its relatively small feel thanks to substantial suspension tuning that culminates in a seven seater crossover with less body roll than a BMW 335i. Yes, I too questioned that particular fact, but had the notion thoroughly explained to me by none other than the engineer responsible for the Flex’s suspension tuning. Apparently, a relatively significant rethinking of the subframe assemblies allowed them to mount the dampers further out on the cast aluminum control arms, which has the nice effect of decreasing the shock travel to wheel travel ratio. That in turn increases the leverage exerted on the control arm by the damper, allowing them to run a softer, more responsive damper without inviting any untoward body movements. Of course, a nice side effect of this design is a wider rear cabin area with less protrusion into the floor for shock mounts.
But as nice as the suspension is, the Flex is far from a vehicle that begs to be hustled down a mountain road. Although the damping and spring rates are spot on, the steering is light, and relatively slow, with 3.15 turns lock-to-lock. Likewise, the 3.5L V6 and six-speed manumatic transmission conspire against any sporting intentions with smooth, but lacklustre performance. The engine itself is the picture of composure and politeness, providing decent power throughout a respectable powerband, but the transmission always seems to lag behind. However, with next year’s model promising EcoBoost performance, I’d surmise that the 2009 transmission’s performance anxiety is a thing of the past. As it stands, the Flex's driving style befits the surf wagon looks with a relaxed cruising attitude that engenders an appreciation for the passing scenery.
In either case, one won’t expect to hear any complaints regarding slow driving from the occupants, since the Flex’s interior is one of the most pleasant places to pass the kilometres. During my test, I crammed it full of people and stuff, and heard nary a whisper on any of the numerous trips to beach. I could sit in each seating position without so much as grazing my knee upon the seatback ahead of me (which is miraculous for someone of my gangly 6’1” frame) and the tall, long windows provided excellent views, even in the third row that is so often dominated by an exaggerated rear pillar. Likewise, the Vista Roof gives each occupant their own sunroof, which does wonders for reducing the cave-like feel such long vehicles so often saddle their rearmost occupants with. As equipped, my Limited tester had the unique perforated leather seating surfaces, which were quite upscale-looking, especially when paired with the very luxurious interior appointments on the door panels and relatively narrow dashboard. Ford’s ubiquitous Sync system is obviously available as well, and still sets itself apart as far and away the best navigation/entertainment unit on the market. Paired with a 700 watt Sony sound system, the Flex’s stereo was loud enough to drown out damn near anything, and the ten speakers produced expectedly warm tones enjoyed by all. Interestingly, with such a large cabin, using the Sync audio setup to select the driver’s position audio stage made a dramatic difference in the sound quality when driving alone.
Of course, add in the added features like a back-up camera and an in-console fridge, and you’ve got one downright pleasant runabout. But with a price tag that’s a little higher than I expected, some of the Flex’s amazing attributes were tempered. That isn’t to say that the value isn’t there, because at any and all trim levels, the Flex is still a lot of car for the money. But with the upcoming release of Flex-based Lincoln MKT, one can’t help but wonder if there might be a little bit of overlap between the Ford and Lincoln product lines. But, with such a bold, distinctive look and a thoroughly upscale but Ford-styled interior, I doubt there will be much cross-shopping of the brands, but in any case, you can be sure that there will be a whole lot of very pleased owners out there.
|Test drive report|
|Test model||2009 Ford Flex|
|Trim level||Limited AWD|
|Price range||$35,499 – $43,499|
|Price as tested||CA$48,199|
|Warranty (basic)||3 years/60,000 km|
|Warranty (powertrain)||5 years/100,000 km|
|Fuel economy (city/highway/observed)||13.5 / 9.2 / 14.0 L/100km|
|Options||Vista Roof, Voice Activated Navigation System|
|Competitive models||Acura MDX, Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Veracruz, Mazda CX-9, Subaru Tribeca, Toyota Venza|