Road Test: 2009 Ford Flex Limited AWD
This 2009 review is representative of model years 2009 to 2012.
By John Phillips of Car and Driver
An embarrassment of riches is a nice problem to have, right up until you have to explain it.
Customer: "What's that? It looks like an SUV."
Ford salesman: "No, no, definitely not an SUV. That's the Edge. It's a crossover with a 3.5-liter, 24-valve V-6 and a six-speed automatic."
Customer: "Okay, then, what's that over there? It looks like half station wagon, half SUV."
Ford salesman: "No, no, definitely not a wagon or an SUV. That's the Taurus X. It's a crossover with a 3.5-liter, 24-valve V-6 and a six-speed automatic."
Customer: "Well, jeez, what's that in the corner, then? Gotta be a wagon, right?"
Ford salesman: "No, no, definitely not a wagon. That's the Flex. It's a crossover with a 3.5-liter, 24-valve V-6 and a six-speed automatic."
Three crossovers with the same drivetrain, three crossovers with all- or front-wheel drive, three crossovers that are within an inch of each other in height, three crossovers that carry base prices starting at less than 30 grand.
In truth, exactly no one will mistake the Flex for its siblings, mostly because it resembles a starter kit for a billboard company. Although Ford refuses to utter the "w" word, the company would prefer you call it a wagon rather than a minivan — tempting, given the Flex's cubist cockpit, which seats seven (or six, if you order the twin captain's chairs as a second row). Riding on a Taurus X platform that has been stretched five inches, the Flex is a Holland Tunnel of a car — far larger than it appears in photos. Its wheelbase surpasses a Honda Pilot's by 8.7 inches. Its overall length beats a Toyota Highlander's by 13.4 inches. With its second- and third-row seats folded flat, the Flex offers 83 cubic feet of cargo space, more than the mammoth Toyota Land Cruiser. And the top-of-the-line Flex Limited AWD, as tested here, weighs 4844 pounds. Back in '91, a Buick Roadmaster Estate wagon — just about the largest thing we'd driven that wasn't still attached to tail fins — was more than 400 pounds lighter.
No matter. Inside and out, the Flex is dazzling. Panel gaps, paint, surface textures — all are superb. The front doors close heavily and silently, like coffin lids. There are seven dome lights and a like number of available hues for footwell illumination. The cockpit demonstrates Lexus-like attention to detail, including contrasting leather stitching. Second-row riders will enjoy the wedge-shaped footrests, à la Rolls-Royce. The silky off-white headliner brightens what might otherwise have been a dark office, and the elegant faux-wood trim is dispersed to persuasive effect. In fact, the cockpit is sufficiently luxurious that the Flex could easily have been sold as a Lincoln. The $1495 "Vista Roof" (remember the Olds Vista Cruiser?) includes one sliding sunroof over the front seats, two fixed "portholes" above the middle seats, and a 33-by-16-inch fixed pane above the third row.
The IP's four gauges are clear and simple, although the fat steering wheel can obscure the speedo's vital 60-to-80-mph range. The center stack, whose valuable topmost acreage is given over to the optional nav screen/backup camera ($2375), is easy to learn despite its 32 buttons. Too much space, however, has been commandeered by an analog clock at the bottom of the stack. We'd gladly have forgone that timepiece in favor of larger HVAC controls and a radio that displayed stations on its own screen, rather than on the nav's.
The front seats are spacious, firm, and comfortable for long interstate slogs, although their headrests are permanently canted so far forward that they'll often mess with your hair. The middle seats, which adjust manually fore and aft, are among the best in the vehicular universe, offering more legroom than the fronts, not to mention a view out of the flat-slab windows that'll make you think you're ridin' Greyhound. The front doors are 44 inches long, and the rears are 43 inches long — about the same as Mercedes' full-size GL-class SUV. Ingress requires neither climbing nor slouching. Just perch on the seat's outer edge, then swivel your feet. Voilà! You're ready to yell at the kids.
Comfortable, but Not Fun to Drive
Should you fill every Flex seat with a human posterior, however, the available cargo area dwindles to a 20-cubic-foot dark well, meaning that a six-person cross-country trip might better be undertaken with a daily change of underwear only.
Our Flex included the optional refrigerator between the middle seats. We inserted seven 12-ounce cans at room temperature, which were nicely chilled after 90 minutes. Of course, the fridge costs $760. A portable Igloo cooler costs $29.95.
On the road, what you notice first about the Flex is that it is quiet — quieter at all measured speeds than a Jag XF Supercharged, in fact. Step-off is seamlessly smooth, in part because it takes a spell for the 262-horse V-6 to get all that tonnage in motion. At launch, no amount of brake torquing will induce so much as a chirp from the 19-inch Hankooks. Sixty mph is attained in 8.4 seconds — 0.8 second behind a Ford Edge Limited AWD, 0.3 second behind a GMC Acadia SLT AWD. Truth is, the Flex perpetually reminds that you're at the helm of something significantly large and heavy. For the first day of driving, you'll underestimate all that mass, braking a little late whenever stop signs loom.
The six-speed transmission is superb. WOT upshifts are almost imperceptible, and kickdowns — two, even three gears — are satisfyingly quick and jolt-free. The shifter, alas, offers only two forward selections, drive and low, and there's no manumatic. There is an overdrive lockout switch, but scrubbing off a few mph as you enter a turn usually requires a stab of the brakes. Speaking of which, the brake pedal is not the easiest to modulate, and the stopping distance from 70 mph (189 feet) is merely mediocre.
Despite its heft and height, the Flex's body motions — roll, dive, and squat — are expertly damped. The ride is firm, and it takes a heavy hand to disrupt the chassis. What's more, the underpinnings transmit almost zero impact harshness or crash-through. Too bad, then, that the onset of understeer is so early. Just when you think it might be possible to hustle the Flex, it says, "Uh, no."
Neither does it help that the steering is a tad heavy and numb. A given amount of input does produce a predictable amount of course correction, but it requires an act of faith because you'll learn what the front tires are doing only when they begin yowling. On the other hand, there's no torque steer, and interstate tracking is bang on.
Observed fuel economy: 16 mpg. Another reminder of what it costs to haul excess lard.
The base front-drive Flex SE carries a sticker of $28,995, and that's where you should look first. Our Limited AWD, starting at $37,255, was too dear even before it was loaded with options, which ballooned its price to a ludicrous $43,250. Question: Why isn't the distinctive white roof standard, rather than a $395 option?
We wish the Flex were more agile in traffic and more willing in the hills. Instead, it is a luxurious, spacious family hauler that drives not like a car but like an SUV. We were hoping it would feel like a station wagon or a good minivan — a Honda Odyssey, for instance. Heck, what would have been wrong with a Fusion wagon? After a day in the Flex, you'll say, "I drove all over hell's half-acre and I'm not tired." What you won't say is, "I drove all over hell's half-acre and I had fun."