2013 Ford Flex Limited AWD

  The Country Squire for a new generation
Why we’d buy it: Interior space, amenities galore, great engine.
Why we wouldn’t: Price, fuel efficiency, telematics. Or maybe telematics, price and fuel efficiency.
Mileage: 16 city, 23 highway. Review by Bill Cawthon.

The Flex made its debut four years ago as a 2009 model, with styling based on the 2005 Ford Fairlane concept. I have never figured out the allure of the Fairlane’s styling: perhaps Ford felt it needed an Aztek of its own, or J May’s gang hoped to capture the Scion market with an oversized xB. However, Ford received enough positive feedback that they turned it into the Flex and discovered what the term “polarizing” actually means.

The Flex rides on Ford’s D4 platform, a derivative of the D3 platform that originally underpinned the wildly unsuccessful Ford Five Hundred and Freestyle, the replacements for the original Taurus. It shares the platform with the slow-selling Lincoln MKT. The platform’s ancestry can be traced back to the Volvo P2 platform, developed before Ford’s purchase of the Swedish company. Volvo used it for their larger sedans and wagons, including the XC90 crossover.

Originally projected to sell in the range of 100,000 units per year, the Flex never came close. In 2009, its first full year on the market, Ford unloaded 38,717 Flexes, a number that dropped to 34,227 in 2010 and then to 27,428 in 2011 when it was the worst-selling Ford brand vehicle. The MKT’s reception was even more frigid: total 2011 sales amounted to 5,024, making it the corporation’s worst-selling vehicle in the United States.

A refresh has given the Flex a more pleasant appearance and sales are up slightly: through September, a total of 24,024 Flexes had found new homes. Flex deserves better. Once you get past the exterior to the place you’ll spend the most time viewing, the Flex is really an exceptional vehicle. It’s comfortable, roomy, has plenty of power and, properly equipped, hard to beat as a family vacation transport.

Ford calls the Flex a full-sized crossover. That’s because to call it what it really is would be tantamount to the kiss of death – even more deadly than the Fairlane’s styling. The Flex is an All-American station wagon , even if it is built in Canada.

Ford Flex car review

Ford was the master of the American station wagon. For four decades, the Country Squire was the benchmark of the breed. Millions of Americans racked up billions of miles crisscrossing the nation in Country Squires, Country Sedans, and Ranch Wagons. They were wonderful highway cruisers, capable of carrying up to nine people down the Interstate in comfort and style. The Country Squire bowed out in 1991, but it has returned as in spirit as the Flex Limited.

Of course, some things have changed: the Flex is over a foot shorter, three inches narrower, and nearly a foot taller than the 1991 Country Squire. The wheels are more spread out, as well. The wheelbase is 3.6 inches longer and the front track is 3.2 inches wider while the rear track is 2.1 inches wider. The improved stance does wonders for the ride and handling.

The Flex is also heavier: 10.5% heavier, to be more precise. An extra 424 pounds rides on that wider stance.

Ford Flex - modern wagon

The Flex rides at about the same height as a passenger car: even the ladies don’t need a ladder, side steps or special handles to slide into the comfortable, leather-trimmed seats.

Once inside, the reasoning behind the Flex’s boxy exterior becomes clear: the interior is open and airy with superb visibility. Everybody has room, not just to sit but to squirm; important if one has small-to-medium children.

Our Flex was the Limited model with the dual captain’s chairs in the second row. This trims the Flex’s seating capacity to six, but those six will be comfortable. With a little negotiating with the second row passengers, even the rearmost seats will provide adequate space for two normal-sized adults, though for long trips, those adults might want to be real good friends. Maybe even newlyweds.

turbocharged crossover

Passengers in first class, i.e. the first and second rows, get lots of creature comforts, including cupholders that keep their beverages cool. There are overhead vents to provide airflow, which I think is something that should be included on any vehicle with more than one row of seats. In the heat of a Texas summer, even the best air-conditioning system is going to take a while to cool all those cubic feet and the feel of moving air helps everyone feel more comfortable more rapidly. There is a separate set of controls for the second-row passengers.

A wagon wouldn’t be a wagon without plenty of room for stuff, so both the second and third row of seats have power-assisted folding and open an 83.2 cubic-foot space suitable for most anything up to major appliances.

One set of features that is especially welcome is the combination of the power liftgate and the power-folding third-row seats. Just inside the liftgate opening on the driver’s side, there’s a hefty liftgate support mechanism. At the base is a row of controls for raising and lowering the third row seats. This is such a pleasure; it may be a sin. You open the liftgate with the key fob, reach in, toggle a switch and the rearmost seats fold right down into a flat loading area.

Our Flex Limited had Ford’s twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6, good for 365 horsepower and 350 lb.-ft. of torque. Coupled to a six-speed transmission with column-mounted paddle shifters, the Flex can hit 60 in an impressive 6.6 seconds. While we didn’t explore the upper ranges of the Flex’s capabilities, top speed is said to be 120.

We do know it will hit and cruise at 75 with enough oomph left for passing, but the Flex isn’t a vehicle one buys for racing the Mustang in the next lane. For one thing, the electric power steering seems a bit over-assisted and there’s little feel or feedback, which is not a major criticism – this is a family wagon, after all. But the revised suspension on the AWD-equipped Flex practically begs for better steering; it’s a bit stiffer and more sure-footed than the everyday Flex and a lot better than the old Country Squire. Of the crossovers we’ve driven, this is one of the best when it comes to handling. In corners, the low height means less body lean than in a minivan or conventional SUV, enabling the Flex to take curves at passenger car speeds.

The Flex’s keyless ignition system was convenient but there was a gremlin in the system and it was a bit disconcerting. Twice while we had the Flex, the system refused to recognize the key. It required going through the entire sequence of unlocking the vehicle again for the system to reset and allow me to start the engine. Of all the vehicles we have ever operated that had a similar system, the Flex is the only one on which this problem was encountered.

Out on the road, the Flex is a pleasure to drive. The ride is smooth and power is on tap as needed. In fact, the Flex is so much fun to drive, we extended our test loop to see how it handled county roads, many of which carry too much heavy traffic (that’s “heavy” in terms of the size of the vehicles, not the number) and get too little maintenance. Even on an extended stretch of over-patched washboard, the Flex kept its composure. Dirt roads called for reduced speed but there was none of the teeth-rattling bouncing one would get from a passenger car.

Due to a lack of snow, or even rain, we didn’t have an opportunity to evaluate the all-wheel-drive. We thought about mud, but the lack of any rain in recent history made sufficient mud hard to come by.

Back on the highway, the Flex was a pleasure. It was easy to visualize driving hundreds of miles and arriving fresh at your destination. There was some wind noise but with the Flex’s aerodynamics that’s to be expected. Road noise was not intrusive and even at 75 it was easy to converse in a normal voice.

The Flex’s aerodynamics, weight and twin turbos do exact a penalty when it comes to fuel economy. The EPA figures the Flex will get 16 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway for a combined rating of 18 mpg. That’s better than some in its class; not as good as others.

A surprising omission for a truly family-friendly modern road trip is the lack of a factory-installed video entertainment system for the rear seat passengers. Ford offers optional DVD players, but they are dealer-installed accessories made by Nextbase. There is also a power outlet in the console with the A/C controls for hooking up a DVD player or game system but with as many competitive vehicles that offer factory-installed systems, it’s noteworthy that Ford didn’t have this, at least on the options list.

Then there’s the matter of the price. Our review Flex Limited, which was very well equipped but not the top-of-the-line Titanium, stickered at $50,165. Comparable crossovers from other manufacturers can be thousands less and even a loaded Ford Expedition King Ranch is $53,115, just $3,000 more.

Now we come to the big issue: the telematics.  Ford downplays criticism, says the system is here to stay and says customers love it, but the fact remains the Ford system has been singled out by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration because of its potential danger as a source of distracted driving and Consumer Reports lists the SYNC/MyFordTouch system as one of the reasons Ford products ranked near the bottom of its annual reliability study. It has also been panned in surveys from J.D. Power.

At some point in time, you take your lumps, admit you screwed up and try again. The potential for legal action might preclude an actual public admission, but Ford has been defending this loser for years. It’s like clinging to the stern of the Titanic, hoping you can keep it from sinking.

The core problem is that Ford allied with Microsoft when it should have partnered with Apple. The MyFordTouch system is powerful but too complex, with decision trees that have far too many branches as well as far too many small buttons. It is difficult to use while driving because it requires too much concentration on the screen to identify the correct selection and guide a finger to that selection which then takes you to the next set of decisions. There are secondary controls for tuning and climate control on the stack below the screen, which is helpful, but those controls would be better as knobs and switches with tactile feedback. The capacitive touch switches are no doubt cooler and most likely more durable, but like the touch screen, they still call for too much “eye-time” away from the road.

Since we did all of our data entry while parked, the tasks were somewhat easier and definitely less stressful. With the leisure afforded by not moving, we got the phone synced and called up the Sirius satellite radio.

To sum up, we’ve used systems from competing manufacturers and they are all more user-friendly.

The Flex’s screen does have one virtue: used in conjunction with Ford’s backup camera, one gets a first-rate view of where they are going and any obstacles that might be in the way. Day or night, the system works beautifully.

Once the source was selected, the Sony sound system performed well. We used an iPod to feed various types of music and the system handled everything from classic to rap with aplomb.

When it’s time to consider the purchase of a vehicle like this, the Flex Limited brings a lot to the table but also has some baggage that must be taken into account.

The price and fuel efficiency are comparable to competitive products. When you decide on a crossover or a SUV in this range, you’ve already accepted that you are paying a premium and that fuel economy is not a primary consideration. Also worthy of consideration isthat a more basic Flex SE can be had for $20,000 less than our review vehicle.

The telematics are a real issue, but it’s possible to work around the worst of the problems, as we did by making adjustments before putting the vehicle in gear or having the front-seat passenger make them. Gradually, familiarity with the system should reduce the time required to make adjustments, though it’s likely the MyFordTouch will never completely fall within the two-second guideline advocated by safety experts (at 70 mph, a vehicle travels two-thirds the length of a football field in two seconds).

The question then becomes whether the Flex is good enough to be worth making those accommodations.

The Flex brings so much to the table that isn’t available from the competition, including the ride height and ease of entry, well-thought-out amenities, and spirited performance, that it merits consideration by anyone in the market for a full-size family vehicle. There might not be quite as much cargo space as in a minivan or a full-size SUV, but it’s still spacious and up to almost any task a typical family might throw at it. It would be nice if Ford would make the EcoBoost engine at least optional for the entire Flex lineup because we think it might bring more buyers looking and the more buyers that look, the more converts Ford will win.

Ford can call it a crossover if it wants. We call it the perhaps best Country Squire ever.

2013 Ford Flex Limited AWD: Base price: $43,850. Price as tested, including options and destination charges: $50,165. Final assembly point: Oakville, Ontario, Canada.

Standard features: 3.5-liter turbocharged V6 engine; six-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel-drive; HID projector headlamps, fog lamps; LED taillights; keyless entry w/remote start; foldaway heated mirrors; power liftgate, leather-trimmed seats; 10-way power driver’s seat; leather-wrapped steering wheel; tilt-telescope steering column; adjustable pedals; dual-zone climate control, 12-speaker, 390W Sony audio system w/Sirius satellite radio and SYNC w/MyFordTouch, navigation system, blind spot warning system.

Options: Equipment Group 303A with adaptive cruise control with collision warning; power-folding third-row seats; P255/45R20 All-Season BSW tires. ($3,295)  Ruby Red Metallic Tint clear coat paint ($395). Second row 40/40 seats with power-fold ($750). Second-row console with refrigerated cup holders ($795). Class III trailer towing package ($570).

The Ford Flex has not yet been rated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It did receive four out of five stars in rollover protection. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has named the Flex a “Top Safety Pick.”