Driving around in a rectangle is a little weird.
It's not that the 2009 Ford Flex rides any differently than every other vehicle on the road, it doesn't. But watching so many heads turn as you pass by makes you wonder what the world has come to that one of the most boring shapes imaginable is suddenly an eye-catcher.
Looking something like a mashup of the not-so-dearly-departed Ford Freestar minivan and a 1970s vintage LTD Station Wagon, the Flex fits squarely in the crossover category so popular today.
The boxy, functional body is dressed up with beveled edges, go-fast character lines stretching down the flanks and a pillarless look to the window area known in design circles as the greenhouse. With a MINI Cooper-esque, contrasting white or silver roof topping things off, what at first appears to be a car you've seen a million times before turns out to be everything but.
The right-angle style doesn’t carry over to the handsomely appointed interior, but Ford did make the most of the space that it provides. There's room for six or seven passengers in three rows of seating and all of the seats fold flat, except for the one for the driver because that wouldn't make a lot of sense. Doing so transforms the car into the shipping container it resembles whenever the need arises.
If there are more people on board than stuff, the middle row slides fore and aft and flips forward, easing access to the third row. Two seats back there are mounted way up high, allowing passengers to live out their wildest Eddie Munster fantasies. You can actually look down at the driver's bald spot as the dashboard lines up roughly with the level of your hip.
The Flex is not an open-top vehicle like the Munster Koach, but the four sunroofs that comprise the Vista Roof option provide an airy feel and add a couple of inches of extra headroom for that third row.
With the mezzanine positioned midway along its range of adjustment, all 6-foot-1 of me fit in the cheap seats just fine, with no part of the car rubbing against my legs or head that wasn’t intentional.
Opt for the six-seat arrangement and you can fill the space between passengers 2A and 2C with a refrigerator/freezer disguised as an armrest. Not one of those "cool boxes" you find in other cars that do little more than direct the air conditioning into a closed compartment, but an honest-to-goodness compressor-driven fridge just like the one under your desk at the office. It's not huge, but it'll hold a six-pack plus one, or freeze a box of ice pops for the kids. Since it works independently of the climate control, you can use it in summer or winter.
If you prefer your food and drinks hot, there's a handy 110-volt outlet in the center console that you can plug a microwave into when you're not using your MacBook to blog about how much you love spending time on the road with your family ... ”really, lathering up with 100 percent maple syrup and sitting on an anthill would not in any way be preferable to 6 hours in the Flex with my four children and the neighbor boy none of them particularly like.”
If the brood becomes rambunctious you can always flip down the optional 8-inch TV from the headliner and lull them to sleep with your collection of the “National Lampoon's Vacation” films on DVD.
You’ll note that I started at the back of the car and worked my way forward. I wasn't saving the best for last, it's just that the arena-like seating arrangement brought to mind sneaking up to the front row at that Three Doors Down concert a few years ago, and that was awesome!
Unfortunately, things aren't quite as exciting in the driver's seat of the Flex.
Like the rest of the car, all of the materials are top-notch, and the look is very expensive for something called a Ford.
The big disappointment for me is the lack of a telescoping steering wheel. Even with adjustable pedals, when I positioned the seat the way I like it during my drive at the Flex product launch in New York, it was quite a stretch to reach the wheel which forced me to sit much closer to the dashboard than I'd prefer.
Built on the same platform that underpins the Ford Taurus, there is an eerie feeling that you've been here before, but it’s a good one. The 262-horsepower version of the 3.5-liter V-6 that is quickly taking over engine room duty across the Ford lineup seems up to the task of lugging along a full load of kids and cargo. To ease the transition for people giving up their SUVs to move into a Flex, Ford even designed it to tow up to 4,500 pounds, strong for a crossover.
The ride is noticeably better than you'd find in an SUV, though not quite as smooth as a pure sedan. On lumpy pavement the suspension makes large up and down movements, but stops them after just a bob or two, preventing the dreaded "follow the bouncing ball" effect to develop.
Unfortunately, the tall and narrow Velveeta-box proportions lead the Flex to roll like a bobsled around curves, discouraging anything approaching spirited driving. This is probably for the better.
Even with the available all-wheel drive, and despite its Daytona 500-ready appearance, the Flex is a people carrier, not a sports car. There's even quite a bit of torque steer -- that jerk of the wheel you get under acceleration in an overpowered front-wheel drive car -- before the back tires decide to pitch in and straighten things out.
One detail on the car will make you feel just like Carl Edwards every time you pull into the gas station, though, is Ford’s exclusive Easy Fuel capless filler. Just stick the nozzle in the hole and start pumping. Ford claims it not only keeps your hands clean, but seals the fumes in the tank better than a screw-on cap. Since we didn't stop for a fill-up on our drive, I have no reason not to believe them.
At 16 mpg city/22 highway for the all-wheel drive version that I spent the afternoon with, and 17/24 on front-wheel drive cars, the Flex is more fuel efficient than the now passé Ford Explorer, and on par with other large crossovers and the minivan crowd. Helping you stretch your gasoline dollars is Sirius Travel Link which works with the navigation system to not only show you where the nearest gas stations are, but also the prices at the pumps.
Now you can stick it to Big Oil whenever you feel like driving half a mile out of your way to save 2 cents a gallon. If you're not in a vindictive mood, you can also get live weather reports, and show times at nearby movie theaters, so you'll never have to miss another Chevy Chase movie marathon ever again.
With starting prices ranging from $28,295 for the entry-level SE model to $34,705 for the top of the line Limited, the Flex falls right in the sweet spot for station-wagon-crossover-minivans.
If you have a particular dislike for conventional design or anything curvaceous, it might be exactly what you've been waiting for. If not, I'm sure one of those folks rubbernecking to get a better look at it will be happy to take it off your hands.
2009 FORD FLEX
Base Price: $28,295 to $34,705
Type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel drive, 5-door crossover
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Power: 262 horsepower, 177 pound-foot torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
MPG: 16-17 city/22-24 hwy
What do you think of the Ford Flex?
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