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June 10, 2009

News & Features

Auto Review: 2009 Ford Flex is no look-alike crossover SUV

The Associated Press

Flex

This June 9, 2008 photo provided by Ford Motor Co. shows the 2009 Ford Flex vehicle overlooking the Pacific in southern California. (AP Photo/Ford Motor Co., Sam VarnHagen)

People love it or hate it, but they agree on one thing: The Ford Flex is no look-alike crossover sport utility vehicle.

With a long, tall, boxy shape, generous room for up to seven people and unique touches such as perforated seat leather that mimics the leather of designer handbags, the 2009 Flex is as distinctive as the people who will buy one.

Best of all, it earned across-the-board five out of five stars in federal government crash testing, and its starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $29,325 undercuts some of the look-alike crossovers.

2009 Ford Flex Limited AWD
  • BASE PRICE: $28,550 for SE; $32,325 for SEL with two-wheel drive; $34,175 for SEL with all-wheel drive; $34,960 for Limited with two-wheel drive; $36,810 for Limited with all-wheel drive.
  • AS TESTED: $44,150.
  • TYPE: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, six-passenger, large crossover sport utility vehicle.
  • ENGINE: 3.5-liter, double overhead cam, Duratec V-6.
  • MILEAGE: 16 mpg (city), 22 mpg (highway).
  • TOP SPEED: NA.
  • LENGTH: 201.8 inches.
  • WHEELBASE: 117.9 inches.
  • CURB WEIGHT: 4,840 pounds.
  • BUILT AT: Oakville, Ontario, Canada.
  • OPTIONS: Navigation system $2,375; vista moonroofs $1,495; second-row 40/40 seats with auto fold $870; rear console refrigerator $760; Class III trailer tow package $570; silver two-tone roof $395; center row floor console $100.
  • DESTINATION CHARGE: $775.

For example, the starting MSRP, including destination charge, for a 2009 Mazda CX-9 is $30,490. The 2009 GMC Acadia has a retail starting price of $32,665.

The Flex, CX-9 and Acadia prices are for V-6 models with two-wheel drive. A 2009 Flex with all-wheel drive starts at $34,950.

Styling certainly is the hallmark of the nearly 17-foot-long Flex. Ford offers "vista" moonroofs that give every row of seats, including the third row, panels of glass above them. This, plus sizable side windows, creates an airy feel inside, even for third-row passengers.

A concealed, small refrigerator in the second-row console is another distinctive option. So is a two-tone paint job that allows for the roof to be one color and the rest of the body to be another.

The only thing missing, it seems, is the option of a "woody" package that would add another kind of style.

But this is not a vehicle for driving enthusiasts. Unlike the CX-9, for instance, the Flex doesn't feel buttoned down as it moves through mountain twisties. Instead, my passengers instinctively braced themselves for the vehicle body to lean when we went through curves. There's just such a sense of mass in this nearly 5,000-pound crossover.

It feels big on the road, a bit slow in its moves and even wallowy at times. There's also a sense that passengers and driver are somewhat isolated from the pavement.

Ford Flex uses an independent MacPherson strut front suspension with an independent multilink arrangement at the back. The platform is a version of the one used in Ford's Taurus X car, though the platform has been lengthened by 5 inches for the Flex.

I have to admit there's a benefit to the soft ride. The test vehicle kept all kinds of road bumps away from passengers. Even sizeable bumps came through to riders as mere vibrations, not sharp impacts.

This is a ride that's not found on many other crossovers, and it's perfect for people who drive interstate highways with long straightaways and lots of concrete expansion cracks.

Not only is the ride easy, the interior is quiet.

The engine for 2009 is a 262-horsepower, 3.5-liter, double overhead cam Duratec V-6. It's the same engine that Ford put in the lighter weight Taurus X, and while it works gallantly in the Flex, it doesn't offer a lively ride.

Indeed, when I slammed down the accelerator, I didn't get much immediate response. The engine, working with the six-speed automatic transmission that provided seamless shifts in the tester, just didn't have much "oomph" for such a large vehicle.

Torque peaks at 248 foot-pounds at 4,500 rpm, which is considerably less than the torque in the CX-9 and GMC Acadia.

At least the Flex needs only regular gasoline. Just don't be surprised the first time you open the fuel filler door. The Flex is one of the Ford vehicles that have a capless fuel filler, so you put the gas station nozzle directly into the vehicle without fussing with a cap. The fuel tank stays closed, once the nozzle is removed, all on its own.

Fuel economy is nothing to brag about, however. The federal government rating is just 16 miles per gallon in city driving and 22 mpg on the highway.

The 2010 Flex will do better by getting the first twin-turbocharged engine from Ford in North America. The 3.5-liter Ecoboost V-6 will deliver 355 horsepower and 350 foot-pounds of torque. Better yet, its expected fuel economy is 24 mpg on the highway and 18-19 mpg in the city.

All seats in the test vehicle, including the front ones, had flat seat cushions so there wasn't much grip there to hold on to passengers.

I fussed with the head restraints on the front seats because they were positioned very close to passengers' heads. This prompted me to recline the seatback more than usual, but then I had difficulty reaching the steering wheel, and the Flex doesn't include a telescoping steering wheel.

The test vehicle topped out at more than $43,000, but it still didn't include automatic power-down door windows on any but the driver's door. Fit and finish, however, were excellent. There are a whopping 40.5 inches of legroom for second-row passengers, and second-row doors have wonderfully large openings.

There were seats for six because the second row had separate seats, not a bench. I enjoyed the optional power-fold feature that, by a touch of a button, would move a second-row seat out of the way for third-row entry and exit.

Even I could sit without discomfort in the third row. I just wished the third-row side windows opened.

With all three rows of seats in use, there's just 20 cubic feet of cargo room -- most of it vertical space against the rear seatback. Maximum cargo capacity is 83.2 cubic feet with second and third rows folded, but cargo floor material is old-style and fuzz-like.

The big liftgate at the back also was power-operated.

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