By Jim Bray
In the tradition of the little engine that could, Ford really could call its Flex crossover the minivan that isn't.
That's because it isn't a minivan, but it might as well be. Even better, it isn't an SUV either, as compared with most "other" SUV's on the market. And it's a station wagon, too! Really, the Flex is one of the few true "crossovers" I can think of, a vehicle that transcends the niches between the various and supposedly "soccer mom movers" that make up a so much of the marketplace.
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Ford could be accused of trying to maximize sales by straddling the line between two or three, niches, but that would only be fair if the company had come out with some mishmash that didn't do any job adequately. Fortunately, the Flex is, if not formidable, at least very good - and surprisingly driveable as long as you keep its turning circle in mind when you're angle parking.
It isn't the most attractive vehicle; I like to tease it as the "Maxi Cooper" for obvious reasons, but its relatively box-like structure still manages to come off as more attractive to these eyes than, say, the now apparently dead in Canada Nissan Quest minivan - title holder to date for the title of "vehicle that most resembles a shoe box." Yet that relatively plain - as opposed to ugly - exterior of the Flex holds a roomy, three row interior that's comfortable and can be had equipped as well as one could want in a mainstream vehicle.
Ford of Canada's sample Flex was quite loaded, which is always nice in a review vehicle. Wearing Limited AWD livery, it priced out with options at scarily close to 60 grand Canadian (just shy of $57K, in fact), from a base price for that model of just over $45K. For that extra 11 grand or so you get a lot of stuff, including heated steering wheel, cool 20 inch wheels, nannies galore (adaptive cruise control, collision warning, park assist, etc.). Also included are very cool, power operated third row seats and power tilt/telescope steering wheel - always a musical treat.
The sample also had the new for 2016 Appearance package ($900), which features black door handles, window sills, roof, tailgate (which is power-operated as well) appliqué and grille. Form over substance, perhaps, but pretty cool form.
The Flex gets its plentiful poop from Ford's 3.5 litre twin turbo EcoBoost V6 engine, which Ford says puts out 365 horsepower @ 5,500 rpm and 350 lb.-ft. of torque, both figures using 93 octane gasoline. It's smooth and pretty well lagless. The base engine (same sized V6, but 287/254 hp/torque) is probably fine, but the EcoBoost is a great fit. Couple it with a nicely set up independent suspension and six speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters - and good, P225/45 R 20 rubber - and you have a vehicle that's far more interesting to drive than you'd expect from its demeanor.
I didn't get a lot of mountain driving out of this sample, unfortunately, but several years ago I took a Flex across the highway from Qualicum Beach to Tofino, a great driving road on Vancouver Island, B.C.. We had people in all three rows and I managed to frighten them all, such was the Flex's willingness to take the mountain road as a delicious challenge. I expect that this one would be as good or better in such scenarios.
Standard for Flex SEL and Limited editions this year is Ford's newest SYNC, Version 3. It not only gives you a more straightforward LCD screen experience, it's quicker and Ford says now features "conversational voice recognition," though it played dumb for me a couple of times when I wanted it to do stuff. Maybe it was a defence mechanism…
Ford's sample was one of the new for 2016 colours, "Too Good to Be Blue," and it was a very nice way to coat a big brick. Other new hues include "Shadow Black" and "Kona Blue." These silly names hearken back, as far as I can remember, to the Ford Maverick of the early 1970's, which offered such hues as "Thanks Vermillion," and "Original Cinnamon." Glad to see the company still has a sense of humour.
Here's something else other manufacturers could emulate: all Flexes get a rear view camera as standard equipment. Heck, you don't even get that with some premium cars!
Other available stuff includes collision warning with brake support and a Blind Spot Information System with cross-traffic alert (which really does come in handy).
The interior looks like last generation Ford compared to the what's in the new Fusion and I hope Ford adapts the Fusion's cabin to the next generation of Flex if there ever is one. The current cabin is cool enough, but the new Fusion's is easier to live with and more attractive. I also hope they get rid of the touch-sensitive panel below the Flex's LCD touch screen, because it's overly sensitive when you don't want it to be (the power cord from my radar detector would set off the HVAC just by brushing against it) and insensitive when you need it to be obedient (at which time you nearly have to pound it). And doesn't that just figure?
We piled the kids and grandson into the Flex and headed out to picnic heartily and the Flex was a marvelous toy. It not only drove well on the highway, but we took it - rather optimistically - onto a dusty dirt road between Canmore and Kananaskis, Alberta, where it handled the drive beautifully, despite abundant potholes. I apologize to Ford for the dust in exterior nooks and crannies that'll probably take months to get rid of completely.
The optional ($1,750) Vista Roof is wonderful. It includes the usual power front sun/moon roof and ups the ante with a pair of longitudinally-mounted panels over the second row as well as another rectangular sunroof over Steerage.
I love how the Flex straddles classifications. It's low enough to get into, like a minivan or even a tall car, has prodigious people-and-stuff hauling abilities, is comfortable and even offers a compelling driving experience. Beats me why we don't see more of them on the road.
Well, maybe the as-tested price of $56,299 is part of it. As nice as the Flex is, it wouldn't surprise me if people might think it should have a Lincoln logo on it for that kind of dough.
Copyright 2016 Jim Bray
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