Turning heads in Ford’s peculiar people-hauling Flex | VailDaily.com

Turning heads in Ford’s peculiar people-hauling Flex

Andy Stonehouse

Some cars that roll out onto the floor of the world’s auto shows don’t have a hope in hell of making it to the production line, as ambitious as they may seem.

At this year’s Denver Auto Show, for instance, there was a healthy selection of truly weird vehicles (a Jeep-branded machine that looked like a moon explorer, or a Suzuki that split in half to reveal a Barbie-styled camping area) that will never see the light of day, even in Japan.

However, a few exceptions do slip through. And in the case of the new Ford Flex, the six- or seven-person people mover now appearing at dealers, it looks, for all intents and purposes, absolutely identical to the Ford Fairlane concept model which first appeared at the New York Auto Show in 2005.

Your take on the long but short, boxy, stylish and wonderfully peculiar Flex will depend on your level of automotive open-mindedness. I stopped the Flex at a Denver-area city park last weekend to take some quick notes and the car was swarmed by a throng of onlookers, asking the same question: “Just what is that Mini Cooper-meets-Scion xB-meets-FJ Cruiser machine that you are driving?”

The easiest explanation is that the Flex is an especially style-forward replacement to Ford’s not-quite-SUV, not-quite-minivan, the Freestar. That said, the Flex is neither minivan nor SUV either, blending a few of the best attributes of each into an automobile that is quite versatile, reasonably powerful and well-appointed.

It is also, admittedly, pretty heavy on the cutting-edge looks, and that may scare off a few buyers. Shaped more or less like a much- extended Scion boxmobile with Range Rover Sport attributes, the Flex fronts an aggressive chrome grille, chrome mirror caps, major aluminum paneling on the tail and undulating, indented body paneling from front to back.

Add the aftermarket-styled tail lamps and HID headlamps, a twin set of exhaust pipes and fancy open-spoke 19-inch wheels (on the Limited model), and you have a machine that looks like it was essentially stamped directly from some hipster designer’s clay models.

Inside, however, the Flex is a much more docile and welcoming beast, with super-luxurious cushioned leather seating, Ford’s advanced Sync and satellite-linked navigation and entertainment system, plus colorful bits such as a combination fridge and freezer and ” hold onto your hat ” a “high-end” Sony audio upgrade.

Like many of its stablemates, the Flex is built on a variation on the newer Taurus platform (formerly the Ford Five Hundred), which predicates platform-styled seating with deep, boxy footwells; this configuration carries into both the full-sized second row and somewhat smaller third row seats. Ford has come up with its own version of Chrysler’s fold-and-go hideaway seats and the third row does just that, flipping back into a storage trough to create a large, open storage deck.

Still, I found Flex’s driver position a little ungainly, despite multiple power adjustments and electric lumbar support ” I could just never find a middle spot where my knees didn’t bang into the console and I could still comfortably reach the wheel (which tilts, but does not telescope).

On the road, Flex’s extended wheelbase and relatively heavy curb weight don’t exactly impart sportiness, but it’s no bus, either. With optional all-wheel-drive and built-in stability and anti-roll control, the Flex and its 3.5 liter V6 (offering 262 HP) produce a comfortable ride.

That weight becomes a bit of an issue while heading down the grade from the tunnel and I initially thought my only resort (besides pounding on the underachieving brakes) was to dump the car into low gear, resulting in dangerously high revs.

Flex’s better option is a new downhill mode/overdrive cancellation button, which more appropriately uses the six-speed transmission to gently cool your downhill motion.

That Edge-derived engine does allow for good uphill power (you’ll get about 16 mpg by planting your foot too firmly on the gas pedal) and in more normalized driving it returns as much as 23 mpg, not so bad if you’re carrying a full load, as this “people mover” was designed to do.

A very busy weekend drive across the passes (including a full-blown snowstorm) demonstrated that the AWD system takes care of business ” it also gave me an extended opportunity to try out the full interactivity of the navigation and entertainment system.

Sync was able to find current fuel prices among participating Vail Valley retailers, but the movie listings deferred to Vail’s long-defunct movie theaters; the live weather maps are also a little vague but helpful in a general sense. It appears you also need to be completely stopped in order to access sports scores, which probably isn’t such a bad idea.

Flex blends a few of Ford’s other new innovations, such as the capless gas filler, the invisible keyless entry panel and the new four-panel “vista” sunroof, allowing every passenger a view of the stars; the freezer will be useful, I guess, if you need to deliver frozen Cornish game hens to your grandmother’s house. It also has the adjustable mood lighting found on the Mustang, for those who like to illuminate their beverages in various pastel colors.

Rolled into one package, it’s an interesting venture, and certainly very high-minded in the design department; priced at nearly $44,000 (as tested), it also faces considerable competition from a number of equally well-appointed, less unusual looking machines.

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