2016 Ford Flex Limited Ecoboost AWD
Ford has long been one of the world’s most successful automakers, this luxury giving them some latitude to drive down the road less traveled, or in other words to be creative. Some recent examples include the unorthodox C-Max hybrid on the green side (which is filled with many more conventional HEVs and a couple of PHEVs too) and fabulous Fiesta ST, Focus ST, new Focus RS, Taurus SHO, plus of course the legendary Mustang in its various states of tune, and lest we not forget the new mid-engine GT supercar (name me another mainstream automaker that offers even close to this number of performance cars), and back to reality we shouldn’t forget that the current Escape was downright radical when it debuted five years ago, and it’s the bestselling compact SUV in some markets while third most popular in the U.S.
Yes, sometimes being different pays off, while other times not so much. For those of us who seek out affordable exclusivity, we salute you Ford, because there’s nothing even remotely like the Flex on today’s roads. It’s like a mega-sized Mini Cooper, especially when topped off with a white roof, delivering near minivan-like comfort and space utility, but with more flare than any minivan would ever dare.
The Flex can actually trace its lineage back to the long deceased Windstar/Freestar minivan, not that any of its D3 platform architecture is related. More specifically the seven-passenger Freestyle/Taurus X crossover SUV was created to replace the aging family hauler, side-sliders and all, the end result being an excellent albeit hardly eye-catching mid-size CUV. The Freestyle, based on the same D3 platform, was reasonably handsome, and the Taurus X slightly more so, but neither caught on the way Ford had hoped (hence why then Ford CEO Alan Mulally decided to change the name to Taurus X as part of its ultra-mild mid-cycle refresh).
Consider for a moment that the Freestar minivan was abandoned because Ford thought it wasn’t selling well enough to warrant its existence, not to mention the numbers were tapering off scarily during its final three years with U.S. sales being 103,571 in 2004, 77,585 in 2005 and just 50,125 in 2006, so it’s more than understandable why the powers that be were disappointed with the Freestyle crossover’s initial numbers, the first full year of 2005 (which overlapped Freestar minivan sales) resulting in just 76,739 units sold, 2006 (another overlap year) worse at 58,602 sales, and the slide continuing with 42,110 sold in 2007, 23,112 in 2008 and a mere 6,106 in 2009.
The Flex came along to save the day in 2008, but its first full calendar year of 2009 resulted in just 38,717 examples delivered, which is much better than the Taurus X’ final tally of 6,106, but nowhere near as good as the Freestar minivan’s worst year. Unfortunately sales slid even further during calendar year 2010 with the Flex finding just 34,227 buyers, but that was riding high on the gravy train compared to 2011 when only 27,428 Americans bought into the concept, and while 2012 saw a blip upward to 28,224 units, following years were a downward slope from 25,953 sales in 2013, 23,822 in 2014, and the aforementioned 19,570 last year.
Right about now the Freestar minivan is looking pretty good, especially when you consider that all but one of the six remaining vans are selling much higher than today’s Flex, with Kia’s Sedona finding 36,755 U.S. buyers last year, Honda selling 127,736 Odysseys, Toyota moving 137,497 Siennas and the Chrysler/Dodge Town & Country/Grand Caravan duo combining for 190,989 units. Of course, Ford has its five-passenger Edge that sells very well into the mid-size crossover SUV segment with 35,993 already delivered for Q1 of 2016 and 124,120 throughout 2015, while the brand’s seven-seat Explorer SUV, also based on Ford’s D3 platform, is doing more to replace minivan sales than the car-like Flex with 63,415 sold so far this year and 249,251 last year. Like I said in the beginning, Ford is a highly successful company with multiple irons in the proverbial fire, so it can afford to take a few risks now and then. Still, one has to question the fiscal sanity of playing a Peter Horbury-designed wildcard in one of the most profitable segments that mainstream volume manufacturers can reap income from.
After all, my generously equipped 2016 Flex Limited’s final retail price was nudging up against $50k, which ventures into premium territory, not that the Flex isn’t nice enough to attract luxury market buyers. First off, its unique exclusivity is a bonus to the premium set that doesn’t want to see a carbon copy of their ride around every other corner, this particular model dressed up nicely with an Appearance package that blackens the grille, mirror caps, door handles, window trim, roof, and liftgate garnish, while Ford added a cool set of glossy black finished 20-inch alloys. These black elements framed my tester’s Bronze Fire Metallic paint perfectly, giving it a tuned look that went further to solidify its larger than life Mini appeal.
Inside, the Flex Limited continues in its ability to attract premium buyers by featuring a soft-touch synthetic surface treatment across the dash top and much of the door uppers, the door uppers in the Flex being all-in-one door inserts that wrap right overtop the window sill, while much of the instrument panel is also soft to the touch, at least the tiny panel surrounding the left vent and headlamp controls, as well as the large panel ahead of the front passenger. The armrests are padded albeit rubberized on the doors and nicer stitched leather at center, but I must admit the rest of this near fully optioned mid-size crossover’s interior as a bit less pampering than the majority of others in this class. For instance, the latest Kia Sorento offers fabric-wrapped pillars and almost no hard plastics at all, while the rest of the seven-passenger CUV contingent is collectively padding more surfaces in their individual attempts to gain traction and grow sales, but most challengers in question have been updated more recently than the Flex and therefore it makes sense that they’re offering more refinements.
Refinements in mind, Ford has done away with any trace of faux woodgrain in this particular Appearance package-equipped example, with most of my loaner’s cabin dressed up in interesting striped grayish metallic inlays, including the instrument panel and all the doors except one, the driver’s side getting a greenish blue inlay that was nothing like the others or anything else in the rest of the car. If I was to guess I’d say this was a mistake made on the Oakville, Ontario, Canada assembly line, but mistakes like this don’t happen very often. Actually, I’ve only ever seen such mixed interior colors once before and it was a long, long time ago on a brand that no longer exists (and that one was much worse, as what should have been a brown center console was mistakenly fitted with a gray one). Could this asymmetrical approach be purposeful? A bit of whimsy to mess with the OCDs among us? Unlikely, but if a vehicle was to go artsy for art’s sake the Flex would be a good canvas to do so.
There was absolutely nothing wrong with the Flex’ electronic interfaces, mind you, the perfectly symmetrical primary gauges getting the brand’s usual center speedometer with two flanking multi-information displays, the left housing a small digital tachometer, an odometer, plus a fuel gauge, and the right side boasting a color multi-info display capable of pulling up trip computer data, navigation and other functions as needed, with everything accessible via steering wheel controls.
Over on the center stack the Flex Limited gets Ford’s latest Sync 3 infotainment system, now finished in stylish pale blue and white coloring with ultimately modern, minimalist graphics. It hooks up to either Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, mine automatically connecting to the latter due to my google-based phone, and it works ideally. Those who have read my reviews before know that I was already a fan of the old MyFord Touch quadrant layout, but Sync 3 is a step ahead in every respect. It doesn’t feature proximity sensing capability like some others, but its general layout is attractive and easy to sort out, even for those who are not digitally inclined. Some specific improvements over the outgoing system include pinch and swipe capability, voice recognition that gets it right more often than not, cleaner and more legible graphics, and easier setup processes, while the usual functions include a clear rearview camera with active guidelines, great phone and audio connectivity with wireless streaming, loads of available apps, navigation and more.
Just below is Ford’s upgraded audio and dual-zone HVAC interface, which is a wonderfully simple design made sleeker thanks to capacitive touch controls for the latter. The former is a 12-speaker Sony system that delivers excellent sound quality, and while you might not notice at first, is fitted with a discrete CD changer. Its single-dial and two capacitive button layout is minimalism at its best, needing a few moments to figure out but quite intuitive after that. Even easier, Ford repeats most functions within the infotainment touchscreen, while those steering wheel controls just mentioned offer yet more system accessibility, not to mention optional adaptive cruise control that really comes in handy when on a road trip, while blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alerts appeared on the side mirrors and self-parking could be actuated via a button on the lower center stack.
I chose the entertainment system for turning on the heatable steering wheel and three-way heated seats, my test week being a particularly cold one, although I’m sure I’d be equally yet oppositely delighted with the cooling effects of my Limited trim’s front seat ventilation when the weather inevitably heats back up, the forced air filtering through perforated two-tone leather seats that were very comfortable although lacked when it came to lateral support.
This is probably ok however, as I didn’t drive the Flex Limited like a sports car despite its big rims and custom style making it appear as if it’s capable of drift competition. It handles well enough, but keep in mind it’s a big seven-passenger rig that’s set up with a bias towards comfort before speed. To that end it delivers a good ride despite those just-noted wheels and the 255/45R20 tires that wrap around them, with bumps being felt but the result never harsh. It takes to curves well too, feeling downright tossable if you keep speed within reason, but tends to understeer forcefully if pushed hard, par for the course in the large CUV crowd. All Flex models come standard with FWD, whereas AWD is an option with the SEL and unavailable in the $29,600 base SE, four-wheel motive power being a comforting companion to rely on when the weather gets nasty.
Set the six-speed automatic to Sport mode and use the paddle shifters to maximize performance from the optional 3.5-liter turbocharged and direct-injected Ecoboost V6 and it goes like stink, ramping up speed quickly thanks to 365 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque, while wonderful sounds emanate from ahead of the firewall and out the rearward exhaust. Again it feels like a much smaller vehicle than its seven-person, cargo-capable size suggests. The autobox might not be the quickest shifting in its class, but it’s smooth and will likely be more dependable than those with more forward speeds. Incidentally, the standard engine is a naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V6 that puts out 287 horsepower and 254 lb-ft of torque, which should be more than ample for most peoples’ requirements.
The lesser engine allows for better fuel economy too, the Flex rated at 16 mpg city, 23 highway and 19 combined with the base engine and FWD, 16 city, 22 highway and 18 combined with a move up to AWD, or 15 city, 21 highway and 17 combined in as-tested 3.5 Ecoboost AWD trim. My week’s average mileage was actually a bit better than the estimated rating despite a number of spirited test drives, although I live in a suburb with very few hills.
I occasionally spot this model roaming the well-groomed streets of my neighborhood, a particularly stylish Oxford White example pulling up next to me a few days ago, of course filled to the max with family. It’s an ideal city vehicle thanks to its great outward visibility and easy drivability, while kids, parents, grandparents and friends will fit in quite easily. The second-row seats are expansive and extremely comfortable. They offer a flip-down center armrest with twin cupholders, nothing new here, plus rear seating controls with fan speed, temperature settings, and vent direction, the vents being above and below passengers. There’s also a 12-volt charger and 110-volt three-prong household-style socket on the backside of the front console, a nice addition for charging peripherals. I also appreciated the large bottle holders in the doors, but there were no second-row outboard seat heaters on my tester, the inclusion of these requiring a move up in price to the six-passenger option, this version featuring two second-row bucket seats with a center console filled with a refrigerated compartment if you ante up further. My tester included Ford’s class-exclusive inflatable second-row seatbelts that distribute the force of an impact more evenly across the body, although money wasn’t spent on the optional dual headrest-mounted DVD rear entertainment system, so my tester’s final price was kept to a more moderate $49,445, plus freight and dealer fees of course.
Standard, and unusual in this class, is a third row with room enough for adults. It’s actually quite comfortable back there, with a few inches left over ahead of my five-foot-eight body’s knees and about four above my head, while if you go for the aforementioned Multi-Panel Vista Roof there’s even a separate glass panel in the rearmost quarters with its own manual sunshade, plus an overhead dome light with two reading lamps. Additionally, each passenger has their own small bin hidden under a padded armrest, plus a cupholder ahead of that. This might be the nicest third-row seating area in the class, a place I’d be only too happy to travel in if someone would ever let me get out of the driver’s seat. Access in and out is easy too, thanks to a second-row that flips forward and out of the way to provide lots of space to pass by.
Dropping the 50/50-split rear seatbacks for cargo is also easy, especially when the power-folding option is installed. It offers you the choice of lowering both seats into the floor at once or choosing right or left, while you can also fold them in the opposite direction for tailgate parties, although you’ll need to make sure the headrest is extended as it could be quite uncomfortable otherwise. It’s kind of a nifty feature, but I really can’t see many adults using this. Once the seats are tucked away into the floor, there’s plenty of cargo space behind the second row at 43.2 cubic feet, and if you need more for something really big, that second row folds flat to open up what appears to be almost as much space as a minivan at 83.1 cubic feet; ok, you got me, the Freestar had a maximum capacity of 137.2 cubic feet, but the Flex is still easier to load large items into on the fly, because there’s no need to remove and store the second row (a near backbreaking feat if I remember correctly). Most of the time you won’t need to lower any seats at all, however, as there’s a sizable 15.0 cubic feet behind the third row, which is about the capacity of full-size sedan’s trunk, which means the entire family can come along for the ride when dropping Aunt Hilda off at the airport.
While I’d enjoy seeing the Flex drive by more often as it really is pleasing to my eyes, I can appreciate that it’s not to everyone’s tastes. Here’s hoping that Ford doesn’t try to make it too mainstream when/if the redesign comes, as it’s one of the only mid-size crossovers in the volume sector that causes a person to turn their head. For this reason, as well as its long list of attributes, I consider the Flex a success, even if its sales numbers don’t abide. So here’s a shout out to all square pegs, Ford’s got your family ride, it’s called the Flex, and you’re going to love it.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Trevor Hofmann and Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press