The Ford Flex has been around for nearly a decade, and gone mostly unnoticed even though it was original and generally considered a good idea. It’s like a small school bus that feels like a car but seats seven.
The 2017 Ford Flex is unchanged except two new colors. The Ford badge has been erased from the grille. It’s just Flex, pasted on the nose. A lonely blue oval lingers, relegated to the lower right corner of the rear hatch, as if Ford is quietly waving bye-bye.
To be sure, the Flex doesn’t carry that many more passengers than some crossovers, it just carries them more comfortably. The wheelbase of 118 inches is 8 inches longer than a Honda Pilot, but 1 inch shorter than a Chevy Traverse, and both the Pilot and Traverse have better third-row accommodations. The Flex focuses on second-row comfort and car-like driving dynamics.
Even as a 4600-pound school bus, the Flex is almost fun to drive, thanks largely to two good engines. The base 3.5-liter V6 makes 288 horsepower, and with a 6-speed automatic it does the job, although we wouldn’t exactly call it quick. It’s front-wheel drive, with all-wheel drive available.
The optional engine comes from the potent Taurus SHO. It’s a turbocharged V6 making 365 horsepower, also with a 6-speed automatic, with paddle shifters. It only comes with all-wheel drive.
With the base engine and front-wheel drive, the Flex gets 16 miles per gallon city, 23 highway, and 19 combined, according to the EPA ratings. That’s about 2 mpg less than the three-row Hyundai Santa Fe and 3 mpg less than the Honda Pilot. The Flex turbo V6 with all-wheel drive gets 15/21/17 mpg.
The NHTSA hasn’t crash tested the Flex, and the IIHS gives it mostly Good scores except for an Acceptable in the difficult small overlap crash test. All Flexes have Curve Control and torque vectoring, systems that combine with the electronic stability control to help the Flex corner better.
Six airbags are standard, as is a rearview camera. Advanced safety features, such as forward collision warning and blind-spot monitors, are available on higher models. Ford’s MyKey system is also available; it allows owners (parents) to set limits on the speed, as well as entertainment features like stereo volume. Ford should market that system for the house.
The 2017 Ford Flex comes in SE ($29,710), SEL ($32,410), and Limited ($37,910). Prices are MSRP and do not include destination charge.
Standard equipment includes power windows, mirrors, and locks; three-row seating, Ford’s SYNC infotainment system with a 4.3-inch screen and Bluetooth; rearview camera; 17-inch wheels; and fabric upholstery.
SEL models add 18-inch wheels, SYNC3 infotainment system with 8.0-inch touchscreen, heated front seats, keyless ignition, remote start, dual-zone climate control, power front seats, and wood trim.
Limited models add 19-inch wheels, leather seats, 12-speaker Sony sound system, blind-spot monitors with rear cross-traffic alert, navigation, power liftgate, and upgraded interior materials.
If you want front collision warning and adaptive cruise control, add a $2900 package. And appearance option includes 20-inch wheels with a black roof, door handles, grille, and window sills. There’s also a heated steering wheel, power folding rear seats, panoramic sunroof, trailer-prep tow package, and second-row captain’s chairs.
Even if the Flex goes away, its profile and styling will be remembered, and probably even reborn in some other vehicle, not necessarily a Ford. It works, even if there isn’t a great demand for it. We see a space-age surf wagon.
We also see some British in the sides of the Flex: part Range Rover, part Mini Cooper. And we see some 1960s Ford Fairlane and Country Squire wagon, without the faux woody.
The Flex shows its age in the cabin, with dated styling. It hasn’t changed much since 2008, except for a revision of the centerstack and slight upgrade to materials. The instrument panel is low. The Flex clearly, if lightly, copies the Mini dash that was all the rage back then. The centerstack houses the large SYNC3 touchscreen interface on SEL and Limited models, along with capacitive touch controls for climate and audio.
The fit and finish are good, with soft materials and upholstery in front that feel luxury grade, at least in the SEL and Limited. And it’s fairly quiet inside, after sound deadening material was added in 2013.
But it’s still mostly about passenger comfort and space: seven people and 20 cubic feet behind the third row. With wide door openings and a tall roof, it’s easy to climb inside. Long windows keep the interior bright; anything else would make the Flex feel like a cargo van.
The front and second-row seats are wide and comfortable; in fact they’re a pleasure. The second row is a 60/40 that seats three and folds easily and quickly; optional captain’s chairs seat two for six-passenger seating capacity. The Flex’s Volvo roots show (back in 2008, Ford owned Volvo) in the second row, where there’s more headroom and legroom than many crossovers.
The third row is 50/50 that seats two and folds easily. Not only that, but we put a 6-foot, 6-inch editor back there, and he emerged smiling with his knees still working. The seat isn’t padded as well as the second row, but it’s fine for short trips. The tall roof means passengers have to bend less to get back there, although it’s still not as tall as a minivan.
With both the second and third rows folded, there’s 83 cubic feet of space, which is 20 cubic feet less than the Traverse and just a bit less than the Pilot.
We wouldn’t expect a car with the dimensions and weight of the Flex to be fun to drive, but it is relatively so, thanks to clever engineering and suspension black magic that minimizes the effort to move 4600 pounds around highways, towns, and parking lots. The Flex feels like a wagon, with fairly crisp steering and a compliant ride that only gets bouncy if you drive too fast in tight corners.
The electric power steering, hard-mounted to the chassis subframe, has a quick ratio. The steering loads up predictably, and there’s even a little feel of the road coming through.
The brakes have been improved with more surface area, a larger master cylinder, and sharper booster tuning, to give a stronger bite and more feel to the pedal.
The good powertrains deserve some credit for making the Flex stress-free. The base V6 brings 288 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque, enough to make acceleration adequate, while the 6-speed automatic shifts with grace. We’ve found that it performs best with simple front-wheel drive, because of the extra 200 pounds that comes with the all-wheel drive. If you need AWD, go for the V6 turbo that makes 365 horsepower.
That all-wheel-drive system is quite smart, with sensors that measure yaw, steering angle, and throttle. They work with the paddle-shifting 6-speed automatic transmission, which won’t upshift when you’re in a corner or climbing a hill. But if you ease off the throttle it will upshift.
The Flex has eminent charm, if you have the need. There’s no other vehicle quite like it. It’s a pure people-mover. With all-wheel drive and a hot turbocharged V6 with paddle shifters, it’s worthy of respect; and with the black appearance kit, it takes a step deeper into its own world. But it’s not cheap.
Sam Moses contributed to this report.