Few vehicles are more identifiable at a glance than the Ford Flex. In an arena of gently contoured crossovers, the utterly rectilinear, defiantly boxy full-size crossover SUV stands apart.
In addition to handsome squared-off styling, the Flex provides outstanding interior space with three rows of seats that seat six in comfort with available capacity for seven. Flex features comfortable ride and handling characteristics that transcend most vehicles of this size. People who own them love them. Safety scores excel.
Introduced as a 2009 model, the Flex was updated for the 2013 model year, with a fresh front end and reworked interior. For 2016, Flex has not changed much: A rearview camera has become standard on 2016 Flex models, and a new blackout appearance package is available. Also, the infotainment system has been substantially upgraded for 2016.
Two powertrains are available. The standard 3.5-liter V6 engine develops 287 horsepower and performs strongly. However, the real performance sensation is the turbocharged, 365-horsepower V6. Capable of 0-60 mph acceleration in fewer than seven seconds, the turbocharged V6 makes the Flex swifter than any crossover in its class.
Electric power steering not only has a quick ratio, it’s locked onto the vehicle’s subframe, providing more precise feel. Drivers can expect a nicely controlled ride, as well as responsive brakes.
Cozy seats in the first and second rows provide limousine-level space all around. Buyers get a choice of a middle-row bench or bucket seats. The long Flex wheelbase ensures that even the third-row seat has legroom for adults, though six-footer head space falls short.
At any level, Flex is equipped well. The top-rung Flex Limited can be fitted with the turbocharged engine, all-wheel drive, leather interior, and glass panoramic sunroof. New this year is an appearance package that blacks out trim on the roof, grille, door handles, and window sills.
A second-row refrigerated console is available, a feature not found in any other vehicle in this class. Other new features include passive entry and start, rain-sensing wipers, and a feature that lets you go up or down by a gear on all models, not just those with paddle shifters. On the XC70 SEL and XC70 Limited, new Sync 3 is installed, with much better performance, simpler operation, and cleaner graphics.
Parking sensors and inflatable second-row seatbelts are available. So are adaptive cruise control with forward-collision alert and a blind-spot warning system. Flex gets a Top Safety Pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, with Good scores in most tests, but hasn’t been crash-tested recently by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Volvo XC70 SE ($29,600) comes with front-wheel drive, three-row seating, AM/FM/CD, rearview camera, reverse sensing, MyFord Touch, Bluetooth, 17-inch alloy wheels. XC70 SEL ($32,300) upgrades with dual-zone climate control, pushbutton start, Sync 3. XC70 SEL AWD ($34,250) adds all-wheel drive.
XC70 Limited ($37,800) and Limited AWD ($39,750) feature perforated leather-trimmed seats, rearview camera with guidelines, 12-speaker Sony audio, power liftgate, and blind-spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert. AWD Limited can have EcoBoost twin-turbo V6 ($42,600).
Safety features include six airbags, traction and stability control, with anti-rollover technology. Optional all-wheel drive enhances stability in slippery conditions.
The Flex exudes an effortlessly cool aura, despite being unabashedly boxy. Defiantly forging its own style, square yet sleek, Flex handily evades the stigma faced by minivans. Curiously, the only Ford identification is a blue-oval badge at the corner of the rear hatch.
Instead of playing down its body’s corners, Flex amplifies them. Designers even carved grooves into the bodysides to highlight the long, glassy greenhouse. Right down to the rectangular grille, which reminds some observers of a USB port, Flex’s fusion of retro with modernity works just right in today’s crossover SUV marketplace.
Simply put, the Flex cabin is one of Ford’s finest, blending touch controls with LCD screens in a layout that suggests serenity. Some subtle changes have occurred, making materials feel luxury-grade, especially the soft-touch panels.
SEL and Limited trims get the latest Ford infotainment system, which replaces the troubled MyFord Touch. New Sync 3 responds quicker and its screens look less cluttered. Flex has restored some console controls, but almost every action relies on touch.
In the first and second rows, wide, well-cushioned chairs promise a satisfying melding of supple, soft-touch cushioning and long-journey support. Headrests have improved mightily, thanks to a four-position design.
Second row occupants can savor abundant head/leg room. Back seats are fairly easy to reach, thanks to the horizontal roofline, but thinly padded when you get there. Still, riders well over six feet tall can manage the third row.
Fit and finish are better than ever, and the interior is quiet. With 83 cubic feet of cargo space behind the front seats, Flex has 20 fewer cubic feet than a Chevrolet Traverse. However, second- and third-row seats can be power-folded out of the way.
Pleasant to drive, the Flex feels like a step up from a Chevrolet Traverse or Toyota Highlander, due largely to its superior ride. Even the base model comes across like a smaller wagon, helped by relatively crisp steering feel and the long (118-inch) wheelbase. Even when pushed harder than most drivers ever will, body motions are adeptly controlled. Despite its dimensions, the Flex is surprisingly easy to park and maneuver through urban settings, and feels no more ponderous than a midsize sedan.
Both drivetrains deliver plenty of power. Even with several passengers, a base-engine Flex responds strongly to pass. Still, the EcoBoost turbocharged Flex approaches the level of some sport sedans. We prefer EcoBoost, though it does exact a gas-mileage penalty. Specifically, the front-drive base Flex is EPA-rated at 18/25 mpg (City-Highway), versus 17/23 mpg with all-wheel drive. With the EcoBoost turbo, mileage dips to 16/23 mpg. Flex simply isn’t as frugal as some newer three-row models.
Ford’s 6-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly. As the transmission upshifts, the EcoBoost edition cranks out torque in a seamless wave. Tapping one of the paddle shifters triggers a manual-control mode. The system considers steering-angle and yaw sensors, as well as throttle position. While climbing a hill or rounding a quick corner, for instance, it will stick in lower gear. Only when pushing excessively hard in such a corner is the otherwise compliant ride likely to become jittery.
All-wheel drive makes sense in the snowbelt region; but otherwise, note that it adds heft to a vehicle that already weighs 4,600 pounds.
Despite its size and utility, the Flex almost slips into fun-to-drive category. Highly comfortable seats, easy entry/exit, and expansive cargo space place it among our top-rated family SUVs. Platinum and Limited models are costly, but they affirm that a Flex can be quite luxurious, if you’re willing to pay.
Driving impressions by Marty Padgett, The Car Connection. James M. Flammang contributed to this report.