If Ford hadn't made the Flex, would we have missed it? The Ford Explorer, after all, can carry seven people. The rather more expensive Expedition can carry eight. So is the Flex just a very different-looking crossover, created on a whim of a designer who favors straight lines, and a chassis engineer who enjoys turns?
Possibly. But that doesn't matter. This “van” is quite a revelation on the handling front (more on that later) so that the Dad and Mom who have been active on the procreative front can also have fun at the wheel. But the standard 263hp V6 does have to work hard once it has more than four people on board, and long inclines will have the gearbox changing down its six speeds to find the sweet spot of the torque curve which maxes out at 248lbft at 4500rpm.
Naturally enough, this becomes far less of a problem in the EcoBoost model. Not only does it receive twin turbos which increase its output to 355hp, it also produces its maximum 350lbft of torque over a frankly amazing range – 1500 to 5250rpm. When it does need to snick down a cog for a hill, the gearbox is smooth – which is in contrast to the kickdown, which does have a noticeable pause before selecting the suitable ratio. For fast undulating highways or freeways, I'd strongly recommend snicking the transmission into M, and utilizing the paddle-shifts thereafter, so you have your choice of using that torque or changing down manually to avoid the kickdown delay and have the power right there to pounce on that anticipated gap in traffic.
For those maneuvers, this is a quick car/van/crossover – call it what you will. That much is suggested by the 0-60 time of 6.5sec, which is around two seconds faster than the standard machine, and the paddle-shifts are quickfire pull-up, push-down. (Why don't all manufacturers do this, instead of down on left, up on right?). Used in this semi-auto form, I'd agree that, as trumpeted by Ford in its TV ads for the new Taurus SHO which has the same unit, a turbocharged V6 does indeed have a performance edge over similarly powered V8 rivals. The Flex EcoBoost's torque spread would allow it to pull a small trailer with ease, too, given its 4,500lbs towing capacity.
The other major benefits of having a turbocharged V6 instead of a normally aspirated V8 is the fuel economy which, despite the extra weight of all-wheel-drive (all EcoBoost Flexes are AWD) is EPA rated at 16/22mpg, the same as the unboosted model. But in the real world? Well, actually that sounds spot-on. At an indicated 78mph cruise – with occasional slow-downs, and jabs past cars – the car averaged 21.7mpg. Admittedly this was with just two bodies' worth of weight: it would be interesting to compare when utilizing all seven passenger berths.
But before hailing the end of the V8 and the encouragement of boosted V6s, there is a penalty: noise. The engine only sounds refined at speed: under acceleration, the 3.5-liter unit sounds like it's working hard, and it isn't a pleasant sound. If there was as much noise-suppressing material between engine bay and cabin as you'll find in the Lincoln MKS, it would be more tolerable…but there isn't.
That's an anomaly in a car that Ford appears to have made with refinement for all occupants very much in mind. The perforated leather upholstery – complete with heated front seats – is supple, the mixture of plastics and wood look good (though smaller items like the second-row cupholder drawer feel flimsy), there are adjustable pedals, and (this year) a steering wheel that adjusts for rake and reach, and the cabin is light and airy. Our example had the ($1495 option) Panoramic Vista roof, which means one large skylight at the front, two slender individual ones in the middle, and a solitary one over the third row.
The Sony stereo is fantastic, the sat-nav and dual zone climate control are easy to comprehend (touchscreen, mercifully) and the automatic park assist on our Limited model is… Well, I don't want to say it's unnecessary, but if a driver can't use the reversing camera and the sensors to parallel park, should he or she be driving at all?
While you wouldn't use the third row for long-legged adults, there's nothing claustrophobic about it for kids, who have not only light from their sunroof but also vast rear windows, and individual air-con outlets. And even with that rear seat up, there's enough trunk space for two large suitcases if they're stood on their ends, while all around the cabin there are plenty of holes and slots for the ephemera of family life.
If the family is up for it, though, the Flex is a credit to Vehicle Dynamics Engineer Louis Jamail who, 10 years ago, worked for Ford in NASCAR. (Many a Sprint Cup driver would probably wish he'd been responsible for the current breed of Cup car, but that's another story.) I can't think of a seven-seater that could keep up on twists, and doubtless the car's low center of gravity is partly responsible for this (the EcoBoost model gets dropped a further 10mm, by the way). But given the over-protective nature of the roll stability control, both the firming of the suspension and the consequent transmitting of thuds to the cabin seem unnecessary. Our car had the optional 20-in. wheels, so it would definitely be worth your while trying the 18in. or 19in. versions that are standard on lower trim levels.
Making it harder for the driver to exploit the chassis' fine handling is the laterally unsupportive nature of the seats and their shiny surface. Not many drivers want their left leg to be used to brace themselves while attacking second- and third-gear switchbacks. But perhaps that's being picky. How often will a Flex driver simultaneously have the space, location and inclination to throw their vehicle around? More important is the instant throttle response, the excellent feel and grading of the brakes, the control of dive under braking, and the superb traction from the all-wheel drive system. If you carry too much speed into a wet corner with a little too much steering lock to provoke understeer and then come off the gas abruptly and completely, you can feel the system and the RSC do its work to allow the car to go through the rest of the turn in a near-neutral fashion. It's a peculiar, if reassuring sensation, and gives the driver some idea of how to get the best from the Flex thereafter.
It's unusual for us to want to test a crossover, but given the excellent handling of the original, the idea of one with a 355hp engine appealed to us greatly. It still does, with only the engine noise in the first three gears as a drawback in this $42k car. The Flex Ecoboost is a truly original and enjoyable take on the seven-seater template. Ford should be kicking itself that Honda got in first with the “Respect the van” advertising slogan.