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Ford Flex: brilliant idea with bad timing

The 2009 Ford Flex has commendable sight lines as well as a vast interior, and it gets pretty good gas mileage too. The 2009 Ford Flex has commendable sight lines as well as a vast interior, and it gets pretty good gas mileage too. (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dan Neil
Los Angeles Times / July 12, 2008

In absolute terms, the Ford Flex is squarely brilliant. Here is a six- or seven-passenger kid hauler with none of the minivan stigma that so evidently traumatizes suburbanites. Actually, with its blacked-out roof pillars and "floating" white or silver roof, the Flex looks like the star of Roger Corman's "Attack of the 50-Foot Mini Traveler." How could this not be a Nobel-winning idea?

In terms of packaging - the art of putting the most usable space over the smallest footprint, carbon and otherwise - the Flex mops the garage floor with your typical full-size SUV, such as Ford's own Lincoln Navigator. The Flex offers about 83 cubic feet of cargo space - it's a pity children aren't cube-shaped - compared with about 103 for the Navigator. Meanwhile, the Flex weighs about 1,500 pounds less and rates 30 percent better fuel economy (17/24 miles per gallon, city/highway). For anyone with a big family who wants to downsize from an SUV - all those in favor, raise your empty wallets - the Flex compromise is pretty attractive.

Based on the Ford Taurus X platform - a large crossover, in other words - the Flex is, essentially, a super-size wagon, powered by a 3.5-liter, 262-horsepower V6 channeled through a six-speed automatic, with optional all-wheel drive. The Flex has fair to good acceleration, steady and predictable handling, civil and servile brakes, and the whole dynamic of the thing is served up with deep-piled serenity and a cottony ambience, thanks to a soundproofing program that includes use of acoustic glass.

In up-level trim, it has glassy roof panels over each seat position. It has an honest-to-Haagen-Dazs refrigerator between the vast second-row bucket seats. It has a voice-recognition multimedia system that will keep you updated on sports scores and schedules, weather, traffic, and will even direct you to the stations in the area selling the lowest-priced gasoline (that's the Ford-Microsoft Sync system with Sirius Travel Link service). The Flex does everything but diaper the dog and write your kid's term papers.

And yet, right about now, nobody cares. Such is the wholesale misery of $4-per-gallon gas. Such is the dysphoria that pervades the car market. Ford's June sales, for example, were down 28 percent.

Bear in mind that it takes anywhere from 20 to 36 months for a typical vehicle to reach market. Once the product development trajectory is set, it's virtually impossible to alter it if the target moves.

In the last year, unfortunately, the entire automotive world has been knocked off its axis, making almost every new car seem dumb, clueless, and irrelevant. But they aren't, or at least they weren't. When it debuted as a concept car in 2005 (then called the Fairlane), the Flex seemed conspicuously clever. A vivid bit of hyper-design, with postmodern insouciance combined with a kind of raw primitivism - the squared-off profile is what you'd expect a 4-year-old to draw with a fat crayon - the Flex brought the station wagon into the sardonic age. Compared to the dire brainlessness of something like the Nissan Armada, the Flex was practically avant-garde.

Oh, but now.

Maybe it's because I too work in a beleaguered industry, but my heart goes out to Ford on this one. The Flex brims with insightful details.

For instance, the door bottoms are chamfered, cut into the body in such a way to greatly reduce the step-in distance. The sight lines are tremendous. The interior is so spacious, so utterly airy that about the only people who won't like it are agoraphobics. And it actually does deliver pretty good mileage, considering that it's a virtual auditorium on wheels. If you don't think so, go out and shop for a more space-capable vehicle that receives better gas mileage. There just aren't many choices.

Here's my prognosis for the Flex.

It's too good a vehicle to be ignored entirely. It will scavenge minivan sales away from league leaders like the Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna (the redesigned Chrysler Town & Country never really achieved escape velocity). It will garner the attention of buyers with big families, and only those with big families. In the space of six months, the Flex has gone from mass-market vehicle to niche product.

I predict the Flex will be a hit in service fleets, converted into limousines, taxis, and hotel courtesy vehicles. The thing has more legroom than an old Checker cab.

And I predict the Flex, as good as it is, as on-point as it is, won't help Ford uncircle the drain. Things are tough all over.

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