Cars

Ford Flex a capable people-mover

It took mere seconds for my favorite grandson—hey, it’s easy to have a favorite grandchild when there’s only one—to notice there was something different in his seat belt.

Over the past year, he’s become independent and adept at fastening not only his own belt but also the one in the middle seating position when two adults squeeze into the second row alongside him.

So when he climbed into the rear seat of today’s test car, the 2013 Ford Flex, he piped up: “Papa. This seat belt is thicker. I need some help buckling it.”

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It’s thicker because it’s an inflatable seat belt, a technology Ford developed to increase safety for children and seniors, the two groups most likely to be riding in the second row of seats.

The belt is clearly thicker but not any more difficult to latch as the little guy soon figured out.

It is, however, among a slew of standard and available features that make the Flex a viable alternative to Ford’s midsize Explorer and Edge SUVs.

Perhaps more important, the Flex also is like the minivan Ford no longer offers, with its low step-in height, easy access to the third row, and unique styling. The Flex also offers all-wheel-drive, a feature available on only one minivan, the Toyota Siena.

In fact, for those who could use a minivan but vow they’d never be caught dead in one, the Flex is a hidden jewel and worthy choice.

Flex chief designer Richard Gresens was the guest speaker at a New England Motor Press Association (NEMPA) meeting at the Boston Globe at the time the vehicle was launched in the winter of 2008- 2009. He talked about the character lines on the side (still retained), two-box styling (also still the same), and his pride that Ford had been willing to try something different (also still the same).

However, early national reviews of the Flex were derisive, perhaps more a commentary on the automotive press than the vehicle itself.The commentary wasn’t quite as vitriolic as those for the ill-fated Pontiac Aztec but definitely caustic.

Being different in the automotive world is a risk fewmanufacturers take. Exhibit A: today’s cookiecutter cars. Ford took one risk with the Flex and another with its Sync/ MyFordTouch infotainment system. Because MyFordTouch was an across-the-board commitment, heads didn’t roll and improvements continue. Indeed, the system on the new Flex is a big step closer to what Ford had hoped the original would be. It’s still got a way to go, but the learning curve is easier, and current buyers should adapt to the system.

A few months after that Globe meeting, I had a question about the Flex and tried to contact Gresens only to learn he’d left the company, ostensibly as a reaction to the reviews.

A strange thing has happened since then, however. The Flex has developed a niche following, just as it was designed to do. Through eight months of 2012, Ford has sold 21,442 compared with 19,018 through eight months of 2011.

When I finally got one as a test ride a few years back, a group of automotive journalists joined me in taking it to Philadelphia on a business trip. It was a great vehicle, especially with the second-row captain’s seats that allowed six-footers easy access to the third row, and power outlets that allowed the passengers to work.

So it’s a tribute to Gresens’ legacy that Ford has significantly updated the Flex for 2013, giving it an even more cutting-edge design—especially the front fascia, which has a minimalist grille and body-colored bar with the traditional Ford blue oval removed and F L E X engraved in it.

The Flex isn’t cheap, but neither would be two comparable vehicles, the Ford Explorer and Honda Odyssey minivan.

Our Flex test ride was at the top of the midlevel price chart—an SEL all-wheel-drive— with an MSRP of $36,000 (including destination) and a long list of standard features. In fact, the only change we’d have made is add second-row captain’s chairs ($650), which make it a comfortable six-passenger vehicle (instead of seven). A $3,000 equipment group package added power liftgate, blind-spot and cross-traffic alerts, adjustable pedals, and memory leather seats. The inflatable rear seatbelts ($195) and voice-activated navigation system ($795) brought the bottom line to $39,990.

For a comparable vehicle, I’d measure it against the Acura MDX at roughly $48,000.

Our Flex was powered by the standard 3.5-liter V-6 that produces 287 horsepower and is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. In AWD form, it is rated at 17 mpg city and 23 highway. Our 330-mile test tank gave a 23.3 mpg rating.

This is my third experience with a Flex. The first intrigued me; I thought it was an interesting vehicle. The second impressed me. The third reinforced both feelings. This is an interesting alternative to those in the crossover-SUV-minivan market, offering most of the strong points of all three.

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