If you're a fan of cars that look like boxes on wheels, there are a number of choices out there for you: the Honda Element, the first-gen Scion xB, and the Nissan Cube, for example. But if you're looking for something that's big and boxy, well, the obvious choice is the Ford Flex.
The Flex shares its platform with that of the new Ford Explorer, so it's no surprise to find that, when viewed from straight on, the two cars share a number of design elements. The wide F-Series-esque grill and a heavy use of chrome gives the vehicle visual weight, and the widely spaced "F L E X" badge on the leading edge of the hood wouldn't be out of place on a Land Rover.
The Ford Flex comes standard with a front-wheel-driven drivetrain layout. However, our example was equipped with the optional all-wheel-drive system that brings the rear wheels into the mix. Ford's all-wheel-drive system is noteworthy in that it is able to transfer up to 100 percent of available torque to the rear axle as needed, where most systems max out at a 50/50 split.
Ford markets the Flex as a large wagon, which it technically is. However, it's obvious (to me, at least) that we're really looking at an SUV or a CUV with below-average ground clearance for either of those classes. Whatever it is, the Flex offers plenty of interior space for passengers and cargo and looks like a gigantic pickle on wheels in ginger ale metallic green.
Motivating our 2013 Flex SEL AWD is a 3.5-liter, direct-injected V-6 engine that generates 287 horsepower and twists its crank to the tune of 254 pound-feet of torque. Drivers who need a bit more pep in their step can option an Ecoboost variant of this engine that is force-fed air via a turbocharger and bumps its output to 365 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque.
All Flex models are equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission that features a Sport program and a manual shift mode that is triggered by a small rocker switch that you probably won't notice is on the side of the shift lever. This is not optimal positioning for sporty shifting, but that's fine because nothing about the Flex indicates that you should even be attempting sporty driving.
While straight-edged and boxy styling adds to the Flex's exterior appeal, the right-angle heavy design seems plain and dull in the cabin. The lack of excitement isn't helped by the dull, cheap-feeling plastics that make up the bulk of the dashboard and the large swaths of empty space between the various levels (screen, audio controls, and climate controls) of the center stack.
Fortunately, what the Flex's interior lacks in visual excitement, it makes up with usability. We like the use of physical knobs for the volume and tuning controls and found the physical climate controls to be easy to understand at a glance.
Buttons on the steering wheel are laid out so that cruise controls sit on the left and side and audio and hands-free controls sit on the right. Just above these are a pair of directional pads that control the two MyFord displays in the instrument cluster. There are about as many buttons on the face of my favorite racing wheel for the Xbox 360.
The MyFord instrument cluster features a central speedometer, which is the only physical gauge on the dashboard. However, so much more data (or a bare minimum) can be displayed via a pair of LCDs that flank the speedo. The right gauge is dedicated to mirroring phone, audio source, and navigation (if equipped) data from the main LCD, while the left screen conveys a variety of fuel economy and trip computer information.
Spec the MyFord Touch option and the main LCD that you'll interface with is an 8-inch color touch screen. The home screen is split into four quadrants that display a snapshot of (clockwise from the top-right) hands-free calling, navigation/information, climate controls, and audio source data. In the corners of the screen, you'll also see persistent color-coded shortcuts to each of these functions.
The Flex is available with a Sony premium audio system that outputs 390 watts of power through 12 upgraded speakers in 10 locations (including a rear-powered subwoofer). Unfortunately, our Flex wasn't equipped with this system. We were saddled with a nonbranded, seven-speaker system of unspecified output that only sounds "good enough."
A rearview camera is optional on the Flex SEL, but you'd be foolish to not check that option box. Get it and you'll also gain audible proximity alerts when reversing. Consider also Ford's Blind Spot Information System (BLIS), which adds blind-spot obstruction monitoring at highway speeds and Cross Traffic Alerts when you're backing the Flex's long rear end out of a parking spot. Ford's amazing Active Park Assist system is not available on the Flex SEL; you'll have to step up to the Limited model for that.
Bluetooth hands-free calling has always been one of Ford Sync's stronger points, and the system present is the Ford Flex is no exception. In addition to offering great voice access to the contacts stored in your phone's address book, the Sync can also intercept incoming text messages and read them aloud. You can also choose a canned response to fire back at callers and texters to let them know that, for example, you're stuck in traffic or are too busy driving to reply.
Although the Flex features a set of physical climate controls, more detailed options are available via the MyFord Touch system. From this screen, you'll be able to adjust the temperature of your heated seats and adjust the rear zone climate controls (if available) independent of the two front passenger zones.
Our Flex was equipped with an Equipment Group 202A Value Package that includes a 110V AC power outlet for the cabin, the aforementioned rearview camera, a power liftgate, and a rear hatch applique that matches our tester's pickle-green body. This package also includes BLIS, leather seats with a power memory driver's seat, remote start, and the seven-speaker, midtier premium audio system.
All Flex models feature seating for up to seven passengers spread out across its three rows of seats. The second row features plenty of space for adults of average size, but I wouldn't want to cram my 5-foot-9-inch frame into the third row.
The power liftgate on the Ford Flex doesn't included the hands-free activation that we saw on the 2013 Escape and C-Max models, but I'd like to see that feature made available in the next revision of this model.