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2009 Ford Flex LTD AWD review:

2009 Ford Flex LTD AWD

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Two components make up the core of the Flex's cabin tech, Ford Sync and GPS navigation with Sirius Travel Link. The Ford Sync system lets you plug in an MP3 player, such as an iPod, Zune, or other, and it will make your full music library available on the big, 8-inch touch screen. You can also plug in a USB drive with MP3 tracks, and Sync will read the ID3 tags, giving you an interface similar to what you would get with an MP3 player. Voice command is singularly impressive with Sync, as you can say "Play Led Zeppelin," for example, and it will play all the tracks by Led Zeppelin it finds on the device. The same goes for genres and album names. We've tried some pretty obscure artist names with the system and, as long as we pronounce the name clearly, Sync gets it right. We did note that, when you first plug in a device, the Sync needs to index the music, a process that took more than 10 minutes with 50 gigabytes of music.

Sync works equally well with Bluetooth phones. It indexed our phone's contact list, letting us say the name of anyone we wanted to call, or select a name from the touch screen. The system can also read text messages sent to a phone, although the list of compatible phones for this feature is relatively small. Sync also can use a phone with Bluetooth streaming audio as a music device.

Gas prices are also fed to the car through Sirius Travel Link.

The voice command extends to the navigation, a system that stores its maps on a hard drive. As usual with hard-drive navigation, storage space is left over for music, so the Flex lets you rip CDs directly to its hard drive, applying the same organization and Sync-based voice command to this internal music library.

Sirius Travel Link works like steroids for the navigation. You can do all the usual navigation functions: enter an address and get route guidance. But Travel Link adds traffic information, gas prices, weather, and even movie times and sports scores. We tested the system's active traffic avoidance in the Mercury Mariner Hybrid earlier, and found it does a good job of finding detours around traffic incidents, proactively warning about problems that arise on your route.

The weather reporting feature can warn of bad weather on your route, and includes a nationwide radar map, showing areas of rain and snow. The gas price feature is our favorite, as you can see the per-gallon price for all gas stations near by your location. It lets you organize them by price or distance, and set a destination just by touching any particular gas station entry on the list.

Under the hood
The cabin tech is as cutting-edge as it gets, but the performance tech merely keeps the 2009 Ford Flex equal with competitors from Europe and Japan, if you can say that the quirky Flex has any competitors. Ford's 3.5-liter V-6 uses variable valve timing on its intake, squeezing a healthy 262 horsepower out at 6,250 rpm and 248 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 rpm. But its six-speed automatic rarely lets you get up to those engine speeds, shifting high to help out the fuel economy. A full load of passengers and cargo will increase the weight of the 4,640-pound Flex substantially, which is where those horsepower and torque figures will help out.

The Flex's spacious interior and easy driving capabilities make it a good family vacation cruiser.

In our testing, we found the Flex to be an easy driver, if a bit bland. To overcome the transmission's high shift points, you will have to lead foot it for merging and passing maneuvers, but the Flex cruises without hassle. The transmission has a low range, but that's only suitable for steep grades or slippery surfaces at low speeds. All normal driving is handled by the Drive mode, with no option for manual gear selection.

As such, we didn't attempt any kind of sport driving with the Flex, taking it easy on mountain roads. The power steering is hydraulic as opposed to electric, which Ford promises it will begin adopting as a fuel-saving measure in most of its models by 2012. The steering is reasonably tight, with just enough play for comfortable freeway cruising.

The car's low stance makes it feel much less top-heavy than a traditional SUV, although it's still a lot of bulk to move around. The ride quality is particularly nice, with the independent suspension absorbing most of the bumpiness we drove across. Our test car was an all-wheel-drive version, which should give it a traction advantage in the slippery stuff but made no real difference on our dry California roads. The Flex can also be had in front-wheel-drive format.

The 3.5-liter V-6 is transversely mounted, designed to primarily power the front wheels, although this is the all-wheel-drive version.

The EPA rates the Flex at 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway. Our combined total came in at 17.8 mpg, which wasn't a particularly great showing. We've heard others report mileage of over 22 mpg for extensive highway driving, but start-stop traffic brings that number down pretty fast. More impressive is the Flex's ULEV II rating from the California Air Resources Board, a good rating for a car that can transport seven.

In sum
The base price for an all-wheel-drive 2009 Ford Flex in Limited trim is $36,555. Our major options were the Panoramic Vista Roof for $1,495, navigation system with Sirius Travel Link for $2,375, and refrigerator for $760. Various other options and the $700 destination charge brought the total up to $43,820. Although no vehicles look much like the Ford Flex, its closest competitors are the Mazda CX-9 and the Dodge Journey, but both come substantially short on the cabin tech by comparison.

We give the Flex very high marks for its cabin tech--Sync and Sirius Travel Link are two of the most useful applications going for cars. Performance is merely OK, as the car does what it's supposed to but doesn't reach beyond in any significant manner. As for design, we give the exterior high marks for its bold looks. Some people may hate it, but the looks are distinct in a good way.

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