Boxy is in, according to Ford, anyway, as the 2009 Ford Flex looks like an '80s Volvo that swallowed a. Ford considers the Flex a crossover, although station wagon more immediately comes to mind. But unlike a station wagon, the Flex isn't a sedan that lacks a trunk. And unlike a crossover, it doesn't mimic an SUV. There are a lot of things that the Flex isn't, but what it has is more relevant. It has very roomy interior, with seating for seven. It has more sunroofs than anything short of a van conversion has a right to. Its roof is surprisingly low, yet the seating position is still upright. And it has Ford's new in-dash tech package, including Sync and Sirius Travel Link, putting it at the top of the car technology pile. And it has an audio system designed by Sony, the first result of a new partnership between the big electronics maker and Ford.
Test the tech: Sony sound check
Because Sony is such a notable name in the electronics world, we tested out the Sony-branded audio system built for the Ford Flex by giving a close listen to different musical genres. This system delivers 700 watts of surround sound through 10 speakers, including a centerfill and subwoofer, which should be adequate to fill the roomy cabin. For our test we set the bass, treble, and mid at the same middle level, and set the digital signal processing to cover all the seats and use surround sound.
Sync lets us play lossless music off of a Zune MP3 player.
We had a Microsoft Zune plugged into the Sync system, and played a few lossless tracks as well as songs encoded in MP3 format at 320 Kbps and 128 Kbps. As we would expect, the lossless tracks showed the most dramatically good audio quality. On the song "Sweet Music," by The All Seeing I, we heard subtle sound effects of birds chirping in the background, something we hadn't noticed while listening to this track on other systems. The bass was also strong and the separation was very good, making a background layer with a drum machine distinct. But one problem we found was that all these instruments sounded kind of flat, a quality that could be remedied by tweaking bass and treble.
Moby's "Raining Again," encoded at 320 Kbps in MP3, also sounded flat overall. But it was easy to hear individual sounds and instruments, coming up with the same good separation as the previous track. On this one, the drums produced a very nice snap.
Another lossless track, Leonard Cohen's "Here It Is," featured a strong vocal. On this song, we also noticed nicely layered backup vocals, something that would have been lost on a lesser system. But we also found the bass a little overwhelming, which drowned out some light percussion on the track.
The Sony brand name finds it way into the Ford Flex.
We tried a couple of classical pieces encoded at 128 Kbps, an orchestral work by Bach and a solo piano track by Rachmaninoff. The piano was very distinct--we could hear the reverberations of the strings--but it lacked richness. The Bach concerto was the worst of all the tracks we tried, the flat sound keeping the violins and woodwinds from standing out in any significant way.
With these and other music we tried, we were very impressed by how distinct each instrument could come through. The flatness was very prevalent, and we had to resist the urge to tweak the bass and treble up, something we generally do with any car audio system. Overall this Sony system showed impressive audio quality, something that's nice to have with such a capable stereo.
In the cabin
As the Limited trim model, our 2009 Ford Flex was fitted out with leather seats and wood trim, quality interior elements that gave the cabin a touch of class. But there was also still evidence of hard, cheap-looking plastics here and there, such as on the speaker grilles and some of the switch gear. Ford also favors a chunky-looking interior design that we don't find particularly pleasing.
The unique exterior of the Flex seems to have encouraged Ford to offer some distinctive interior options. The Panoramic Vista Roof option means the Flex has four sunroofs. The driver and front passenger get a powered sunroof, the middle row gets two fixed-roof windows side-by-side, and the third row gets a single, larger fixed-roof window. All of this glass, including the large side windows, means a lot of light, but screens can be pulled over all the sunroofs.
Sirius Travel Link provides traffic information, one of the must useful features of the Flex's cabin tech.
Our test car also had the rear-seat refrigerator, which Ford says can hold seven 12-ounce cans. A switch on the refrigerator says Freeze, but after driving around for an hour with it on, our water bottle remained liquid, although it was very cold. Ford says the refrigerator brings liquids down to 41 degrees.
Although our car didn't have a rear entertainment system option, we are very impressed that you can choose ceiling-mounted or headrest-mounted DVD systems, the latter giving you two screens. Even more impressive, the ceiling-mounted single screen system isn't exclusive of the Panoramic Vista Roof, so you can have it all.
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 theearlier, 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.
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 and the , 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.