Although the crossover is a new automotive segment, automakers churned out enough boring designs to make it as homogeneous as the economy car segment. Smartly, Ford spun its own crossover with retro elements to give it a unique look, making it stand out yet retain practicality. The latest iteration of Ford's crossover, the 2010 Ford Flex SEL with EcoBoost, adds a new high-tech power train to the car, giving it power it doesn't necessarily need.
Ford's current cabin tech offerings are the best you can get, with a hard drive-based navigation system nicely integrated with traffic, weather, and gas price information. Unfortunately, our review model didn't come with that option, instead just having a six-CD player and radio interface in the dashboard, but that doesn't mean it didn't have navigation. The latest generation of Ford Sync, standard on the Flex SEL, offers a set of off-board services called Traffic, Directions, and Information. By connecting to cell phone, the system calls the 800 number for a telematics server that can send turn-by-turn directions to the car.
The Flex is one unique-looking crossover.
We took the 2010 Ford Flex SEL on a journey through the Pacific Northwest, with stops in Seattle and Portland. Previously having tested Ford's in-dash navigation system in the, we missed this option in the SEL, as having a map up on a big LCD makes navigation so much easier. Lacking the LCD, the Ford Flex relies on its monochrome radio display to show information from Sync, which includes music, phone, and route guidance information.
Sync navigation sinks
To compensate for the lack of a touch screen, Ford fits the Flex with four-way directional buttons to help navigate menus for the car's electronics. However, as the enter button is integrated with the tuning dial on the right, we found it easier to use the dial to scroll through phone book entries or an iPod music library. To make browsing music easier, Sync breaks up artist, album, and song listings into four chunks, letting the user drill down, for example, into a section with artists ranging from HAP to SEP, in alphabetical order. As our MP3 player contained 60 gigabytes of music, this organizational theme proved very useful.
The interface breaks up artist and album listings into more manageable chunks.
And as a feature of Sync, we could also just ask the system to play artists by name, a function of its voice command so far not replicated by any other automaker. Although we've used Sync's voice command in other cars over the last couple of years, it is still phenomenal how well it recognizes even the most difficult artist names. Similarly, Sync let us dial people in our paired phone's contact list just by saying their names. Thenow incorporates similar technology.
Although we used the MP3 player and cell phone aspects of Sync previously, the 2010 Ford Flex SEL presented our first opportunity to use the new Traffic, Directions, and Information service. We used only the system's navigation feature, and found it frustrating--just a trifle worse than GM's OnStar. Connecting through our paired phone to a voice recognition server, the off-board system had no problem understanding which city we named, but stumbled repeatedly on road names.
In our first attempt to use it for navigation, after a few tries we got it to find Dash Park Road, south of Seattle. It downloaded the route to the car, and the next turn showed up on the radio display, using a GPS chip in the car to determine the distance to that turn. As we followed the guidance, it took us on a completely unnecessary series of right turns that could have been avoided with one easy left turn. Further along, we intentionally went off the route to see what would happen. Similar to the way OnStar works, which we most recently tested in the, a voice notification told us we were no longer on the programmed route, and offered to download a new set of directions based on our current location.
The radio display shows Sync's turn-by-turn directions.
Our second attempt to use the system proved more frustrating, mainly from trying to enter our destination. This time, the street we wanted was South 176th Street, but we could not get the voice recognition system to understand that street name, and eventually had to give it the nearest cross street. The Seattle area may be a problematic area for Sync's navigation system, as streets and avenues go up to very high numbers, and are often prefaced with North or South.
One last note on the car's cabin tech: Ford's recent partnership with Sony for premium audio systems makes for a relatively inexpensive option that adds considerable value. With 12 speakers, including subwoofer and center channel, it does a good job of covering the capacious space inside the car. The amp is powerful enough to put the sound through the speakers without overwhelming. Most importantly, the system neatly stages the sound for all seating positions. We like the quality of this sound better than that produced by other premium systems in much more expensive cars.
In its standard configuration, the 2010 Ford Flex SEL seats seven passengers, but ours was equipped with twin bucket seats for the middle row, cutting the passenger capacity down to six. But that trade-off in capacity meant easier access to the third row seats; during a few trips we had the car filled to capacity with six adults and heard no complaints about comfort. The middle and third rows fold down for cargo room. With the third row up, cargo space is nearly eliminated.
Optional autofold seats in the middle row mean one less passenger but easier access to the third-row seats.
The 2009 Ford Flex came with only one choice for power, a 3.5-liter V-6 mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. For the 2010 model year, the SEL and Limited trims can be had with Ford's new EcoBoost engine. This is the same engine we tested earlier in the. EcoBoost models of the Flex also come with all-wheel-drive.
The EcoBoost engine uses direct injection and twin turbochargers to boost the power from the car's 3.5-liter V-6, while getting the same mileage as the standard, naturally aspirated V-6. The EcoBoost engine makes 355 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque, compared with the base V-6's 262 horsepower and 248 pound-feet--a substantial difference.
The EcoBoost engine incorporates direct injection and turbochargers to maximize efficiency.
That extra power is easily felt with the gas pedal, as a light tap makes the big Flex push forward hard. Although we were impressed by the available acceleration, and used it for passing maneuvers, merging with traffic, and climbing hills, it seemed like overkill, as the standard V-6 felt adequate for the 2009 Ford Flex we tested earlier.
However, the extra power from the EcoBoost engine could come in handy when using the Flex as a tow car, and it comes at no cost in fuel economy. Ford states the EPA fuel economy at 16 miles per gallon city and 22 mpg highway for the Flex with EcoBoost and the naturally aspirated engine. In our testing, we achieved an average of 19.9 mpg with a considerable amount of freeway driving thrown in. With the 2009 non-EcoBoost Flex, our average economy was 17.8 mpg.
Where the 2009 Flex had a six-speed automatic transmission with a low range, the 2010 Flex with EcoBoost has a six-speed automatic transmission with manual gear selection, and includes paddles on the steering wheel. We went through the gears for testing purposes, and found typical slushbox shifting, but didn't rely on it for the majority of our driving. The standard drive mode works seamlessly with the engine, and readily downshifted when we asked for its best acceleration.
The Flex's all-wheel-drive system isn't particularly sophisticated, but offers a little more grip than the standard front-wheel-drive version of the car. We had the Flex on some gravel roads, which included a winding ascent, and appreciated that it could throw torque to the rear wheels, especially useful under these conditions. Pushing it up those roads, we felt minimal slip from the wheels.
The 2010 Ford Flex SEL with EcoBoost proved to be an excellent car for the kind of vacation traveling we were doing. The lack of cargo space in the rear when the third-row seats are in use could be a problem for large families. From a design standpoint, we give the Flex high marks for its unique style, but fault it a little for the unnecessary directional buttons on the center stack. Fortunately, getting the navigation option solves that interface issue.
Likewise for the Flex's cabin tech, we weren't impressed by the Ford Sync navigation service, but the optional hard-drive-based navigation system makes up for that in a big way. In fact, not getting the navigation option means missing out on the traffic, weather, and fuel price data integrated with the maps. Beyond Sync's inadequate navigation, though, the Bluetooth cell phone and MP3 player integration still beats out anything else on the road today.
Finally, the new EcoBoost engine gives the Flex big points for performance tech. Although 19.9 mpg isn't spectacular mileage, the fact that it gets the same mileage as the base V-6 while adding more than 100 horsepower is truly impressive.
|Model||2010 Ford Flex|
|Trim||SEL with EcoBoost|
|Powertrain||Direct injection twin turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6|
|EPA fuel economy||16 mpg city/22 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||19.9 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional hard drive-based with traffic; standard through Sync Traffic, Directions, and Information|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||Single CD/DVD, MP3 compatible; optional six disc changer|
|MP3 player support||iPod, Zune, many others|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, internal hard drive, Bluetooth streaming, auxiliary input, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Optional 12 speaker Sony system|
|Driver aids||Standard sonar distance warning, optional rear view camera, optional self-parking system|
|Price as tested||$40,905|