This isn't the first time that we've had a Ford Flex in the Car Tech garage. However, the boxy beasts are so rare in the areas surrounding CNET's San Francisco offices that it's easy to forget how large and imposing this vehicle is in the sheet metal. So, I was taken aback when I rounded a corner of the Car Tech garage and was greeted by the wide and long hunk of steel that is the 2013 Ford Flex SEL AWD.
Boxy body and storage space
Depending on where you're getting your information, the Flex is either a gigantic wagon, a large crossover, or an SUV with lower-than-average ground clearance. Long, low, and wide, the Flex's true nature is betrayed by its underpinnings, the D4 platform, which it shares with the Ford Explorer, fairly solidly planting this vehicle in the crossover class as far as I'm concerned.
Visually, the Flex makes heavy use of 90-degree angles in its design with a very upright green house and flattened ends that are contrasted with long horizontal accent lines that run down the sides of the vehicles and across its grille and liftgate. To my eye, she looks something like the offspring of a Mini Cooper, a Land Rover LR4, and -- thanks to our tester's ginger ale metallic green paint -- a large dill pickle.
The boxy shape allows plenty of room for passengers, and the Flex seats up to seven passengers in its standard configuration. However, opt for the $100 second-row console and that capacity drops to six seats.
If you're not transporting a Partridge family's worth of people, the Flex also offers a massive amount of configurable storage space. With all of the seats in their upright position, you've got 20 cubic feet for your groceries and the like. Fold the third row flat and you've got 43.2 cubic feet -- about enough space for a bike or other sports equipment. Fold the second row flat and you've got a massive 83.2 cubic feet of space behind the driver's seat, so you could actually fit a medium-size refrigerator inside of your refrigerator-shaped Flex if you needed to.
Our Flex was equipped with a power liftgate that came as part of a 202A value equipment package. However, the Flex's liftgate is not hands-free like the ones that you get on the 2013 Escape and C-Max. I'd like to see that option added at some point in the Flex's future.
With all of that vehicle hanging out behind the driver's seat, you're probably going to need some tech to help you avoid backing it into something. The rearview camera isn't standard, but it should be. Ours came as part of the aforementioned 202A package and included audible rear proximity detection. That same package included Ford's Blind Spot Information System (BLIS), which is another must-have for congested city driving. This system watches the blind spots at the rear quarters of the vehicle for obstructions at highway speeds and beeps if you attempt to merge into another car. BLIS also features a Cross Traffic Alert system that audibly notifies the driver of vehicles approaching from the sides when reversing the Flex's big ol' booty out of a parking space.
Drivers who want help with parallel-parking the long and low Flex should step up to the Limited trim level and option the automaker's amazing Active Park Assist system, which largely automates the shuffling of the Flex into streetside parking by taking over the electronic power-steering rack after using the BLIS system's sonar sensors to automatically measure out a properly sized space. We've seen this system in action in the Ford Focus Titanium, Ford Escape Titanium, and various Lincoln models, so check out those reviews for more details.
Finally, as part of that same 202A package our Flex SEL featured an optional panoramic vista roof that opens up the second and third rows to a bit more sunlight.
Settle into the Ford Flex SEL's 10-way power-adjustable driver's seat and you'll be greeted first by the MyFord instrumentation sitting just ahead of you. This mostly digital gauge cluster features only one physical dial, for the speedometer. Flanking the speedo are a pair of color LCDs that can display a customizable amount of auxiliary data. The left screen is home to the fuel economy and trip computer data, while the right screen is where you'll find data relevant to the current audio source, hands-free call, or turn-by-turn navigation information, if so equipped. These screens are controlled by a pair of directional pads on the steering wheel and are surprisingly intuitive, giving access to a ton of data -- or a bare minimum of it.
Ford Sync is the Flex's voice command system for hands-free calling and audio playback from a connected USB drive (MP3) or iPod device, and is standard on the Flex SEL. However, our model was equipped with the Sync with MyFord Touch system, which places a large, 8-inch LCD at the top of the center stack.
This interface is familiar to us and features a four-quadrant layout with persistent touchable shortcuts at the screen's four corners for the phone system or navigation or vehicle information depending on the option chosen, climate controls, and audio and entertainment sources. The phone options bear further exploration here because, in addition to the standard hands-free calling system with Sync's excellent voice command, MyFord Touch adds the options to have incoming text messages read aloud while you drive, for canned SMS responses to be fired off to incoming callers and texters, and for a Do Not Disturb mode to prevent any of that from distracting you while you drive.
Navigation isn't standard, but can be added by purchasing a navigation SD card from your dealer and popping it into an SD card slot. Our vehicle was not thusly equipped, but again, you can get an idea of what to expect by checking out our review of the 2013 Ford Escape, which uses an identical system.
Peek into the center console and you'll find a pair of USB ports, which allow MyFord Touch to read USB storage for MP3s and photos when parked. However, there's another trick that you can pull off with those USB ports. Plug in a USB 3G/4G dongle from your wireless data carrier to transform you MyFord Touch-equipped vehicle into a rolling Wi-Fi hot spot with in-car sharing and connectivity to the Internet -- great for road trips if you can afford the data.
Although the Flex is available with a Sony premium audio system that features eight speakers (one of which is a powered subwoofer) and 450 watts of total amplification, our model was only equipped with a midtier, seven-speaker premium audio system of unspecified branding and unspecified output. Audio quality is good, but not stellar. Having heard the Sony system in other Ford vehicles, it seems like the sure bet for drivers who like it loud.
The Ford Flex's standard power train starts with a 3.5-liter V-6, direct-injection 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, but to do so, you'll need to also step up to the more expensive Limited trim level.
Regardless of the engine the power must pass through a six-speed automatic transmission on its way to the wheels. This gearbox features a Sport program that is activated by pulling the shift lever one position beyond "D" and a manual shift mode activated by small rocker switch on the side of the shift lever. Don't bother with either; they're essentially worthless on a vehicle the size of the Flex.
All-wheel drive is available for the 3.5-liter naturally aspirated model and is standard on the EcoBoost. Ford's system is able to shuffle 100 percent of torque to either axle to keep the Flex moving in the right direction, rather than the 50/50 split that we're used to seeing on most crossovers. This system also features Ford's Torque Vectoring Control and Curve Control technology, which we saw on the 2013 Escape. Curve Control helps to rein in excess speed when entering a curve with measured automatic braking. Torque Vectoring Control helps to shift power laterally along the drive axles to enhance grip when exiting the corner.
Fuel economy for our 3.5-liter AWD SEL model is estimated by the EPA at 17 mpg in the city, 23 mpg on the highway, and 19 combined mpg. I was unable to get a final estimate because a certain Ford Country Squire lover and host of CNET ON CARS became enamored of the Flex Wagon and disappeared with it, never to be heard from again.
The bottom line on the spec sheet included with our big green pickle came to $41,935. That includes the $35,175 base price for the 2013 Ford Flex SEL with AWD and an $825 destination charge. The as-tested price also includes $3,000 for the Equipment Group 202A package that adds a number of options, $650 to add an Auto-Fold feature to the second row of seats, $100 for the second-row center console, and $195 to add airbags to the second row's seat belts. Finally, there's also a $1,595 charge for the panoramic glass roof, and $395 to paint the roof white.
For that price, you're above the entry point for a Toyota Highlander Hybrid, which easily trounces the Flex's 14 city mpg with a Hybrid Synergy Drive-augmented 28 mpg, but to match the Flex's price, you'll be stuck with an entry-level Hybrid model that can't necessarily compete with a loaded-up Flex SEL where convenience and driver aid tech are concerned.
To get the most out of the Flex, it is my opinion that you'll need to step up to the Limited trim level, which starts at $41,180. (Whether you spring for the EcoBoost, an extra $3,150, is entirely up to you.) Add $2,500 for its 301A Equipment Group which, along with the features standard on the Limited, gets you the rear camera, the BLIS system with Cross Traffic Alert, Ford's amazing Active Park Assist system, and Adaptive Cruise along with pretty much every other cabin tech option you could want for a total (including destination charge) of $44,505. At this point, you're dangerously deep into Infiniti JX35 AWD price range, but I think that if you're looking for a vehicle this large, it's money well spent.
|Model||2013 Ford Flex|
|Power train||3.5-liter V-6, six-speed automatic, all-wheel drive|
|EPA fuel economy||17 mpg city, 23 mpg highway, 19 mpg combined|
|Observed fuel economy||n/a|
|Navigation||Available, not equipped|
|Bluetooth phone support||Ford Sync standard|
|Disc player||Single-slot CD|
|MP3 player support||Standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, 2x USB connection, Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod connection|
|Other digital audio||SiriusXM Satellite Radio|
|Audio system||7-speaker premium audio|
|Driver aids||BLIS blind-spot monitoring with Cross Traffic Alert, rearview camera with proximity alert|
|Price as tested||$41,935|