Driven: 2010 Ford Flex EcoBoost—The Flattop Flexes its Muscles
By Rex Roy
August 03, 2009
Ford Motor Company talks about its Plan For Sustainability at nearly every major product press conference. The plan highlights how FoMoCo will deliver vehicles that people will want to drive while meeting the government's new CAFE and emissions regulations. Greenies and government types rejoice when they hear phrases like "enhanced sustainability," and "reduction in carbon consumption."
What’s truly important are the facts, not the blather, and Ford's plan is reasonable because it's technology- and fact-based. Its strategy employs using smaller displacement engines to help boost fuel economy. But Ford knows that Americans want performance, so these smaller engines will feature turbocharging and direct fuel injection to boost power. Eco and Boost…get it?
Winding Road has already fielded reviews on the Lincoln MKS, Lincoln MKT, and Taurus SHO running the EcoBoost 3.5-liter V-6. In these applications, Ford used the high-horsepower V-6 (355 horsepower in the Lincolns and 365 in the SHO) where they would have before fielded a V-8. Powertrain performance felt uncompromised in these applications, so no little cans of tomato juice were suddenly needed.
Because of our previous experience, when Ford asked if we wanted to drive the 2010 Flex with EcoBoost, we wondered what would make the trip out to Colorado worth it. The product spoke for itself.
Ford engineered and positioned the Flex with EcoBoost as a reasonable alternative for current SUV drivers looking to downsize without compromising too greatly. Many drivers of full- and mid-size SUVs are beginning to recognize that they overbought when they purchased their Suburban, Sequoia, Armada, Yukon, Expedition, Durango, or some other body-on-frame, V-8 powered pachyderm. These classes of vehicles are shedding owners like cockroaches fleeing a burning restaurant. Not every person behind the wheel of a full-size SUV needs three or four tons of towing capabilities, and these days, nobody wants the lousy mileage.
With standard seating for six or seven and the ability to tow as much as 4500 pounds, the Flex with EcoBoost meets the needs of most driver with little difficulty while delivering fuel economy of 16 mpg city, 22 mpg highway. For the record, a Chevrolet Tahoe with a 5.3-liter V-8 gets 14/20 mpg, while the Toyota Sequoia achieves only 13/16 mpg with their 4.7-liter V-8.
So a V-6 gets better mileage than a V-8. Big deal. Well, it is when the V-6 also out powers the V-8s by a significant margin. With EcoBoost, the Flex produces 355 horsepower to the Chevy's and Toyota's 310. As with it's other EcoBoost applications, Ford made all-wheel drive standard on the Flex. This distribution of power eliminated any torque steer while adding valuable traction in bad weather and on slick boat ramps.
Knowing they had the advantage, the Ford PR machine plied their craft by providing an opportunity to drive all three vehicles through a mountainous area of Colorado at altitudes from 4000 to 7000 feet. With trailers weighing over a ton, the turbo Flex literally ran away from the oxygen starved, altitude-sick V-8s. The EcoBoost's flat torque curve of 350 pound-feet from 1500-5250 rpm helps explain the advantage. With the turbos spinning, thin air isn't an issue for the Ford. Throttle response felt as good up in the clouds as it did at sea level.
Without the trailer, the Flex felt decidedly non-truckish. Subtle suspension tweaks compared to the non-boosted Flex improved the crossover's handling. Your eyes will recognize the slight drop in ride height (10 mm or about four-tenths of an inch for the metrically challenged), while your hinny will sense the stiffer springs (12-percent) and increase in damping rates (20-percent). These and other more subtle changes help tighten the Flex's motions without ruining its ride. Roll is more controlled, and because of the vehicle's overall height, the change is easily noted and welcomed.
A long discussion with a Ford chassis engineer revealed that the Flex with EcoBoost doesn't actually roll less than an MKT with EcoBoost, it just rolls through its suspension travel differently. The Flex resists the movements more adamantly at first, but ultimately, the Flex will roll as far as the MKT. The changes reinforce each brand's on-road character, with the Lincoln being smoother and more luxurious.
The Flex's steering response is also improved thanks to refinements made its electric power assisted steering (EPAS). This motor-on-the-rack system is among the best we've driven, and it provides accurate torque feedback for a good feel. It's certainly not the equal of an unboosted Lotus Elise, but the Flex steers far better than a Toyota Prius or Honda Insight (two other vehicles with electric assist).
The electric box also gave Ford engineers the ability to provide driver aids such as Pull-Drift Compensation. On roads with a heavy crown, or when driving on open interstates in steady cross winds, the electric power steering subtly helps the driver maintain a straight vector without the need to fight the steering wheel.
Most drivers won't notice the Pull-Drift at work, but if these same drivers ever need a hand parallel parking, the EPAS helps give Ford one of the best self-park systems in the business. With it you troll past a parking space so the Flex can measure the space to be sure it can fit. At the Flex's cue, put the gearbox in Reverse and take your hands off the wheel. The EPAS then energetically spins the steering wheel to aim the tires in the right direction. You continue to operate accelerator and brake as the Flex steers itself into place. Voilla! Your passengers will be either amazed or terrified. You will appear brilliant when you tell them that they are witnessing the earliest steps toward self-driving cars.
The flattop Flex gives disenchanted SUV buyers a workable alternative, while also providing a vehicle of refuge for drivers tired of minivans. After a slow sales start, the market is realizing what the Flex offers. Sales numbers are way up, and with the addition of the EcoBoost engine, the trend should continue.
The Flex's best-matched competitors are the Lambda-based GM crossovers; the Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia, Chevy Traverse, and Saturn Outlook. The Flex has all four covered in terms of available power and towing capabilities, plus Flex offers some features (like SYNC and a rear-seat refrigerator) that are absent on the GMs. Prices for the boosted Flex begin at just under $37,000.