Driven: 2013 Ford Flex Limited EcoBoost AWD
By Brandon Turkus
May 01, 2012
—Rochester Hills, Michigan
There comes a stage in life where the family man (or woman) needs more space, thanks to the addition of an extra child(ren). This may mean the sacrifice of the trusty sports sedan (which in turn supplanted the sportscar when the first children began arriving). This is a fairly bleak proposition to the driving enthusiast, as the list of involving six- and seven-passenger vehicles is disturbingly sparse.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with minivans or other family friendly vehicles, per se. We like the versatility afforded by minivans just fine. We can’t deny that with the exception of a few, though, six- and seven-passenger vehicles aren’t exactly fun to drive. Unless you buy a Ford Flex with the mighty EcoBoost (biturbocharged) engine. After a week with this sports tank, we’ve decided that having more than two youngsters running about might not be so bad for a gear-headed parent.
Before we get on to talking about just how much fun the EcoBoosted Flex is to drive (hint: it’s a blast), let’s be honest about why someone might be buying this thing: it’s big, and comfortable, and packed full of technology.
The size is immediately apparent. At almost 17 feet long, and with a wheelbase pushing 10 feet, the Flex is not a small vehicle. Yet, it’s smaller than many of its CUV and minivan competitors, like the Honda Odyssey and Chevrolet Traverse (if only by a few inches).
Inside though, the Flex is absolutely cavernous. Second-row passengers are treated to legroom that dwarfs either of the vehicles mentioned above, with 44.3 inches compared to 40.9 and 36.8 for the Honda and Chevy, respectively. Third-row passengers are well catered for as well, although there isn’t quite as much space as in the Odyssey.
In practice, we had little complaint with the accommodations. We had no issues getting comfortable in the second row captain’s chairs, and the inclusion of a chillbox in place of a center seat was the sort of luxury feature normally reserved for executive limousines. In this case we’re guessing that the bubbly it chills will be soda rather than champagne, of course.
Even the third row wasn’t a bad place to spend some time. Your long-legged, six-foot-one-inch author had no qualms about spending time in the back row, as both head and legroom were quite impressive. It's nice to see a manufacturer build a third row that doesn't violate the Geneva Convention.
There was a sense of luxurious practicality built into the Flex as well. Both second and third row seats had electronic controls for raising and lowering, making it easy to reconfigure the cabin for various pieces of cargo. We were especially fond of the power-folding second row, which gave us a wide pass through to the very back, and limited the usual array of body contortions needed to get back there.
The real place to be was the front seats, though. These leather-wrapped, heated and air-conditioned thrones were a fine place to whittle away the miles. There was an excellent blend of support and outright comfort and, with ten-way adjustability, it was simple to find a relaxing seating position. Power tilt-and-telescopic steering also helped, as did the adjustable pedals (a feature that we wish more manufacturers would include).
We have to salute Ford for finally making some improvements to the MyFord Touch system. The upgrades, rolled out for the 2013 Taurus and Flex improved performance considerably. The system was far more responsive to touch commands, and no longer required multiple presses to access the systems. It even seemed like the Sync voice command system was more willingly cooperative.
In terms of tech, there was no shortage here. Our Limited trim came standard with blind spot monitoring, push-button keyless ignition, a rear-view camera, heated front seats, and a few other goodies. Our tester was also upgraded to the 303A group, which netted us paddle shifters, active park assist, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, a power-folding third row, and air-conditioned seats. Yes, we were very comfortable.
The Flex’s heart and soul lies under the hood, where the 3.5-liter, biturbocharged V-6 from the Taurus SHO drives all four wheels.
We’ve liked Ford's EcoBoost engines in every vehicle we’ve tested them in (examples are here
, and here
), and the Flex was no exception. With a reasonably low torque peak at 3500 rpm, it delivered its 350 pound-feet in big, fat helpings. There wasn’t much in the way of turbo lag, so we got a broad, uninterrupted stream of power.
Scampering away from red lights was a hoot, with sprints to 60 mph happening in the 6.5-second range. There was even a nice hearty growl pumped from the dual exhausts, to let other road users know this was no ordinary family car.
The Flex was good fun on the surface streets, but the real joys started when we merged onto the highway. The 365-horsepower Flex was able to shoot from 50 or 60 miles per hour to triple digit speeds with alarming frequency and ease. In fact, we’d say this big vehicle didn’t really start to find its legs until north of 70mph. It was an absolute riot.
For those that have things to haul, the Flex has a maximum towing capacity of 4500 pounds. That is lower than the Chevrolet Traverse’s 5200-pound rating.
Helping out with the speed was a six-speed automatic transmission. This trans did a fine job of delivering fast, intense shifts at speed, but was also perfectly at home around town. Driven like a normal vehicle, the slushbox returned unobtrusive performance, swapping cogs with little to no indication outside of a momentary interruption of power.
When we felt frisky, though, we switched to the Flex’s steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. We tested the paddles a few times, and while it was nice to have control over the gearbox, we hardly found it necessary to truly enjoy what the Flex had to offer.
The Flex had the ride befitting of a big family vehicle, and was able to soak up bumps and imperfections with little complaint. There was little suspension float, and even roll, despite the Flex’s shape, was neatly controlled. What really struck us was the level of highway stability on offer in the Flex. At (and well north of) highway speeds, the Flex tracked straight and true, even over rougher patches of pavement. As a test to just how cosseting the ride is, we took some notoriously speed-sensitive family members for a blast down the freeway, and it was only when they asked why other cars were going so slow that we told them just how quick we were going.
We did have a few qualms with the Flex. The biggest one was the amount of wind noise generated at around 70 mph. It wasn’t a quiet car in this regard, thanks in no small part to its boxy shape. This was a minor complaint though, easily addressed by turning up the radio (or, you know, slowing down).
Our bigger issue was one of economy. At 16 miles per gallon in the city, there are more frugal vehicles on sale. Even the projected 23 highway mpg raised some eyebrows. For those with an eye towards economy, our Limited trim Flex is also available with a naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V-6 and front-wheel drive. This powertrain bumps economy up to 18 city and 25 highway. Plus, we can’t help but feel that the 18.7-gallon fuel tank is a bit on the smallish side (the Honda Odyssey has a healthy 21-gallon tank, while the Chevrolet Traverse gets 22 gallons).
When we wrote about the seven-passenger Kia Sorento
last week, we specifically mentioned why someone might buy this over a traditional minivan; there needed to be a willingness to sacrifice functionality/versatility for a superior driving experience and good looks. The same reasoning can certainly be applied to the Flex, although we think the answers are a little bit more obvious. As we said at the beginning of this story, the Flex is for the person who’s growing family necessitates something larger than a sports sedan, but isn’t willing to give up driving fun. If you are the sort of person that needs a car to put a smile on your face, tow a boat, and haul the family about, then Ford has got something for you.
VS: Chevrolet Traverse
Because of the way the Flex straddles the SUV/CUV/minivan spectrum, there are no shortage of potential competitors. We’ve chosen two of the most popular here.
The Traverse is a solid alternative, although it lacks much of the verve of the Flex.
There are drawbacks to the Traverse, though. The interior is beginning to show its age, while the Flex was just updated for this model year. The tech suite in the Ford is also lightyears ahead. Our tester was outfitted with adaptive cruise control, park assist, blind spot monitoring, forward collision warning, an advanced voice command system (Sync), bi-xenon headlamps, air-conditioned seats, and electric-folding second and third row seats, none of which are available on Traverse.
While it seems like low-hanging fruit, we need to point out the power discrepancies here. The Traverse’s 3.6-liter V-6 produces 288 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque, compared to 365 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque in the Flex. The Traverse is also 4925 pounds, compared to 4839 in the Flex. The Chevy is able to tow more, with a 5200-pound rating compared to the Flex’s 4500-pound rating.
The Traverse is cheaper though, with a top-spec LTZ all-wheel-drive model starting at $40,885, roughly $3500 cheaper than our Flex.
VS: Honda Odyssey
We crowned the Odyssey the winner of our three-way minivan comparison
last summer, so it’s only natural that we’d pick it to throw down with the Flex. This one’s a lot closer than the Ford and the Chevy from above.
The Odyssey packs much of the same equipment into its versatile body, and at roughly the same cost (a top-spec Touring Elite starts at $43,825). In fact, the Odyssey TE even packs some stuff that the Ford doesn’t, like a huge rear-seat entertainment system.
Like the Traverse, the Odyssey doesn’t stand a chance in terms of performance or driving dynamics. Its 248 horsepower engine is uninspired, especially in the face of the 365-horsepower EcoBoost found in the Flex. Still, that lower performance results in higher fuel economy, with the Odyssey netting 28 highway miles per gallon.
2013 Ford Flex Limited EcoBoost AWD
Engine: Biturbocharged V-6, 3.5 liters, 24v
Output: 365 hp/350 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 6.2 sec (est)
Weight: 4839 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 16/23 mpg
Base Price: $44,330