- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2008

The 2009 Ford Flex is:

A. The return of the traditional American station wagon.

B. A vehicle concept that failed in the marketplace.

C. A trendy, stylish and practical crossover utility vehicle.

D. All of the above.

If you answered “D,” you’ve nailed the essence of this all-new vehicle. It has the potential to tilt buyers back to Ford, which has been struggling to broaden its image from that of a manufacturer of mostly trucks and sport utility vehicles.

The Flex also has the potential to capture cutting-edge customers who enjoy personalizing their rides, a characteristic that has brought success to Mini Cooper.

But the Flex is anything but tiny. It is a whopping big, boxy wagon that nevertheless offers a great deal of curb appeal to go with its practical nature.

Although available with all-wheel drive as well as the standard front-wheel drive, it is not a truck-based SUV. It is a car-based crossover which, in its six-passenger configuration, is a concept not unlike that of the Chrysler Pacifica, which was killed off because of poor sales.

But the Flex has more going for it. In the current marketplace, its practical side most resembles that of the popular Buick Enclave.

It has about the same passenger and cargo space as the Pilot, and nearly the same fuel economy. But it is almost a foot longer and squats closer to the ground.

With the lower car-like profile and three rows of seats to carry either six or seven passengers, it qualifies as a traditional American station wagon. As such, it is likely to woo people who may want to switch from SUVS and minivans.

Mainly, the Flex is the epitome of cool - not only in its design, but in the fact that for $760 you can equip it with a refrigerator/freezer in a compartment between two second-row bucket seats. It’s a real compressor-driven unit, not a simple cooler.

The Flex also has other unique features: the Easy Fuel filler, which has no cap. You simply punch the nozzle into the filler pipe. The Ford Sync system, which integrates navigation, communications and entertainment functions into a voice-activated whole. A keyless-entry keypad on the driver’s door. Rocker panels integrated into the doors.

Attractions are both visual and practical. The visual includes trademark fluted sides, blacked out window frames and a “floating” roof. For those who want a custom look, there are nine body colors and two optional roof colors. As with a Mini Cooper, you can have a flag painted on the roof if you wish, and it won’t look out of place.

On the practical side, you can specify two rows of bucket seats with twin seats in the third row. The second row can be left with a pass-through to the third row, or with the refrigerator or a center console. A three-passenger second row also is available.

There’s 20 cubic feet of space behind the third row. The third row tilts and tumbles to expand the cargo area to more than 43 cubic feet and, if you fold the second row seats as well, there’s more than 83 cubic feet of stash space. The front passenger seat also folds flat.

Power comes from Ford’s 262-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine linked to a six-speed automatic transmission. Consistent with the character of the Flex, there is no manual-shift mode.

On the road, the Flex cruises serenely, with little wind, mechanical or road noise. There’s a nice, tactile feel to the steering, decent handling and a ride that is comfortable for long-distance trips.

There are three trim lines, all with full safety equipment: SE, which comes only with front-wheel drive and starts at $28,995; the SEL, starting at $34,620 with front-wheel drive and optional all-wheel drive, and the tested Limited with all-wheel drive, which had a base price of $37,255.

With options that included heated and power-folding second-row seats, a motorized sunroof and fixed-glass skylights, the refrigerator, a navigation system with a rear backup camera, and a two-tone roof, it topped out at $43,250. The Limited’s standard equipment included a power tailgate, 19-inch aluminum wheels, power adjustable pedals, perforated leather upholstery and even footrests for the second-row passengers.

It would be hard to exaggerate the generous interior room, especially in the second row. A tall cowboy could easily stretch out back there without removing his 10-gallon hat, although the center passenger in the three-passenger configuration is disrespected. There’s 4.5 inches of fore-and-aft seat travel and the seatback also reclines. Adequate space is available in the third row for two adults, although it’s not easy getting back there and they must sit with knees raised.

Aside from the center-rear seating position, shortcomings are few. The steering wheel, for example, tilts but does not telescope, and the rear fixed-glass skylights have only mesh shades, which do not block enough sunlight.

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