William “the Refrigerator” Perry was big even when he was little. By the time he was eleven, the future NFL defensive lineman weighed north of 200 lb; during the peak of his career he was more than a third again as tall and heavy.
The funky Flex is certainly interesting to look at, and the performance numbers are there. So what gives?
Fitted out in full football armour, this modern gladiator's size might have fooled you into thinking he was imposing but slow, a Maginot Line on legs. Instead, Perry was an accomplished sprinter, capable of running the hundred meter dash in eleven-odd seconds. It just goes to show that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, even if that cover appears to be bound in oak and lined with lead.
So it is with the Ford Flex, a vehicle that reminds some onlookers of a hearse, some of an old-fashioned Vista Cruiser, and nearly everybody of a brick. It is big, square, heavy, and blunt. It is a refrigerator knocked on its side and fitted with 20-inch wheels.
But walk on the throttle and this big lug proves it can dance. The snails spool on the twin-turbo V6, the all-wheel-drive hooks up, and the Flex lunges forward to 100 km/h in less than six seconds. That's VW GTI territory. Touchdown! Oops. Really shouldn't have spiked my keys there.
It's certainly an impressive performance, but there's a problem. Several problems, actually. If you look at the Flex's current performance in the sales charts, it's the exact opposite of blistering. So far this year, Flex sales are up considerably, but it's still nearly outsold by the Expedition, another big lummox from the Blue Oval.
Meanwhile, Ford sells ten times as many Edges and six times the number of Explorers. The funky Flex is certainly interesting to look at, and the performance numbers are there. So what gives?
First, let's take one more brief gander over the bodywork. When it first arrived, the Flex's squared shape gave off a pleasing retro-style and they've somehow infused a frisson of Range Rover into the mix. Even my kid, who is three, thought so – she pointed out a Range Rover Sport that was parked nearby and said, “That car is similar. It's not the same, but it's similar.” The headlights, the script on the nose, the imposing angularity – the recipe's not far off.
However, it's the visual bulk of the Flex that many people (mostly women) seem to find off-putting. Too much station wagon, too much hearse. Families seem fine with buying a jacked-up Canyonero to haul around a single child the size of a thanksgiving turkey, but the Flex's heft didn't garner the same positive reaction. Most of the people who liked it were guys, and specifically car-guys. Ford's version of an AMG wagon? Maybe.
See also: 2016 Ford Explorer Platinum First Drive
Inside, the Flex shows what happens when you build your house right to the property line on all four sides. Big the Flex may be on the outside, but it is properly vast on the inside too. This is minivan territory, though with a lower roofline. The mid-row seats are the best, though even the third row are pretty good, and the front seats have a delightfully old-school vibe; this is a futuristic vision of a big comfy cruiser from a bygone age.
The rest of the interior pegs that bygone age at about five years ago and ditches the futuristic part. Apart from a nice ripple-effect in the metallic-look trim through the cabin, the Flex's interior appointments haven't really moved with the times. They're simple, square, and the layout is plain. Really, there's nothing wrong here, unless you've spent time in a Kia product to see how the competition is doing things.
Another issue: that lovely rippled-look trim was applied to the upper portion of the dash and three out of four doors. The driver's door got a plain-look inset that was obviously a miscue either on the factory floor or at the dealership. Fit and finish looked otherwise good everywhere else, but that's not the kind of thing to fill you with confidence.
However, for most-improved element, give the award to the Flex's new Sync 3 infotainment control. It's faster, simpler, and doggone it, people like it. If the centre stack doesn't look like much of an update has happened here, this is nonetheless a great leap forward for the Flex, and ease-of use.
Out back, the Flex has a few party tricks with which to impress the neighbours. The trick rear folding seat is one of the coolest elements on the car, with the ability to push a single button and order up a flat floor for loading, deeper area for storage, third row seats deployed, or even a bench seat facing backward for hanging out and tailgating.
Fitting a young family into the Flex was of course ridiculously easy. The big underhangs on the doors kept my shins from getting dirty as I leaned in, and there was more than enough space for future soccer stars to windmill their legs in vain – my kidneys remained blissfully unpummelled. Everyone got their own sunroof (one broad, opening one up front; two closed minis for the mid-row passengers; one wide fixed one out back), and the low floor for middle-seat second row passengers could have come in handy.
With everyone comfortably strapped in, I felt the need to exercise what Chrysler is currently calling #Dadbrand, and pointed the anti-minivan Flex at the nearest onramp. It dispatched the speed with a whoosh of forced air, simply pulling harder even as the the aerodynamics of the equation got more complex.
Here, Ford's Ecoboost 3.5L twin-turbo V6 makes a respectable 365 hp at 5,000 rpm, but it's the 350 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm that's the real meat of the story. It's a bit like driving around in a shed attached to a Taurus SHO: a SHO-shed, if you will.
And this shed can handle, sort of. While asking too much of the Flex's handling aids results in understeer as mass overcomes tire grip, the hefty SHO-shed wears Ford's curve-control handling girdle to help keep things from getting out of shape. Try to go into a corner too hot and curve-control will slap your hand away, reducing engine torque and applying a bit of brake.
Mostly it all works well behind the scenes, but the Flex is not really built for hustling through the curvy bits. Instead, it's the old school cruiser again, with the snootful of horsepower and torque to get past the slow pokes in short passing sections.
And as a result the Flex's fuel economy is regrettably lacklustre. Official ratings are 14.7 l/100 km in the city and 10.7 l/100 km on the highway; real-world results for mixed mileage were in the 14s. That, I'm afraid, is a lot more about Boost than it is Eco. Perhaps Ford should consider a plug-in hybrid version. They could call it the Flax.
But anyway, is there a place in modern traffic for a big station-wagony galoot with plenty of steam under the hood, decent handling, and an ocean-liner's worth of room? I'd say yes: though the Flex has a number of flaws, it is not short on charm. It's not really short on anything (except efficiency).
The Flex has honesty of purpose, surprising performance, and character. It may be a bit of a Refrigerator, but it is not your everyday appliance. Yes, that's the perfect summation. Now for the love of Pete, just don't scroll down and see how much this thing costs or you'll ruin everything.
3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 5 years/100,000 km roadside assistance
|Model Tested||2016 Ford Flex Limited AWD||Destination Fee||$1690|
|Base Price||$45,099||Price as Tested||$58,439|
$11,550 [metallic paint - $450; adaptive cruise, park assist, 20” alloys, power-folding rear seats, Ecoboost V6 - $6800; all-weather floor mats, roof-rails - $600; blacked out roof, machined-face alloys - $900; multi-panel roof - $1750; voice-activated touchscreen navi - $800; inflatable rear seatbelts - $250]