After living with two nearly identical Dodge minivans for a few years, our neighbour was ready for a change. So when I saw him filling up a Flex at the local station, I bee-lined over to get his thoughts, having just driven a similar but updated 2013 Flex that Ford has just tweaked and prodded for the latest (early) model year.
He liked his 2012 Flex's better handling in corners, the easy foldability of its rear seats, and some of the newer features it offered as standard: back-up sensors, the (now Ford-wide) cap-less fuel filler nozzle and its passenger climate controls.
But he missed his van's roominess: in the cargo area (especially with all three rows up), in the driver's seat, and in the second row. He didn't have the MyFord Touch system, so there were plenty of real, tactile buttons on its centre console, and therefore none of the complaints that Consumer Reports had about the flashy but occasionally buggy touch screen system.
Because the Oakville, Ont.-built Flex replaced Ford's only minivan back when it was launched in 2009, its reception amongst current minivan owners is key. The Flex represents Ford's gamble that people have tired of minivans, and are ready to trade a touch of practicality in exchange for an extra dose of style, power and high-tech comfort.
With the conventional Explorer SUV seven-seater selling so well, Ford in the United States seems ready to relegate the Flex to niche family-hauler status. Group U.S. marketing manager Amy Marentic confirmed that the Flex will carry forward with a small U.S. ad budget, with much of that going toward social media. This is not good news for the workers at the Oakville plant, especially as the Flex's more upscale Lincoln MKT sibling is not exactly burning through dealer calculators either.
Inside, the 2013 Flex gets an upgraded MyFord Touch system that actually responds reliably when you touch its iPad-like screen, or the flat touch-capacitive buttons on the centre console. The touch screen now works with big bulky gloves, and the system's vocabulary of voice commands is now more than 10,000. This means that you can handily control the navigation system by voice, though the buttons were easier to use for the climate and stereo controls, even if they did take your eyes off the road.
This MyFord Touch system is now standard on all but base Flex SE models, part of a significant jump up from the SE's $30,499 starting price to the next up SEL's $37,099. The top-line Limited with all-wheel-drive similar to the one I drove starts at $44,399, not counting the $1,500 freight charge on all Ford models – no matter how close one lives to the factory.
The Flex's interior pampers you with safety technology as well as high-tech gear. Industry-unique inflatable rear seatbelts are available, which help spread out pressures across the entire belt in case of a collision, a boon to more fragile child or elderly torsos.
Optional safety features include a radar-based cruise control system that can adjust your speed based on that of the vehicle in front of you, a reverse camera system and a blind-spot information system with (importantly) cross-traffic alert.
Cargo room is surprisingly tight with all six seats up, but expands to nice and flat romper room with the third row folded away. The cargo area features handy buttons in the Limited that can power both the third- and second-row seats up and down, which is handy for shorter folks. But there's no sliding rear door that makes mall parking lots a ding-free affair, nor do the second-row seats fold away nicely into a recessed bin in the floor, as on Dodge's Stow-'N-Go-equipped minivans.
The tweaked base 3.5-litre V-6 now puts out 20 more horses to 285 hp, with a slight increase in fuel economy as well, although it's still right about in line with the majority of similarly sized V-6s in this relatively thirsty class. The 355-hp EcoBoost engine is unchanged, still providing V8-like power, but at a notable increase in fuel consumption, at an overall average of about 13.1 litres/100 km, compared to an 11.8 overall average on the U.S. government's more realistic five-cycle ratings.
Overall, the Flex is certainly one of the safest and most sophisticated family haulers on the market, with fine handling for such a large vehicle, with advanced technology and high-quality materials throughout that justifies its entry-luxury pricing. Yes, a family who want to maximize their vehicle-per-dollar ratio can receive more space for less moolah in a minivan. But not with the overall sophistication offered in a Flex.
2013 Ford Flex Limited AWD
Type: Full-size, seven-seat crossover
Base price: $30,499; as tested, $45,999
Engine: 3.5-litre V-6
Horsepower/torque: 285 hp/255 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Drive: All-wheel (front-wheel-drive standard)
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.7 city/8.7 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, Dodge Grand Caravan, GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander
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