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car review

2013 Ford Flex

The Ford Flex can't be pigeonholed: Is it a big wagon or a minivan? An SUV or one of the new breed of CUVs?

One thing is for sure: it doesn't look like anything else on the market. You won't have trouble separating it from the hordes of minivans and SUVs in the parking lot.

Ford refers to it as a true crossover "with the ride, handling and fuel economy of a car and the towing, storage and seating of an SUV." I see nothing there I would argue with other than the bit about fuel economy, but more about that later.

The Flex first appeared in 2008 and received a makeover for 2013. The first thing you might notice is the lack of a "blue oval" on the grill. Instead, giant letters spell out F L E X across both front and back in case you don't know what it is. The inside has also been revised with a new steering wheel, seats and trim. Wood, leather and metallic trim blend with blue-lit gauges and red-lit cup holders.

Sync is standard, combined with the latest generation of Ford's less-than-intuitive MyFordTouch system through a pair of 10-cm screens in the instrument panel in front of the driver and a 20-cm one atop the centre stack. The idea behind the big screen is to replace the myriad of buttons and knobs necessary to control the many functions and features. While a definite improvement, it still defies simple logic on many occasions. Ford says it understands more than 10,000 words – but that obviously does not include some of mine.

Other new technologies include park assist, adaptive cruise control, blind spot alert with a useful cross-traffic alert that is appreciated when trying to reverse out of crowded spots.

The interior is cavernous, the upside of a boxy shape. Big, wide doors make for easy access while a low belt line and lots of glass make for great visibility in all directions. The spaciousness is especially evident in the second row where there is limo-like legroom. If so equipped, second-row occupants are protected by an innovative Ford-developed safety feature – inflated belts. The advanced system helps reduce head, neck and chest injuries.

The third row is surprisingly able to accommodate a couple of adults. Both second- and third-row seats can be folded and the interior converted to cargo carrier without having to remove the seats. The test vehicle had electric motors to stow the 50/50-split third row seats at the touch of a button inside the big hatch door. They can also be raised into position with the same switch. Space is the name of the game with 566 litres of it behind the third row, 1,224 behind the second and a whopping 2,355 with both folded out of the way.

The Flex is available in a variety of trim levels – SE, SEL, SEL AWD, Limited and Limited AWD. All but the latter come with a 285-horsepower, 3.5-litre V-6. The Limited AWD – the test vehicle – comes with the EcoBoost version of that engine with twin turbochargers and 70 extra horses and 102 more lb-ft of torque. The normally-aspirated engine has been upgraded with variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust sides resulting in 25 more horsepower while consuming less fuel.

You can play around with the shift paddles on the back of the steering wheel if you think doing so makes sense on a 2,100-kilogram-plus box on wheels. Move the console-mounted shift lever to "Sport" and you change the shift pattern, add some weight to the steering, and a tachometer appears on the instrument panel.

Other mechanical changes include revised suspension settings and a quicker steering ratio. Intensive work went into improved NVH (noise, vibration and harshness). There is a wide array of new insulation applications, the front suspension struts are wrapped in insulation and the rear wheel wells lined with it. There is more sound-deadening material beneath and behind the dash and under the hood.

The Flex is big – and heavy, tipping the scales at 2,173 kilograms – so the engines have their work cut out for them. Performance is adequate, but when the seats or cargo area are full, you'll wish for the added power of the turbo engine. But that comes at a cost because all those extra horses have to be fed. I could not get the test Flex into single-digit consumption on my 350-km test route, averaging 11.7 litres/100 km for the mostly highway run littered with hills.

Despite its size and bulk, the Flex is surprisingly agile on the road. One reason might be the new Torque Vectoring Control and Curve Control system that help maintain the intended line in a corner. The Torque Vectoring component lightly brakes an inside wheel when understeer or oversteer are detected, tugging the Flex back into line. Curve Control applies all four brakes when it detects the vehicle is entering a turn too fast.

Spacious and distinctive, the built-in-Oakville-Ont. Ford Flex provides a viable alternative for those needing seating for seven but who do not want a minivan or SUV.

Tech Specs

2013 Ford Flex AWD Limited

Type: Seven-passenger CUV/wagon

Base price: $44,399 base; as tested, $58,349

Engine: Turbocharged 3.5-litre V-6 with direct injection

Horsepower/torque: 355 hp/350 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: All-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 13.1 city/9.1 highway; premium recommended

Alternatives:Acura MDX, Buick Enclave, Dodge Durango, Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder, Subaru Tribeca, Toyota Highlander, Volkswagen Touareg