More powerful base engine adds to appeal of large crossover

by: FORD MOTOR CO. - The redesigned 2013 Ford Flex is still well-desinged and a good alternative to minivans.A Ford representative once told me the company produced the Flex largely to get people talking.

When it debuted four years ago, the big, boxy Flex was in sharp contrast to the smaller and more aerodynamic crossovers that were coming into vogue. Most of the other squared-off crossovers for sale at the time were about half its size. One, the Honda Element, has since been dropped.

Whatever Ford was thinking at the time, the Flex has been gaining in popularity for a very simple reason — there is nothing more practical than a box. Rounded sides and sloping rear ends cut into cargo space. In contrast, there is plenty of head and shoulder space for passengers in Flex’s third row of seat — and a tremendous amount of cargo space when it is folded flat into the floor.

The Flex is also very easy to get in and out of. Like all crossovers, it is not based a truck, meaning the floor is closer the road, like a car. But the doors are bigger and open wider than on many other crossovers, making it seem even more car-like, depite its size.

But Ford isn’t relying on practicality alone to sell the Flex in 2013. The new version boasts several important improvements, including a more significantly powerful base 3.5-liter V6 engine. It produces 285 horsepower and 255 foot-pounds of torque, up from 262 horsepower and 248 foot-pounds of torque in 2012.

But, mated to the six-speed automatic transmission in all models, the Flex still gets respectable mileage for a vehicle that can carry seven people. The base drivetrain combination is EPA rated at 18 miles per gallon in town and 25 miles per gallon the freeway, better than some cars.

The new Flex also features a smooth, wrap-around front facia that emphasizes its retro-futuristic looks. The oval Ford logo has even been removed, leaving the grill even cleaner than before. Although not a major change, it is refreshing to see a company that is not willing to compromise an innovating design during a mid-cycle redesign.

But driving the Flex is when you realize how serious the company always was about it. It is one of the easiest large crossovers to handle, thanks to the suspension that strikes just the right balance between too soft and too firm. Road noise and vibrations are almost completely eliminated, resulting in a near-luxury car ride — a remarkable achievement for a vehicle that could have been inspired by a school bus.

The interior design is as clean as the exerior. The top of the dash is wide and flat, while the face is an exercise in restaint. Some might think the controls are a little too restrained, in fact, like the small touch butons for temperature and fan speeds. They work but take a little practice to find without taking your eyes off the road.

Getting to the third row of seat was also a little compromised. The passnger side seat in the second row tumbled forward to clear the way, but stepping through was still a little awkward. This is a common problem with crossovers with third rows of seats, however. Minivans with sliding side doors are still the best for carrying more than five passengers, especially if you do it very often. The Flex should especially appeal to those who recoil at the thought of owning a minivan, however.

Our test vehicle was equipped with all-wheel-drive, an option that makes a lot of sense in the Pacific Northwest. At the same time, it has 20-inch polished aluminum wheels and relatively low-profile tires, a combination that would prove impractical in snow or muddy terrain. The odd combination was the result of the Flex being a Limited version, as opposed to the base SE or mid-level SEL models.

One option it did not include was the turbocharged EcoBoost 3.5-liter V6. Rated at 355 horsepower and 350 foot-pounds of torque, it is offered in a number of Ford and Lincoln vehicles as an alternative to a V8 engine. It’s an impressive engine, especially in the performance-oriented Taurus SHO or the F-150 pickup, where it can tow more than the optional V8. But the new base V6 in the Flex is so good that prospective buyers should think twice before stepping up the EcoBoost engine, especially considering that it’s mileage estimates drop to 16 and 21 in AWD-equiipped Limited models.

Ford has loaded up all versions of the Flex with an impressive list of comfort, convenience, entertainment, navigation and safety features. As a result, the base price of around $30,000 may seem a little high, but its unlikely anyone would really buy a stripped-down version of any legitimate competitor.

In a week of test-driving, we spotted more Flexes in suburban communities, which makes sense. That’s still where most big families live and the frequency of malls and shopping centers reduces the need for parallel parking. Actually, parallel parking was easier in the Flex that it seemed at first, especially because the rear-looking camera in our test model offered a very wide view. But not in the increasing number of compact parking spaces that are being deployed in city cores. The Flex is still one of the longer crossovers out there, but if you value interior space, it’s worth considering.

Facts and figures (all models)

Model tested: 2013 Flex Limited AWD.

Manufacturer: Ford.

Class: Large crossover.

Layout: Front engine, front and all-wheel-drive (as tested).

Style: Four-door liftback SUV.

Engine: 3.5-liter V6 (285 hp, 255 ft-lbs – as tested); turbocharged EcoBoost 3.5-liter V6 (355 hp, 350 ft-lbs).

Transmissions: Six-speed automatic with Sport mode (as tested); six-speed automatic with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters (standard with EcoBoost V6).

EPA estimated city/highway/average mileage: (engine/transmission): 18/25/20 (3.5/automatic); 17/23/18 (3.5/automatic/AWD); 16/21/18 (EcoBoost 3.5/automatic/AWD).

Price: Beginning at approximately $31,000 ($46,000 as tested).

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