EcoBoost V6 adds power, economy to appealing package
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, The Flex is Ford's stylish and practical alternative to the convention minivan, crossover and SUV.

Ford almost achieved the impossible with the 2010 Flex - building a big, fast, fuel-efficient, stylish, comfortable, all-weather, sporty-handling, affordable, seven-person crossover.

There's no doubt the Flex is big, although the relatively low roofline minimizes its size compared to taller crossover and SUVs. There is plenty of room inside for seven passengers, however. Significantly, the three rows of seats are theater-style, meaning each of the back two are higher than the one in front of it, resulting in improved visibility for all passengers. They also fold flat, increasing interior space for large loads.

Equipped with the new twin-turbocharged EcoBoost 3.5-liter V6, our test model had plenty of power - 355 horsepower and 350 foot-pounds of torque. Because it uses two smaller exhaust-drive turbines to pressurize the fuel system instead of a single large one, turbo lag was virtually non-existence. Rapid acceleration was always on tap through the responsive six-speed automatic transmission, whether from a standing stop or at freeway speeds.

Even faster acceleration is available through the uniquely-designed manual shift system that came with our test vehicle. The steering wheel-mounted levers allow the transmission to be shifted up and down through the gears with either hand, an advantage in turns.

But the EcoBoost V6 also gets better mileage than a comparable V8. Turbocharging is one of Ford's corporate strategies to improve the fuel economy of its vehicle. An EcoBoost inline 4 is offered in the all-new Explorer, for example, instead of a V6. Our test model was EPA rated at an average 18 miles per gallon, slightly better than similar V8-equipped vehicles.

The Flex is also one of the most distinctive-looking vehicles on the road today. With its exaggerated box-on-box styling, Ford intends the Flex to be an alternative to traditional minivans, angular crossovers and truck-like SUVs. Our black-and-silver test model was particularly striking, especially with the optional 20-inch brightly painted aluminum wheels. The theme continued in the clean interior design, which featured black leather seats, a silver center console and subtle wood accents.

All of the seats in our test model were well-padded and equipped with such creature comforts of cup holders and nearby climate systems. The dash-mounted controls featured large knobs that were easy to find and use, a welcome alternative to the confusing small button on some vehicles. The optional 12-speaker Sony stereo system in our test model was excellent.

Our test vehicle was equipped with the optional all-wheel-drive system, a welcome feature in the Pacific Northwest, especially for skiers and others who spend time outdoors in winter months.

As for the handling, well, this is the performance level where the Flex fell short. Blame it on the laws of physics, but Ford has not figured out how to make such a large vehicle behave well in day-to-day driving and also take sharp turns like a sports sedan. Body roll was very noticeable going into corners, eliminating the temptation to take them flat out, despite the power of the EcoBoost V6.

In truth, Ford is not advertising any model of the Flex as a high-performance vehicle. Sport seats are not an option. Although comfortable, they are not bolstered for fast corners. The upside is the Flex rides smoothly over most road imperfections, much like the large Ford luxury cars of the 1970s.

But even with all the options, our test vehicle was listed at around $42,000, a reasonable price for all the goodies. Base models are even more affordable, starting at less than $30,000 with the normally-aspiration 3.5-litert V6, front-wheel-drive and less luxurious interior appointments. Even then, the distinctive styling, comfortable ride and up to seven-passenger capacity is standard, making Flex a good alternative for value-conscious families in the market for a new vehicle.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2010 Flex.

• Manufacturer: Ford.

• Class: Full-size crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, front and all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five-door liftback.

• Engine: 3.5-liter V6 (262 hp, 268 fit-lbs torque); twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 (355 hp, 350 lb-ft torque).

• Transmissions: 6-speed automatic with optional steering wheel-mounted shift levers.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 16/122 (as tested).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $29,850 ($42,400 as tested).

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