2013 Ford Flex SEL Road Test

The 2013 Ford Flex is the best station wagon you'll never know.

What It Is
Cube-shaped seven-passenger family hauler.
Best Thing
More flexible than the 1984 US Olympics gymnastics team.
Worst Thing
Fuel economy, flimsy seats in a dour interior, confounded by MyFord Touch.
Snap Judgment
Station wagons are dead. Long live the station wagon.


Somewhere between the tail-end of the Carter administration and the rise of the Macarena, the phrase "station wagon" fell into pejorative; like "liberal" among right-wingers, it became a dirty word. Call someone's car a station wagon, and you were likely to reenact the sort of brawl that proved so unfortunate for our first Secretary of the Treasury.

Why the hatred? We'll never know. You may as well ask your grandparents why the Greatest Generation expresses befuddlement towards any Top 20 artist today. But if he was to come across the 2013 Ford Flex, he'd have instant pangs of nostalgia for the Country Squire in which he once ferried your ungrateful tyke of a father. He'd remember a time before family haulers became as dowdy as minivans, a time when "foreign car" was the pejorative. Then he'd ask who this "Nicki Minaj" character is, and the tear-stained vision of wistful Americana would implode in a cloud of hot pink Day-Glo booty shorts.

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Luckily, this Ford is neither. And disguise it as Ford does, by raising the roof to sky-scraping heights and saddling it with the "crossover" portmanteau, the Flex is an honest-as-John-Wayne station wagon, as square as Nixon. No bunker-busting ground clearance or ungainly roof rails for your "lifestyle adventures" marketing-speak; there are a handful of other Fords for that purpose, and besides, the rails would ruin the looks of that optional contrasting white roof. And as we found out over the course of a week, there's still room for a station wagon in today's lifestyle-obsessed, jack-of-all-trades marketing-infused automotive environment, as long as you don't call it a Family Truckster.

What We Drove

Our Flex SEL with its 3.5-liter V-6 is a midrange model, and thus came with a wide array of family-funtime options. A power liftgate and rearview camera were both part of a $3,000 package, along with a 110-volt inverter that allows anything to be plugged in directly. A body-colored liftgate is supposed to be part of this option, but doesn't look as fancy as the aluminum-colored one on the Limited. Leather seats, blind spot monitoring--which shows up as a colored dot on the side mirrors--and adjustable pedals for the vertically challenged round out the equipment group. Swapping the standard 60/40 folding rear bench seat for two bucket seats costs $650, and adding a center console between them is a $100 bargain, considering its flexibility. The 20-inch aluminum wheels cost $795, and were a healthy balance between the base model's appearance and a $1,495 Titanium Appearance Package with black five-spoke wheels that makes the Flex look like a Conestoga wagon of yore.

Curiously enough, the Flex SEL did come with Sync and MyFord Touch, but not a navigation system, a slight at our as-tested price of $40,585.

The Commute

MyFord Touch, we meet again.

Encompassing the MyFord Touch suite of audio and infotainment connectivity, the Flex gets Ford's oh-so-trendy touch-sensitive center panel in lieu of real, actual buttons. Press your finger onto the molded plastic, wait for a "pock" sound as confirmation, and enjoy your dual-zone climate control at a steady 69 degrees. Changing temperatures is an exercise in patience and finger stamina, and the fan speed--controlled by one of the only two knobs available--takes a while to respond. During my time with the Flex, the radio presets on the screen failed to display radio station names, which would have been more irritating had I not already committed to memory the only three stations I listen to on a regular basis. In case you need to take your ire out on something, the helpful badge on the center console reads "Sync by Microsoft," enabling you to revive all your mid-90s jokes about the evilness of Bill Gates.

The best thing about the touch panel is that it's only limited to climate and AM/FM radio, and if you're of the satellite-listening type and aren't wracked with body temperature mood swings, then you won't have to use it often. Because it's another example of Ford's stubborn policy of technology for technology's sake, their earnest belief that invisible beeps and touchscreen staring will replace the response, ease, and tactile precision of an honest-to-God knob.

Otherwise the rest of the interior is dour and assembled seemingly from LEGOs--as evident from the blocky, chiseled door panels layered with four different textures of vinyl and hard plastic. The Bauhaus movement of the 1950s never saw so many straight, unyielding lines. The armrests and center console, as big man Trevor Dorchies says, are "big-man certified--almost truck-like." Drivers sit on wide, unbolstered seats that are sufficiently comfortable enough for corn-fed families, yet the loose foam and overlapping texture meant that I found myself squirming about. Ignore the steering wheel that's ripped from a Ford Focus--ahead of that is a speedometer flanked by two full-color screens--the entire gauge panel is beautiful and intricate, and the screen resolution is wonderfully crisp.

Other neat features abound: cubby holes and deep cupholders are scattered throughout the cabin, including a bin by the passenger side. The headrests adjust up, down, forward, and backward, for maximum support. Oversized sun visors above extend outwards--which is brilliant--but they're also flimsy enough to smack you in the temple when taking corners--which is not.

The Grocery Run

Cargo room? Yeah, it's got some; 20 cubic feet worth behind the third row. Flip those seats down--either manually or through a button in the cargo area--and you more than double that. LATCH points are tucked behind wisps of felt, but easily accessible with delicate fingers. Our infant carrier snugged up against the front seatback, but fortunately the second row slides forward and back. The second row seatback itself also reclines, which goes a long way to make rear-seat passengers feel less like second-class citizens: these citizens will also enjoy the massive cupholders hewn slab-like into the door panels, capable of carrying those tall Powerades that budding Pelés chug as nourishment.

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Our Flex came with a center console, a $100 option. For families with inattentive, snack-happy children, this will resolve years of anger management sessions: underneath its thick, faux-leather padding reside two cupholders and a small removable bin, covering an even deeper bin that promises to swallow a child's teddy bear and send parents on a fruitless hunt for hours. The lid itself rotates forward, as to not deny third-row kiddies access to their Capri Suns. And the lid folds flat, with another indentation to carry even more stuff. Too bad the second-row bucket seats are pricey in comparison, but if that's in your future, it's foolish not to spring for the additional console.

The third row seats tuck flat into the cargo area and require a moderate hand to yank up, the same effort as pulling down a garage door. Putting them up is easy enough (use two hands if you need to). But getting the seatbacks up involve careful comprehension and navigating a set of four pull straps that's less like assembling a third row and more like controlling a marionette. Given the careful, meticulous engineering that goes into tucking away a seat time after time for years on end, this is still one of the easiest ways to do it, short of pressing a button. Headroom abounds in all three rows, but nowhere is this more evident than in the second row. The scalloped headliner makes way for the multi-paneled Vista Roof, individual skylights over the two passenger seats that let hat aficionados feel at home.

The Flex isn't new enough to come with Ford's hands-free liftgate, like on the Escape and C-MAX; expect it to be added soon enough. In fact, the button for the power liftgate is positioned in a hard-to-find location on the gate itself; you're generally recommended not to close the hatch with your hands, so the power button on the keyfob is more than helpful.

The Weekend Fun

As a testament to how far we've come in terms of automotive technology, driving the Flex is an experience as far removed from a Country Squire as piloting a lunar lander. With a solid, tight chassis, the Flex manages to strike the impossible: its handling masks its size, and it's easily controllable without superfluous body motions. "Car-like handling" is a marketing cliché, but if you're inclined to find an example, you could do no better than start with a 17-foot Flex.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Our SEL model featured a 3.5-liter V-6 with 287 horsepower; to get a 365-horsepower Ecoboost version of the same engine, you'd have to pony up exactly $6,005 more for the Limited model. In non-turbocharged guise, the engine was fine, but no speed demon: freeway passing was brisk when it got going, but the drivetrain was very reluctant to get to those speeds in the first place. The transmission was slow to respond, and the shift-your-own button placed on the corner of the shift lever is mostly to select lower gears for hilly driving or towing. Overall, our around-town and highway driving worked out to around 17 miles per gallon, somewhat below its 18/25 city and highway rating.

Lastly, the Flex aims for the so uncool it's cool again school of styling that worked so well for the old Mini Cooper (note its white roof, a $395 option). Its new aggressive one-piece grille looks bold and futuristic for a family vehicle. On the evolutionary scale, it can draw its lineage right from the 1969 Ford Galaxie Country Squire and a Kelvinator Foodarama side-by-side refrigerator/freezer. For example, those side strakes are meant to evoke wood trim, as instituted by that Country Squire.

Summary

Various niggles aside, there are no gripes about the Flex's concentrated functionality. It zeroes in on its family-hauling purpose with a zeal normally reserved for German engineers beating rivals' racetrack lap times. In fact, there was once a vehicle that exemplified the Flex's purity of purpose: an equally boxy machine that drove like a car and could maneuver like a car, designed to carry as many people as possible but with the versatility to hide its seats and pick up cargo if need be, built and priced within reach of the masses as the most rational purchase available for suburban families.

That car was called the minivan. And now that it's fallen out of favor, may we reintroduce the Flex as a familiar concept: the station wagon?

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $40,585
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 18
EPA Highway: 25
EPA Combined: 20
Estimated Combined Range: 372 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Average (2012 model)

Notebook Quotes

"If, for whatever reason, Ford decided to stop making the F-Series, the Flex would far and away be my favorite vehicle the Blue Oval makes. It may still be. The Flex is the best station wagon you'll never know of." --Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
"The Ford Flex is a unique vehicle that offers a lot of utility for families on the move. Ford was able to apply a host of clever touches to the interior to make for a modern and comfortable cabin. The glaring downside here, is the terrible real-world fuel economy." --Matt Askari, Associate Editor
"I've dug the Flex since it first debuted, and the love affair continues. But, I'll admit, the bloom is off the rose a little bit. I like the exterior update, but the interior is a little blander; I preferred the previous model's styling a bit better. But it still drives great, the seats are super comfortable for a long haul, and to my eye, the whole thing looks cool." --Keith Buglewicz, News Director

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