2009 Ford Flex, First Drive

Illustration for article titled 2009 Ford Flex, First Drive
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Ford PR Flack:"We wanted to give the Flex what we call a 'wow' factor."
Random Auto Journalist: "Wow, can I quote you on that?"

Press launches are interesting places. Well, if you find humanity in its most mundane and sycophantic form interesting that is. Full Disclosure: I didn't actually drive the 2009 Ford Flex, but I did sit in the passenger seat nursing my gimpy arm while Ray drove and opined on the experience.

I don't know when it happened, but at some point in its history, reviewing cars became the domain of the boring, the middle aged and the overweight. It also lost its way, becoming yet another tool for the industry to market its products (something akin to long-form, text-based advertising), rather than a critical method for helping consumers make informed decisions. It's now commonplace to see PR-speak quoted in place of actual insight.


Which brings us to the wow factor. Picked up by your typical auto journalist (though this being the jean shorts and Oakley Eye Jackets breed rather than the slightly more common blue button down and khakis variety) it causes both Ray and I to choke on our lunches, desperately trying to maintain some semblance of polite facial expression. Full Disclosure: a member of the Ford PR team offered to cut up my free lunch for me, I declined, but out of embarrassment, not integrity.

It's not that the Flex isn't good looking. It genuinely is, to our minds it's the best designed Ford since the GT, completely banishing memories of the depressingly bland Taurus X, the car the Flex is based on under its slick skin.

And it does have a wow factor, even if it makes me cringe writing that. The Flex's look at once captures everything good and romantic about American cars while eschewing the bad and the boring. You don't look at it and think SUV or minivan; you look at it and think, "Wow, that's a pretty nice looking car." In person, it also looks surprisingly small. Like the Taurus X it sits somewhere between a wagon and SUV in height and is surprisingly large once you climb inside.


No, our problem isn't necessarily with the use of the word 'wow,' it's with the lack of critical thinking that takes place in the average car reviewer's mind. The Flex is ostensibly the vehicle Ford should have built in 2005 instead of the bland Freestyle-cum-Taurus X, but at the time, it lacked the chutzpah to do so. Pressed, a Ford representative will admit this, but pressed further, they'll also admit that they don't know what they're going to do with the Taurus X now (they'll keep selling it as a cheaper alternative for a couple of years before quietly killing it off). And we just don't see much wow in any of that.


But style aside, is a rebodied Taurus X the right car for right now? We're not sure. As a people carrier it's equal parts brilliant and flawed. Brilliant: the doors that wrap around the lower sill, making ingress easy for the old, the feeble and the short; the four sunroofs; Sync; Ford's new SatNav system, which just became the best on the market; the driving position that's the perfect compromise between sedan and SUV; the incredibly quiet interior. Flawed: the third row seats are tiny, much smaller than a Buick Enclave's; the doors don't slide; Ford's 3.5-liter V6 mated to this 6-speed auto is still the worst combination on sale today, delivering neither performance nor economy.

It's equally flawed when considered as an emotional purchase. According to Ray, it drives exactly like a Taurus X, which is to say depressingly adequately, which doesn't compensate for the fuel consumption, 16/22 for the AWD version is too SUV-like to wow us. Nor does the stylish exterior keep its promises inside. While the front seat passengers are treated to a reasonably swanky dash of higher quality than that available in the Taurus X — I couldn't remove any trim pieces with my fingers alone. Full Disclosure: this is a hobby of mine — from the front seats back the interior is exactly like that of the donor car.


There's also some quality issues inside. While the primary dash surfaces are covered in decent plastic, secondary surfaces on the transmission tunnel are very low rent. Worst of all, start feeling around and sharp plastic edges abound. In the couple of minutes Ray and I spent looking, we found edges sharp enough to cut behind the center console's fascia, on the door trim and especially in the sunroof surrounds, reach up there with care kiddies.


What this all comes down to is a vehicle that we wouldn't be embarrassed to be seen in, but not one we'd want to own or drive on a regular basis. For the $42,000 as-tested price, we'd expect a little more wow than that.

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Before I lay down $42K for anything, it has to meet some criteria:

-nice rooflines

-front and back doors

-kitchen and bathroom

I'm not blowing more than a year's pay on a car. Cars lose value. And current market notwithstanding, real estate doesn't.

I'll agree on the styling. It looks sharp, like a match-made-in-heaven between a Lando and a Travelall. You'd think Ford might reach into its own photo album for blast-from-the-past styling cues, but whatever. But if I wanted a vehicle that resembled either of those, I'd go reach into the used SUVs section and start fishing them out.

Hmm, an '06 Range Rover - looks just like a Flex, 4.4litre V8, less than 40k miles and a Buy It Now of $39,800. That leaves enough change in our $42K auto budget to fill up the tank about eight times.

Ooh, here's a 1954 Travelall, missing some bits but definitely not PCH material, bidding is only up to $1026. And it's in my dad's hometown; hell, he might even recognize the car! Maybe I should call him. Out of our $42K auto budge, expect to pay maybe $4000 to buy the car, and another $10K to get it into good cruise and smile condition, not concours d'elegance.

Hey. '77 Scout II, for a BIN of $9200. It looks like it rolled off the showroom floor last week. The seller says it gets 18.5mpg in the city - sound familiar, Flex? And out of our $42K auto budget, all the change can fill up the tank for another five years.

We're done here. Flex isn't compelling enough to buy. It's only evocative enough to suggest what to buy instead.