A few years ago Ford decided that its survival depended on making bold moves. They decided to stop simply doing what they’d always done. Well, at least some of the time. One bold move: replace their minivan with the world’s largest Scion xB. Another: instead of offering a V8, twin-turbocharge and direct inject a V6. Then combine the two to offer a 355-horsepower family hauler that really hauls. Intriguing. But does the Ford Flex EcoBoost make sense?
The EcoBoost looks much like a regular Flex, only with 20-inch alloys and dual exhaust. This isn’t intrinsically a wheel-centric design, so the larger alloys don’t greatly enhance the Flex’s exterior appearance. It’s a look that some people—usually men and including this author—really like, and most others—especially women and including this author’s wife—really dislike. Neither group will mistake it for any other crossover. Perhaps it should have been a Volvo? The Swedes once did an excellent job peddling bricks to housewives.
The interior is unchanged from the un-boosted Flex, except for shift paddles added to the steering wheel. Just as well, since this is perhaps the best interior in any Ford. It’s in harmony with the exterior and the vehicle’s mission. Materials, if not quite luxurious, are good enough to not come across as cheap. There’s plenty of room in the high-mounted first two rows for four adults (five with the bench version). The amount of headroom borders on ridiculous. The big cushy seats provide long-distance comfort, though four-way adjustable lumbar support would be a welcome addition. The outer inch of the seating surfaces in the Flex SEL appears to be vinyl—wear shorts in hot weather and your skin sticks to this inch but not the rest of the surface. In the more expensive Flex Limited, the entire seating surface seems to be genuine cow hide. Unlike in the related Lincoln MKT, there’s also enough room for a pair of adults in the third row—but they’ll have to sit knees up. The “way back’s” main shortcoming: it only seats two, not three as in minivans and GM’s large crossovers. Each outboard seat gets its own reading light—popular with the kids.
The Flex also excels at hauling cargo. Every seat except the driver’s quickly and easily folds to form a flat surface. Even with the third row up we had enough space behind it for all our luggage last summer—the deep well otherwise used for stowing the third-row seat gives the Flex an advantage over most competitors.
Not once during 1,500 miles with my family in a rented Flex last summer did I catch myself thinking, “What this thing really needs is more power.” Instead, I found that 262 horsepower hitched to a 6-speed automatic is sufficient to motivate 5,000 pounds of vehicle, people, and luggage. After all, the Flex is a minivan substitute, not a sports anything. So what’s the point of another 93 horses?
A week with the EcoBoost left me still searching for much of a point. The stopwatch will report zero-to-sixty in about six seconds. But subjectively, 355 horses have rarely felt slower owing to the Flex’s size, shape, quietness, and mass. The sound the engine makes at full tilt doesn’t encourage aggressive throttle applications. Even if the engine had a “come hither” voice, hooning a Flex just doesn’t feel right. At part throttle in the midrange, the Ford EcoBoost V6 sounds downright pedestrian, even a tad cobby. On the plus side of the ledger, nothing about the feel of the engine provides even a hint that it’s turbocharged.
Responses aren’t exactly snappy, but this is due to the transmission more than anything else. One thing I did wish for in the regular Flex was a way to hold the transmission in a specified gear—with six-speed automatics Ford gave up on the old 5-4-3-2-1 gear selector. With the EcoBoost, you get not only the ability to manually shift the transmission, but paddles with which to do it. While I don’t see using these often for aggressive driving, the paddle shifters could come in handy in hilly terrain.
Ah, yes; hilly terrain. There’s none to be explored near where I live. If there had been…or if I’d driven the Flex EcoBoost well above sea level…or if I’d had a trailer hitched to the back, then the EcoBoost no doubt would have earned its keep.
What about the “Eco” part? In the front-wheel-drive Flex I averaged 23 miles per gallon with a mix of 10 percent city, 90 percent highway. Ford claims no penalty for the EcoBoost engine. The trip computer reported 17 MPG in suburban driving and 22 in highway driving, quite good for a 355-horsepower 5,000 pound brick. Based on the EPA ratings, the EcoBoost’s mandatory all-wheel-drive and not the engine itself is responsible this drop.
With all-wheel-drive the Flex chugs through deep snow as if it’s not even there. A few times I drove with one set of tires on the plowed road and the other two on the unplowed shoulder—just because I could. Goodyear Eagle RS-As aren’t known as a spectacular snow tire, but when carrying 5,000 pounds they grip well. Couldn’t feel a thing through the wheel or the seat of my pants. Problem is, you never feel much through the steering wheel on any road surface. Communicative Ford’s EPS system is not. Weighting is pretty good, though; for what the Flex is, it’ll do.
The regular Flex feels a touch floaty. For the EcoBoost the suspension has been lowered 0.4” and firmed up as much as the chassis engineers felt they could get away with. Consequently, the float is gone, body motions feel much more tightly controlled, lean in turns is minimal, and grip is decent until the outside front tire overloads and the vehicle lapses into oh-so-safe understeer. Still not an invitation to hoon—even with a tighter suspension the Flex feels huge and far from agile. Credit not only its size but the distant upright windshield. Think that the Scion xB and Nissan cube feel surprisingly roomy? Well, apply the same configuration to the truly large vehicle, and you’ll feel like you’re navigating more than driving. On top of these factors, I’ve yet to drive a car on Ford’s D3 platform that didn’t feel ponderous. I suspect it’s the suspension geometry. The Mazda CX-9 and even the largest-and-heaviest-in-class GM Lambdas feel more tossable (though this is most certainly relative). For the sake of evaluation I pushed the Flex hard enough around a curvy circuit to sink fuel economy below ten. But would I ever drive a Flex this way otherwise? Probably not; there’s not much fun to be had here. The primary benefit of the tighter suspension is in driver confidence and safety on challenging roads, not in driver enjoyment. The chassis is certainly competent, but not entertaining.
There is a cost to the EcoBoost’s additional body control. The ride never becomes downright harsh, but the EcoBoost feels more jittery over the small stuff and reacts more abruptly to larger bumps. Pairing the stiffer suspension with 19-inch wheels might yield a better compromise, but with the EcoBoost only 20s are offered. In any Flex and in the related Lincoln MKT impacts often reverberate through the less-than-rigid body structure.
I’m a fan of the Flex. The styling keeps growing on me, and the room, comfort, and interior flexibility are indisputable strengths. But does it make sense to spend another $3,800 to EcoBoost it? In the end, this decision becomes a surprisingly practical one. I’m aware that some people are entranced by the combination of a massive vehicle with a powerful engine—a friend had Lingenfelter supercharge his Hummer H2. For me, a pair of turbos and stiffer suspension bits do not transform Ford’s supersized brick into a driving machine. Driven the way such vehicles are typically driven, where they’re typically driven, the extra power simply won’t come into play. And I didn’t much enjoy pushing the Flex EcoBoost harder. But if you need more power and control for mountains, high altitudes, or towing, then the Flex EcoBoost makes more sense than a normally-aspirated V8 would have.
Ford provided the vehicle, insurance, and one tank of gas for this review.
Michael aresh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online provider of auto pricing and reliability data.