A large crossover doesn’t have to be Mehta-approved to be a best-seller. Aesthetically, it need do little more than not look like a minivan, so owners can pretend to have lives apart from their offspring. By why be just a couple sliders away from fatally uncool when the brood could roll with the style of a MINI or Range Rover? To provide this option, four years ago Ford gave North American families the Flex. How could this combination of offbeat style and functionality not be a hit? Well, it hasn’t been, with sales about one-sixth those of the crosstown competition. One of two things generally follows such a failure: termination or revision. For 2013, Ford has opted for the latter.
It turned out it’s not enough that a large crossover not look like a minivan. As Cadillac, Chrysler, and Mercedes also learned, it also can’t have the proportions of a station wagon. Well, Ford didn’t do anything about the Flex’s proportions, so those who thought the 2012 looked too much like a wagon…can opt for an Explorer off the same platform again this year. The Flex has gained a new face and tailgate trim. To Ford’s credit, it didn’t try to make the brand’s new Astonesque grille work on the boxy Flex. Instead, the inspiration appears to have been twenty-third century cyborg, and the resulting retro-futuristic fusion actually works.
Inside, the Flex’s appearance is much the same aside from the introduction of Ford’s latest instrumentation and infotainment, the much-maligned, creepily-named MyFord Touch (we’ll abbreviate it henceforth to reduce the risk of untoward fantasies). With MFT, Ford aims to combine your climate control, entertainment, telephone and navigation chores into one completely integrated system that looks snazzy and responds to your every whim. If you’re squeamish about touching it (or lack a steady enough hand in a moving vehicle), you can talk to it, no come-hither voice required.
When MFT landed in 2010 it became obvious the software was rushed to market with more bugs than a bag of five-year-old flour. The 2013 Flex benefits from a major March 2012 software update intended to make MFT more responsive. During a previous week with the original system, TTAC’s resident technophile experienced frequent freezing, random crashes, periodic reboots and the BSoD intensely familiar to PC users but never previously experienced in a car. Ford’s patches have greatly improved the stability of the system, but a few issues persist. The system is dreadfully slow when compared to Chrysler’s UConnect 8.4 and Chevrolet’s new MyLink. In addition, MFT still had a full-blown melt down while driving one of the two test vehicles. The system was catatonic for 25 minutes despite our turning the car off and back on, unplugging the USB devices, and fervent incantations. While pulling the fuse would have helped, we decided to see what the average customer would experience. After a long wait, the screen went black, the unit rebooted and normal operation resumed.
If slow interfaces bother you, buy a Flex SE and escape the touchscreen. The downside? You won’t get the vibrant reconfigurable 4.2-inch LCDs on either side of the speedometer. Any technophile worthy of the label prefers a sluggish system that does everything to a snappy system that only covers the basics. But with some competitors buyers don’t have to make a hard choice. While MyLink and Uconnect don’t integrate LCDs into the gauge cluster and don’t offer the complete array of voice commands, these systems are fast, elegant and intuitive. (Three words we didn’t think we could use in the same sentence with Chevrolet or Dodge.)
The less techy author has simpler infotainment desires. Given satellite radio, he doesn’t need the ability to call up stations by voice or search by category. Instead, he enjoys surfing from channel to channel, hoping for a pleasant surprise. With MFT, this is a PITA. Instead of the SE’s big handy tuner knob, the SEL and up have distant, hard to hit virtual buttons. There’s a seek control on the steering wheel, why have another on the near side of the center stack? Alas, the tuner is over by the passenger.
In terms of basic functionality, the Flex retains its previous strengths and weaknesses. The seats are large and comfortable, with enough space for hat-wearing ballers in the first two rows. Adults of middling height willing to sit knees high will also fit in the third row.
A deep cargo area swallows more luggage than any other large crossover with all seats up. Need space for stuff rather than people? The second and third seats row fold easily and quickly. But with the 2013 Flex the front passenger seat must remain upright. Those seeking to transport a kayak entirely inside the car best seek a leftover 2012. Other interior tweaks include third row headrests that flop forward rather than adjust vertically. This makes them easier to lower when folding the seats and increases the likelihood that they’ll be properly adjusted (since their height is not adjustable), but more severely restricts the view rearward. A button like that in the Dodge Durango, to remotely collapse the third-row headrests, would be welcome but isn’t offered. As before, you have a choice between a split bench and buckets in the second row. For the latter’s lesser functionality Ford charges $650, plus another $100 if you want a console poking up above an otherwise flat load floor.
From the big, cushy driver’s seat the Flex continues to drive like a big, cushy car (though the cush and untoward body motions are both reduced if you opt for the somewhat thumpy dubs). The steering is less numb and more naturally weighted than in the antecedent Taurus X owned by Michael, but the difference is akin to that between asleep and comatose. Ford has added curve control and torque vectoring for 2013. The former system effectively limits vehicle speed through curves to well short of ten-tenths. Plant your right foot mid-curve, and if you’re already moving at a decent clip your command will be countermanded. The latter system works the brakes to counteract understeer. The Flex still plows when pushed, just as soon or as much. Not that many owners, even those who are driving enthusiasts, will often (or even ever) push a Flex hard enough to substantially engage either system. The character of the vehicle just doesn’t inspire it.
Perhaps due to the low volume of Flex sales, Ford limits engine options in its chest-freezer crossover to two. While economy- or ecology-minded drivers might gravitate towards the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine offered in every other large Ford that isn’t a truck, the Flex sticks with two 3.5-liter V6s. The naturally aspirated engine now produces 287 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 254 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm, up from 262 and 248, respectively, with the 2012. Though still lacking direct injection (and the 300-plus-horses this would enable), it scooted our all-wheel-drive tester to 60 in eight seconds with a little more refinement than the somewhat gruff earlier engine, and generally felt well up to the task in the flatlands.
Should you frequent hilly terrain, need to tow a substantial trailer, or simply desire V8-like shove, Ford will happily sell you a Flex with their fire-breathing direct-injected twin-turbo “EcoBoost” V6. If the 365 horsepower at 5,500 rpm don’t impress you, consider the 350 pound-feet of twist from 1,500 to 5,250 rpm (in this Kansan curve we smell the torque limit of the transaxle) and the 5.7-second 0-60 time we clocked in a dealer-provided vehicle. The twin hair-dryers are available only in the Limited with an MSRP starting $14,520 higher than the base model. If you would get a Limited with all-wheel-drive and twenty-inch wheels regardless, you pay about a grand per snail.
Paddle shifters have always attended the EcoBoost V6. With the base engine, though, you had little control over the transmission, with only a switch to disengage “overdrive” and a choice between “D” and “L” to suggest which of the automatic’s six ratios you wanted. With the 2013, the base powertrain gets a rocker switch on the shift lever to specify a gear. Between the operation of this switch and the transmission’s less-than-prompt responses you won’t derive any of the pleasures of a manual transmission. But if anyone is seeking such pleasures in a Flex, we haven’t met them. For selecting the best gear for engine braking on grades the rocker is a very helpful addition.
A Flex SEL AWD with Package 202A (leather, remote start, power liftgate, and three systems for monitoring what’s going on behind the vehicle) lists for $39,000. This is up $1,625 from the 2012, with about $1,200 of the increase attributable to additional content. An Explorer runs about $1,200 less. Want a real SUV? TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool indicates that the Durango Crew runs $1,210 less before adjusting for feature differences and about $1,600 less afterwards. Foreign-brand crossovers tend to be smaller, but for 2013 the Nissan Pathfinder has lost its trucky frame and grown to within a few inches of the Flex. A Pathfinder SL lists for $2,105 less than the Flex before adjusting for feature differences and about $1,300 less afterwards. Starting to seem like every alternative costs a little less? Well, a Chevrolet Traverse is a couple grand more than the Flex, and GM’s other large crossovers are even pricier.
For four years the Flex has been a dead vehicle rolling. Too many people conclude they don’t want one at first sight. Now that the Explorer is available with the EcoBoost V6, Flex sales have sunk even lower, to just over a tenth those of its sib. As much as we hate to see such a bold move so badly rewarded—manufacturers could and probably have learned some bad things from Ford’s failure—that’s the way it is. So, as fans of the Flex we’re grateful that Ford spent the time and money to upgrade the model at all. Not all of the changes are clearly for the better, but most are. These changes being relatively minor, the Flex’s key strengths and weakness haven’t changed. Room, comfort, and ride quality remain inarguable strengths. The supersized xB exterior with hints of MINI and relatively low driving position remain in both columns. Because of them, some people will buy a Flex and a much larger number of others will buy something else. If you’re among the few who “get” the Flex, best not wait too many more years to actually get one.
Ford provided two cars with insurance and a tank of gas.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.