By on December 13, 2012

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, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.

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58 Comments on “Review: 2013 Ford Flex SEL AWD (With Video)...”

  • avatar

    That loud, slupring sound you hear is “PrincipalDan” licking his chops for this Ford Flex!

    • 0 avatar

      The Nicest Country Squire that Ford Ever Built

      They might as well quit lying to themselves and just make that the Flex advertising tagline.

      As Michael said, “Retro Future” – picture it, it’s 1962 and your in the Ford design studios charged with coming up with a station wagon concept for the year “2000”. What would come off your drawing board? Perhaps something like the Ford Flex.

  • avatar

    We’ve got a 2010 model- love it. It does everything we’ve asked a family hauler to do (namely, haul two adults and three kids, 12, 9, and 1 cross country semi-annually + daily family taxi duties) without a hiccup or complaint. We were all set to pick up a CPO XC90 and are glad we went with the Flex. It’s too bad that 2014 will likely be the last year of production…I really, REALLY don’t get why anything that looks like a large wagon gets the boot in the market, but anything that functionally IS a large station wagon doesn’t.
    Is it an enthusiast’s car? No. I’ve got the e39 in the other half of the garage for that. It IS about the most perfect family hauler on the market, though.

  • avatar

    Two major problems with the Flex: 1) It looks like a Mini with a thyroid condition. It’s just too damn big. Might have worked as an Escape size vehicle instead. 2) It is WAY too expensive. Raising the price for 2013 on what is already a slow seller just doesn’t make any sense. Seems like a good concept, poorly executed.

  • avatar

    I agree that it is a smidge too big. A 4/5 scale version would be absolutely perfect.

    As it is, my loose plan is to start stalking a used one in the next 3 – 4 years.

    I want one, but I’m definitely willing to wait for it!

  • avatar

    My wife is one of the (seemingly few based on comments I read) women that like the looks of the flex. When I told her that they cost 40 large she quickly backed off thinking that this would be our next family vehicle.

  • avatar

    One word. “Diesel”.

  • avatar

    Always liked the looks of the Flex, but there was no way I was going to spend that kind of money on a vehicle. Even on the used market I shy away from it given it’s mpg.

    • 0 avatar

      The MPG is pretty good for what is basically a Tahoe/Suburban class vehicle.

    • 0 avatar

      Its fuel economy isn’t far off from others on the market. First off, there’s really nothing to directly compare it to, so I’ll use my only point of reference right now. My wife and I have a 2008 CX7 Grand Touring with the 2.3L DISI Turbo engine. We get about 22mpg on the highway and about 18 combined city/hwy.

      I’m seriously considering replacing our CX7 with one once it hits 100k miles. We’re sitting at about 80k. The extra space will be nice on long road trips.

    • 0 avatar

      The MPG is really great considering its size. I often get 30 on the highway, and 23 in town in my 2009 Sel Fwd.

  • avatar

    Love it.

  • avatar

    Being 6ft 8in, the flex was one of the few vehicles to consider. It is incredibly spacious with one of the most roomy interiors out there among all of the crossovers. It has loads of legroom. My 2009 SEL Fwd has the second row captions chairs, which I highly recommend, because they can slide back and recline, to give a few more inches of rear legroom. It also has a refrigerated console between those seats, which can hold 7 cans of soda, or 2 foot long hoagies. I recommend a Ford CPO Flex. I got mine in July with 21,000 miles for around $24,000, which I would say is pretty good considering that these run around $37-40,000 for a new one with these equipment packages. This car has the most comfortable seats of any car that I have ever ridden in, especially if you get the 2011-2013 headrests. I have found that it gets very good fuel economy compared to other crossovers. I have gotten as much as 30 mpg during highway driving. I have driven a 2012 Ford Explorer XLT 4WD, and a 2013 Edge Limited AWD, and overall I have found the flex to have a far superior ride to both. I also feel that the interior is far more spacious. If you are in the market for any crossover or minivan, I strongly suggest going to your local Ford dealer, and taking one of these for a test drive.

  • avatar

    Slow sales = substantial price increase. Good one Ford!

    • 0 avatar

      Might make sense. The people who are going to buy one of these will probably not be waved off by the price increase – after all, it is somewhat unique in the market. So revenue goes up.

      Having had two as rentals, I agree with those who say it would be perfect at 4/5s scale. It’s just too darned BIG! I love the looks though, shame about the stupid name.

  • avatar

    I bought a new Ford Flex SE in 2009 as a business vehicle, for towing boats over long distances. I have been very pleased, enough so that I eventually bought it from the company as a family hauler.

    The good:
    -Voluminous interior, bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside.
    -VERY comfortable ride and great seats in 1st and 2nd rows. I’ve been amazed how much I use the third row, even with adults.
    -While not remotely “fast,” there is adequate power for a family barge.
    -Great tow vehicle. I’ve towed a 2000-pound boat more than 20,000 miles with it, and even a 31-foot multihull sailboat is no problem.
    -The station-wagon-height means cartopping kayaks and smallcraft is much easier than a taller conventional SUV.
    -Above-average mileage for its size, around 20mpg for me.

    The bad:
    -Terrible brakes. Scare me to death sometimes.
    -No telescoping steering column on my 2009.
    -The Ford Sync interface is so buggy as to be utterly useless.
    -At nearly $40k (in 2009), the SE ought to have a better infotainment center.

  • avatar

    Not bad Ford, but here’s a suggestion; look at the position of the center console for the rear passengers, notice its rising up a few inches when the seats are folded down. So if I buy your quasi-minivan and want to haul say a used couch I picked up for the gf’s kid’s basement playroom (true story), its going to be a real bitch fitting it in with that console not being flush to the folded seats, something that didn’t happen with the circa 1999 Chrysler minivan. Being able to say pull a latch and push it down a little so its even would be an incredibly nice feature, I could see just showing the seats flat and then this ‘latch’ feature to a prospective buyer and hearing them say “that’s awesome attention to detail, I’ll take it”.

    I maintain most minivan/crossover/whatever buyers are pretty much boxed into this class of vehicle since we’re are not allowed to have a better alternative in NA such as a conventional wagon or a basic LWB sedan to cram the kids and car seats into, so kitschy features will sell your product over the competition.

  • avatar

    Whenever I see a Flex, I’m reminded of the brilliant Counterfeit Mini Cooper advertising campaign. Someone at Ford must have loved those ads too. / watch?feature=player_embedded&v=psZRxl1CDw8

  • avatar
    A D H

    A third kid is going to push us to three row territory. While I want to like the Flex, I see its biggest problem being a lack of sliding doors. We have spent the last several weeks driving everything large enough to fit three car seats across or hold them within two rows. We have concluded that sliding doors just makes it way easier to load kids.
    We are leaning towards the SE package in a Sienna as the steering heft and suspension make it feel 20% smaller behind the wheel. Its spartan interior as compared to its peers gives me the only pause.

  • avatar

    They need to change the MSRP to something closer to the average sales price. Yes, dealers love the current system where the occasional suckers keep the place hopping but I think they may be losing on price before many prospective buyers even leave home.

  • avatar

    A friend has a Flex and she likes it greatly. Of course, her teenage boys are 6’3″ and above, so it would be a great conveyance for them.

    Frankly, the mondo-Mini styling turned me off originally, but I really like the updates they performed on this latest version. I don’t know that I’d pay for a new one, but as an used car, maybe…

  • avatar

    Paint it yellow and add some red flashing lights!

    • 0 avatar
      Felis Concolor

      Don’t forget to add a black roof cap for the perfect short bus atmosphere!

      Hm, I wonder how much it would cost to reupholster those seats in the appropriate shade of green leather…

  • avatar

    After reading the comments I’m left thinking the #1 problem is price. Then again that’s a huge problem with many vehicles today. Where is the stripper version for mid-20’s or less?

  • avatar

    Seriously. Kill two birds with one stone. Give the Flex suicide doors, a bit more chrome, paint them all black, and slap a Lincoln grill on it. Voila! The replacement for the Towncar. Make everything back of the B-pillars very upscale and you have the next generation black-car for livery and upscale airport service taken care of.

    Oh, and don’t forget to take it out of the Ford lineup completely.

  • avatar

    I really hope this thing can hold on for a few more years, but I get the feeling it will succumb to the “LOL WAGONS ARE DUMB” mentality that a lot of people still have. A shame, really, but maybe this means the vehicle will become some sort of oddball collectible in the future.

  • avatar

    I’m going to echo many of the comments above. First off, I’m a diehard car enthusiast. If I had my way, I’d drive to the office everyday in a Maserati Quattroporte. When I first saw the Flex, I truly wanted to hate it. As our kid count grew, we knew we needed something bigger, something *NOT* a minivan. My wife really wanted to test drive a Flex. I said no way, that I’m not driving a breadvan/short bus/box whatever you want to call it. She persisted so I said fine, we’ll drive it – with the sole intention of showing her why it wasn’t a good car. On top of that, I haven’t bought an American car since 1996.

    But the test drive totally changed my mind. No, it’s not an enthusiast vehicle. It is however, extremely competent. The ride is smooth, the interior is very nice, and it has gobs of room. Scanning various forums show no major reliability concerns. Better, it’s more maneuverable than you might imagine for a vehicle of it’s size. We live in downtown Charlotte and have no trouble navigating narrow city streets and garages.

    Here’s the downside though – the price new was a major turnoff. For a vehicle targeted at young-ish families, the price is pretty dear once you add any sort of options. My exact words to the dealer was “If I’m paying that, I want something with a German badge”. Sorry Ford. As much as we liked it, there’s no way we were paying that. Yes, ‘deals’ abound, but even with incentive money on the hood it can still be costly.

    We ended up with a 2010 Limited AWD and loaded with pretty much everything for half of what it would’ve stickered for new – plus extended the bumper to bumper coverage for four more years. (Hint – buy it used in Michigan, in Ford’s backyard where they’re a dime a dozen) Now that was a great value, except for the person who owned it before us. And we couldn’t be happier with it.

  • avatar

    The only issue I ever had with the Flex was its hideous front-fascia. Now that it’s been–substantially–improved, I’m really liking it…

  • avatar

    I know this is a minor issue (but it IS a dealbreaker since I park in lots that are less than secure), but the lack of a fuel door latch/lock is killing this vehicle for me. I am aware that i could buy the optional locking gas cap, but those get frozen, keys break, etc.

    Is it REALLY that hard to engineer this sort of thing? All of my vehicles in the last 10 years (3 Hondas, 2 VW’s, and a Scion) have all had them. Is there some deeper issue? $40K is a lot for a vehicle that lacks this functionality.

    • 0 avatar

      Have you ever had an issue with someone trying to steal your gas? Maybe it’s an actual problem in some places, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who it’s happened to.

      The capless fuel filler system does require something rigid to keep the fuel tank accessible. A rubber hose will just get clamped down on, so unless the potential fuel thief is purposefully targeting Fords and has one of the plastic funnels designed to hold the fuel filler opening open, you’d be safe.

    • 0 avatar

      Because of the way modern fuel filler necks are designed, it’s REALLY difficult to siphon gas out of them. If you can even do it all, the rate of fuel flow is pretty much a trickle, so a thief would spend a long time at the secene of the crime.

      The few modern gas thieves that are out there these days are actually just crawling under lifted pickups or SUVs and punching a hole in the tank itself. Of course that sucks even more for the vehicle owner, who is then stranded and left with a big repair bill.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    I’ve seen a lot of soccer moms driving these because of their utility. It’s not a “Mommy Missile”, “Canyonero” and a station wagon would be beyond the pale. It’s bought for what it’s not.

  • avatar

    As much as I like the Flex as a latter day Country Squire, I see myself in a next generation Transit Connect far more easily. Actually given the family proclivities, a Transit crew van might make even more sense since a large amount of our driving involves moving 4 people and 4-8 bicycles 2-300 miles. Other than that the car gets used for grocery shopping and not much else.

  • avatar

    That new front end makes it look more like a ’70 Suburban than ever.

    One of only a handful of new cars that I find truly attractive and I’ve never been a fan of wagons. I would love to have a stripped down, plain jane, version with a front bench seat and a Jeep Liberty style sliding cloth roof.

  • avatar

    I really like the Flex, and the redesign with the LED’s up front looks slick. I also like the old-school F L E X across the front. I sat in one of these last year (Ford dealer across from the auto service place on a Sunday – closed but left all the car doors unlocked). Of all the 2012 Ford vehicles I sat in, including the big trucks and new Focii, etc, the Flex felt the best built, and most “Germanic” as I’d put it. Heavy doors, big interior, solid panels, small gaps. I sat in a Limited in pearl white and it was beautiful. Little sunroofs all over the place, and perforated leather seats.

    The price – that was a little high for a Ford. But then it had Lincoln-level interior appointments.

    Meet the new MKFX.

  • avatar

    I’m no fan of large vehicles, but compare this review to my neighbor’s 2012 Mini Cooper Countryman and there’s reason to consider the big boy.

    When I first saw the yellow Mini across the street, I thought, “Cool! Let’s take a look!” Hey, this Mini was, uh, not so mini! In fact, it seemed bulbous and portly, especially next to their 2012 Jetta.

    Not so mini outside, but huge divedends inside? Not so much, but certainly more room than the standard Mini with more cargo space, but still seemed less than a Focus or Versa, let alone a Kia Soul or some other boxy boxes. Interior styling was youthful and kitschy, but I still don’t get the tach only behind the wheel logic. Decent materials; not stellar considering the price.

    The ride was sporty and properly taught, if a bit crashy over large bumps. A drive in a Mazda 3 or Ford Focus shows off more finesse and comfort with a hell of a lot of tossable fun. One certainly doesn’t enjoy that in the behemoth Flex, but the comfort is incomparable. A recent ride in the Mini with 12,000 miles under its belt revealed squeeks and rattles befitting a car with many more miles, which makes me question the wisdom of owning the expensive status toy. They report 25mpg in mostly city driving and several repair issues.

    Of course, no one in the Mini market will cross shop a Flex, or vice versa. But compare all this to the price, comfort, interior quality and utility of the Flex; one must wonder if a Big Flex is a worthy alternative to a fat and pricey “Mini!”

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