Ford Flex EcoBoost — The quintessential family vehicle

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

All you have to do is look at the numbers — 355 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque — and you know it can go fast in a hurry.

But Ford was intent on displaying something else to journalists at high altitude near Estes Park, Colorado. Ford people spent an entire afternoon coaxing automotive writers into taking the company’s new Ford Flex EcoBoost, with a beefed-up six-speed automatic, up steep grades while towing a recreational vehicle.

What made this exercise in towing so impressive is that those officials had assembled a half dozen competitor vehicles including a Dodge Durango and Chevrolet Suburban outfitted with normally aspirated V-8 engines (they breathe better than turbos at higher altitudes) for comparison purposes.

After a couple of hours of driving the EcoBoost Flex and jumping in and out of several other vehicles, we were convinced of what Ford wanted us to be convinced of — the Flex EcoBoost is a champ at towing weekend toys at high altitude. Its tow rating is a healthy 4,500 pounds and it accomplishes its assigned task without working up a sweat.

We agree that Ford picked the perfect place to show off the twin-turbocharged forced induction V-6 at its peak capability against the V-8s that were struggling to catch their breath at 5,000 feet. But, hey, if you are going to the mountains dragging a small motor home, what better family vehicle to pull the camping equipment than the Flex?

The Flex test vehicles were outfitted with trailer sway control, a nice feature for towing novices. If you are into towing, the tow package, which includes the sway control, is a relatively inexpensive $570 option.

And for good measure Ford demonstrated the Flex’s new award winning Active Park Assist, which, like the Lexus of a few years ago and other vehicles, is a system that will automatically guide the vehicle through parallel parking maneuvers. Popular Science magazine named the system the “Best Of What’s New” for 2009 in the automotive category.

Without a doubt the Ford system is the best we’ve tested, effectively demonstrating how much easier it was to park the new Flex as compared to the Lexus system. Without using cameras and without jockeying back and forth just push a button and the Ford system sensors will tell you if the vehicle will fit the space you want to park in. If the system verifies the space just pull forward a bit until you hear the signal, put it in reverse, take your hands off the steering wheel – braking is your only responsibility – and very neatly and quickly Active Park Assist will steer and park you perfectly. Be mindful that this feature is an option available on Ford Motor Company vehicles with electronic power assisted steering, and is reasonably priced at $550.

However if you are just into energetic vehicles know that Ford’s new EcoBoost engine technology that makes a V-6 engine feel like a V-8 but with the gas mileage of a V-6 will provide performance satisfaction in the big Flex wagon (curb weight 4,839 pounds) measured from 0 to 60 in under seven seconds.

Gas mileage is reasonable at 18 mpg city and 22 mpg highway for the EcoBoost’s standard all-wheel drive setup. Ford recommends using premium fuel, but regular gas is okay according to the powertrain engineers.

Here’s the thing. The standard Flex SEL — the trim level we feel most people will purchase — comes with a very capable 3.5-liter 262-horsepower V-6 at a savings of $3,000 over the EcoBoost SEL. If you opt for front-wheel drive, the standard SEL comes in at a savings of $5,000.

Perhaps that’s why Ford wanted to demonstrate the EcoBoost’s towing and hauling capabilities, while perhaps downplaying its performance potential.

But we are performance junkies, and figuring that the standard engine gets no better fuel economy (16/22), we would simply have to hurdle the off-the-lot price to get our kicks. Some things are just worth the extra money and the Flex with EcoBoost is one of them.

To Ford’s credit it believes in continual upgrades and for 2010 all models get a telescoping steering wheel and the SEL and Limited trim levels get the highly regarded Sync audio and information system as standard equipment.

For those still not familiar with the Flex, it is a unique Ford invention that reached the market as a 2009 model. In no way does it resemble a minivan, which has grown out of favor with many families, and it’s far removed from the newly popular curvaceous crossover designs that sacrifice function over form.

Its interior volume rivals a minivan, but unlike a minivan it is capable of towing things, and it comes in an all-wheel drive format for bad-weather peace of mind.

It’s square and boxy and it works.

With its flat roof and slab sides it reminds us of a Mini Cooper on steroids, the end result of a automotive Incredible Hulk experiment. This is all said with much affection because after spending a week behind the wheel of a Limited Edition we are convinced that if we were in the market for a passenger-friendly machine, the Flex would make it into our top three.

We were drawn to the styling, which is probably a love/hate thing with most people. We fall on the love side of the equation. We think the Flex is possibly the most sophisticated vehicle from Ford in several decades. And the Flex has been singled out as a “Collectible Vehicle of the Future” by the Friends of the National Automotive History Collection.

Awards aside, from behind the wheel we found ourselves pleased with its drivability and road-trip comfort. And perhaps most importantly we were impressed with its passenger friendliness: its high and comfortable seating positions, stretch-out legroom (44-inches) for second-row passengers, a third-row seat that can actually hold two adults in a modicum of comfort with legroom of 33-inches and head room, even far back, that is more generous than virtually all mid-sized sedans and most mid-sized and full-sized crossovers. Plus scads of useable storage space, cupholders for every rider and the availability of a vast array of options to make the driving and riding experience first class.

The Flex has all the ingredients of a top-rate family hauler. And it can be outfitted with a second-row refrigerator and a panoramic sunroof.

Six adults can live in harmony in the Ford super-box although those assigned to the rear-most seats may start squirming after a hundred miles.

Be mindful that this is a big vehicle and it drives as big as its 202-inch length and 76-inch width would suggest, but it handled well in parking lot situations despite a rather large 40.7-foot turning circle.

Standard safety includes antilock brakes, stability control and a full complement of airbags. A big selling point for the safety-conscience family is the five-star front- and side-impact crash ratings recently received from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The Flex carries a rather large price-tag, and there is considerable competition at these prices. Options are many and can fuel the bottom line. The base front-wheel drive SE starts at $29,235, but comes with numerous standard features that may be all many people need including full power equipment, keyless entry, automatic climate control, tilt-telescoping steering wheel, power front seats, and a six-speaker audio system with CD player.

Probably the most popular trim is the SEL, which comes in at $32,100 including destination charge. Add all-wheel drive to the SEL and it jacks the price up $1,850. The SEL EcoBoost climbs to $36,945. The top line Limited EcoBoost runs a breathtaking $42,840.

Flex is the quintessential family vehicle especially if you need towing capability, and desire car-like handling. EcoBoost provides the fun performance factor and reasonable frugality at the pump. It’s the complete package, albeit a large one.

Base price: $36,945; as driven, $36,945
Engine: 3.5-liter twin turbo V-6
Horsepower: 355 @ 5,700 rpm
Torque: 350 foot-pounds @ 3,500 rpm
Drive: all-wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3/3
Wheelbase: 117.9 inches
Length: 201.8 inches
Curb weight: 4,839 pounds
Turning circle: 40.7 feet
Towing capacity: 4,500 pounds
Luggage capacity: 20 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 83 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18.6 gallons (premium recommended)
EPA rating: 22 mpg highway, 18 mpg city
0-60: 6 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Chevrolet Traverse, Mazda CX-9, Lincoln MKT

The Good:
• Excellent towing capacity with EcoBoost engine
• Outstanding performance
• High-quality cabin
• Seven-passenger space

The Bad:
• Less cargo space than competing minivans

The Ugly:
• Price of entry for EcoBoost edition is steep