Ford Flex — An elegant people hauler with muscle

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

It's a big box that defies the current styling fashion of form over function. The Ford Flex squeezes the most out of its size, one of the most family-friendly vehicles on the highway today. No sloping roof that steals head room and cargo space, just a lot of cubic feet for people and belongings.

But there's more. There's a fox lurking under this sheep's clothing if you purchase the top-of-the-line Limited edition and check off the box for the optional twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V-6. The family hauler can be turned into a screaming stoplight juggernaut that can surprise an unwary motorist.

It comes with 355 horsepower — 10 more than in 2012 — and 350 pound-feet of torque, a 0-to-60 time in around 6 seconds and a towing capacity of 4,500 pounds. And the big engine is paired with all-wheel drive, a handy feature for a variety of reasons.

Perhaps more practical and certainly no slouch when it comes to performance and towing even with a full load of people and cargo is the standard 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 285 horsepower (up 23 from the 2012 model) and 255 pound-feet of torque, up seven.

When the boxy Flex entered the market four years ago it was hailed as the embodiment of the 21st Century station wagon. But the fly in the ointment was its polarizing styling.  Ford hopes styling tweaks and upgrades in packaging will give the grand wagon a new lease on life for the 2013 model year.

Ford has done a creditable job in what it calls "modernizing the design" with more rounded edges, a revised grille that loses the Ford blue oval replaced by the Flex name in big boxy letters, dual exhausts, and an appearance package that includes 20-inch machined aluminum wheels with painted pockets, a two-tone roof, leather seating and unique door trim panels.

There is no denying the Flex is large. Even with its lower flat roof you can’t get past the image of its length. But open the door and slide in behind the wheel you’ll find a comfy space that reminds you of smaller vehicles. Flex may be big but it is easy to drive.

Ford has significantly upgraded the Flex's standard and optional convenience and safety equipment for 2013. They include an upgraded, easier-to-use MyFord Touch system, ventilated front seats, adaptive cruise control, keyless ignition/entry, blind-spot monitoring, power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, and inflatable second-row seatbelts.

Flex accommodates seven people (the second-row captain's chairs reduces the seating capacity to six but ups the comfort level) with relatively easy access to the third row thanks to a standard second-row one-touch tumble feature. It gives the owner minivan space without the minivan stigma.

The combination of towing capacity not found in a minivan and the cargo and passenger space of a minivan continues to make the Flex an attractive alternative, especially for families who have grown weary of the minivan look. It will accommodate as much as 83.3 cubic feet of cargo.

We found our test of the Flex EcoBoost on flat land delightfully fast, which also gives it a satisfying performance demeanor no matter how seriously you load it up. The newly horsepower-infused V-6 also impressed us on winding mountain roads and stretches of four-lane highway. Mated to a six-speed automatic, it matched up quite nicely with the 4,909-pound curb weight of our all-wheel drive test vehicle. When we asked for more power on upgrades, it delightfully delivered. When we instructed it to pass a slow-moving vehicle on a testy two-lane road, it complied in a gratifying manner.

The new Flex presents a high level of competence with its performance, stability and feel of the road thanks to new and responsive electric-assist power steering, brake-based "torque vectoring," Ford's "curve control" program and tighter suspension tuning.

Curve control monitors corner entry speeds in such areas as freeway ramps. If the driver's speed seems a bit fast, the program can reduce engine torque and increase brake pressure. The torque-vectoring function is basically an electronic limited-slip differential using selective front-wheel braking to the wheel with grip to keep the vehicle in line.

All-important gas mileage has been improved slightly over 2012 and is impressive when considering engine size and the vehicle's weight. Our test vehicle with the EcoBoost engine and all-wheel drive had an EPA of 16 mpg in the city, 23 mpg on the highway and a combined 18 mpg.

The Flex is not inexpensive, but when its long list of standard comfort and convenience features is figured into the equation, it becomes more of a bargain. It comes in three trim levels — SE, SEL and Limited — starting at $31,710 including destination charge. The SEL begins at $34,050 and the Limited at $40,055. Our loaded Limited AWD test vehicle with the EcoBoost V-6 carried a bottom line of $49,960.

Base price: $31,710; as driven, $49,960
Engine: 3.5-liter turbocharged V-6
Horsepower: 355 @ 3,500 rpm
Torque: 350 foot-pounds @ 3,500 rpm
Drive: all-wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/2/2
Wheelbase: 117.9 inches
Length: 201.8 inches
Curb weight: 4,909 pounds
Turning circle: 41.5 feet
Luggage capacity: 20 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 83.2 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18.6 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 23 highway, 16 city
0-60 : 6 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Acura MDX, Dodge Durango, Chevrolet Tahoe

The Good
• Spacious cabin
• Strong performance
• All-wheel drive available

The Bad
• MyFord Touch still difficult to operate

The Ugly
• Less cargo space than some rivals