2013 Ford Flex

PORTLAND, Ore. — We heaped the Ford Flex with praise upon its introduction four years ago because of its incredible utility, its outstanding versatility and its family friendly demeanor. The boxy Flex was in our estimation the embodiment of the 21st Century station wagon. But the fly in the ointment is its polarizing styling, and that's probably the chief reason sales have sagged. Ford hopes styling tweaks and upgrades in packaging will give the grand wagon a new lease on life for the 2013 model year.

No way to hide the fact that the Flex is a big box, but Ford has done a creditable job in what its 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.

One of the biggest upgrades comes with the standard 3.5-liter V-6. Horsepower has been raised 23 to 285 and torque seven foot-pounds to 255. At the same time, gas mileage has been increased one mile per gallon across the board to 18/25 in front-wheel drive format. The twin-turbo 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 continues as the optional engine making an impressive 355 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque.

We drove the EcoBoost at high altitudes in Colorado a couple years back and can attest to its prodigious performance and trailer-towing (4,500 pounds) prowess.

What impressed us on winding mountain roads and stretches of four-lane highway around Portland was the very adequate performance of the updated standard V-6. Mated to a six-speed automatic, it matched up quite nicely with the 4,637-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 Flex presented a high level of competence with its performance, stability and feel of the road thanks to new and responsive electric-assist power steering. This is the kind of confidence a family expects from its transportation choice.

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.

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, espiecially for families who have grown weary of the minivan look. It will accommodate seven passengers and as much as 83.3 cubic feet of cargo. If ultimate passenger comfort is your goal, opt for the second-row reclining and heated captain's chairs.

The interior of the new Flex is first rate with soft-touch materials, an attractive dashboard design, and excellent fit and finish.

The Flex comes in three well-equipped trim levels starting at $31,710.

— Jim Meachen