Lifestyle

Ford Flex: Nifty Design, Poor Timing


Despite a bold look and top-drawer fit and finish, the new Ford Flex is struggling on the sales floor

There are a half-dozen Ford Flex crossovers lined up in the front of Varsity Ford along Jackson Avenue in Ann Arbor, Mich. It doesn't look like people are beating down the doors to drive them away. But let's be fair. Any crossover/SUV scoring 17/24 mpg (19 mpg combined) isn't exactly as hot as Springsteen tickets right now. That's a shame because the Flex combines terrific utility with a nifty-looking design, and it has an overall upmarket feel that should have made it a hit for Ford (F). But it hasn't been. Through the end of June, only 1,379 Flexes have been sold, according to Automotive News, making it the worst-performing light truck in Ford's lineup.

It's not as if the Flex's fuel economy is lousy for a vehicle that seats seven. In fact, it's pretty darn good—20% better than a Ford Explorer (BusinessWeek.com, 9/1/06) and 28% better than a Ford Expedition (BusinessWeek.com, 2/20/07). It compares well with the GMC Acadia (BusinessWeek.com, 7/14/06) and the Buick Enclave (BusinessWeek.com, 8/24/07) (19 mpg combined), the first models to establish a toehold in the new "full-size crossover" category. But people are looking harder at cars that can top 30 mpg on the highway these days to replace gas-guzzlers, rather than just better-mileage crossovers.

The Flex lives up to the mission of Ford's designers—come up with a design that is so strong that people are driven to love it or hate it. In my house, I like it fine, especially in the MINI-like two-tone clothes, like a blue body and white roof. My wife could only muster, "It's so boxy." And how about those grooves cut into the side panels? They evoke wood-paneled wagons of the 1950s. Yet Ford insists the Flex isn't retro, and designers bristle at the thought of a woody version like Chrysler offered with the PT Cruiser. Says Flex's brand manager, Usha Raghavachari: "The Flex wouldn't be the Flex without its grooves."

Inside, the Flex has better tailoring than just about anything else Ford has in its showrooms. The company has clearly gotten its act together on vehicles like this, the Lincoln MKZ (BusinessWeek.com, 11/8/06) and the new MKS. The Flex's seats, supportive for the two hours I drove one, are wrapped with either herringbone-patterned cloth or leather. The Flex's engineering platform, which is shared with the last-generation Volvo S80 (BusinessWeek.com, 7/23/07) and the current Taurus (BusinessWeek.com, 10/12/07), Taurus X, and MKS, has been stretched to provide an amazing amount of backseat legroom. Memo to the black-car trade that buys Lincoln Town Cars now: Think about buying Flexes to replace the Lincolns and Ford Crown Victorias.

The Flex's third row is perfectly functional as third rows go. Fact is, this row is for kids. However, to test it, I put my 5-foot-11, 270-pound frame back there, and was not unhappy. The flip-'n'-fold mechanism to gain access to the last row and fold the seats flat for that inevitable trip to Lowe's for plywood work just fine. The overall carrying space does not equal that of my minivan. But I can't think of anything I'd be carrying that wouldn't fit.

The Flex is powered by a 262-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 connected to a six-speed automatic transmission. There is also an all-wheel-drive version. Next year, Ford will add its EcoBoost engine as an option, which should nudge fuel economy up about 15%.

In 2009, toys matter. The Flex can be outfitted with a good-size touchscreen navigation screen that will also get you Ford's SYNC, which allows hands-free, voice-activated cell-phone and iPod use, as well as the new Travelink, which gives you real-time traffic info plus locations for the nearest ATMs, gas, and eateries. Feature packages offer sun/sky roofs, a compressor-driven fridge in the rear, optional 19-inch wheels, heated rear seats, a rear-seat AC outlet, second-row reclining seats, and colored LED lighting. You can drive away a hard-topped, adequately outfitted Flex for $30,000-plus (actual base price starts at $28,295), or all the way up the ladder to a $44,000-plus loaded version when you add all-wheel drive, navigation with backup camera, rear-seat entertainment, vista roof, and the two-tone roof.

The only thing wrong with the Flex may be the price at the pump. But if you are trading up in fuel economy from an Explorer or Toyota's (TM) Sequoia (BusinessWeek.com, 1/15/08), then the Flex may seem like a green step up. While the full-size crossover vehicles from General Motors (GM) have terrific performance and utility, styling is not their best attribute. Ford managed both.

Kiley is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Detroit bureau.

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