Custom vans were popular once – a long time ago. They combined coolness, power and utility in the same package. But they disappeared because of the Rise of the Minivan in the early ’80s – which happened as a result (chiefly) of rising fuel prices. Old-style custom vans like BA Baracus’ A-Team van usually had big V-8s – and big thirsts to go with them. Minivans had the space and utility, with good gas mileage – but neither coolness nor power.
“Crossover” wagons came along in the late ’90s to fix that – but now there are so many of them – and so many that look alike – that buyers looking for something different can feel pretty discouraged about the whole thing.
The cure for that is the Ford Flex Ecoboost – an A Team Machine for the 21st century.
WHAT IT IS
The Flex is a large, low-riding, wagon-like thing with three rows of seats and room for 6-7 people that can be ordered with the Taurus SHO’s 355 hp twin-turbo’d “Ecoboost” V-6 engine, ground-hugging AWD and numerous high-end/custom features.
Gun lockers and armor plating can be added later on, if you wanted.
Prices run from $29,075 for the base SE model with front-wheel-drive to $40,340 for a top-of-the-line Titanium edition with the 355 hp V-6, mondo 20 inch wheels and all-wheel-drive.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011
Ford has added a “kitchen sink” Titanium trim to the lineup that includes everything that last year’s top-of-the-line Limited came with, plus a unique 20 inch wheel/tire package, swanky suede-like microfiber and leather-trimmed seats plus numerous exterior and interior trim upgrades. It’s as nicely fitted out as a corporate Gulfstream jet.
Twin-turbo’d Ecoboost V-6 pulls as strongly as Mr. T’s big block V-8 when you need it to – but doesn’t drink gas like a big block V-8 the rest of the time.
Numerous factory-available custom touches including two-tone paint, ambient mood lighting, built-in ‘Fridge, four-piece Vista roof and power inverter.
Not a minivan – or another crossover.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
No A-Team style burnouts through the more socially responsible AWD system that’s paired with the Ecoboost turbo V-6.
Base (not EcoBoosted) version of the 3.5 V-6 is a sore-gummed Gimp in a pushing 5,000 pound fully loaded Flex.
Available second-row fridge only holds about a six-pack.
UNDER THE HOOD
Last year, Ford added its 355 hp, 3.5 liter Ecoboost V-6 to the Flex’s powertrain lineup. This engine features direct injection as well as a pair of turbochargers; one for low-speed boost, the other for higher RPM boost. The result is a consistent, big-engined surge of power throughout the engine’s operating range – without the sudden peaks (and valleys) that are common with small displacement (and single turbo) turbocharged engines.
It is is pretty much the same engine used in the current Taurus SHO and it delivers SHO-like performance in the Flex: 0-60 in about 6.5 seconds. The Ecoboost V-6 is paired with a performance-calibrated six-speed automatic (with paddle shifters) and all-wheel-drive. You also get faster steering, firmer suspension and lower ride height (more on this below).
The Flex’s base engine is another story.
It is also a 3.5 liter V-6 but it produces much less power – 262 hp – 93 less than the Ecoboost unit. It’s not that it’s weak – it’s just not enough to comfortably move the 4,500 lbs. (empty) FWD Flex.
If you add AWD (optionally available with this engine) and put two or three people in it, you can expect a Prius-like 0-60 time in the pushing 10 second range.
There is about a three second difference, 0-60, between a Flex with the Ecoboost engine and a Flex with the non-Ecoboost engine.
But gas mileage is almost a dead heat.
The muscular AWD Flex with the Ecoboost V-6 rates 16 city, 21 highway while the standard V-6 (with AWD) pulls down the same 16 city and a slightly better 22 MPGs on the highway – despite the 93 hp difference in power output.
Now you know why Ford calls its twin-turbo wonder Ecoboost.
Maximum towing capacity is 4,500 lbs. with Class III hitch – about 1,000 pounds more capacity than a car and about 1,000 pounds less than a truck-based mid-sized SUV with a V-8.
ON THE ROAD
I spent a week in a Titanium-trim Flex with the Ecoboost engine. It arrived a day before we got about four inches of snow topped by about a half-inch of ice. I constantly tell people who mostly won’t believe me how good these AWD-equipped vehicles are in bad weather. Even with those narrow sidewall, sport-intended 20-inch tires, the Flex wasn’t fazed by the snow. It got me up and down “the mountain” (Bent Mountain, in SW Virginia, where I live) about as well as my 4WD-equipped pick-up truck. It slid a little to be sure, but it did not founder. Gentle inputs and maintaining momentum got me home – and I am telling you, that’s no small thing where I live.
Many of my country friends – and almost all the city boys I know – are convinced that truck-type 4WD is essential.
If you actually do go off paved roads, that’s something else. But if your journeys are on the beaten path, then AWD (and a good set of tires) will get you there 99 out of 100 times.
And the rest of the time – when it’s not snowing – that 355 hp engine is just the ticket for muey rapido, A-Team style getaways. This thing is an SHO in sheep’s clothing, which is a beautiful thing because almost no one expects it – or sees it coming.
And then, you’re gone.
It’d be big fun if Ford made the Ecoboost engine available with front-wheel-drive. Melty, smoky burnouts would be easy, then.
Mr. T would be pleased.
He’d also appreciate the Flex’s ride – so much smoother than the BA Mobile’s.
The Flex has a fairly wide-tracked stance (the distance between each pair of tires, side to side) which along with a long 117.9-inch wheelbase gives the Flex a Maybach-like ride that absorbs dips and bumps like The Blob absorbed people – and just keeps on moving.
The flat hood and upright glass all around provide generally good visibility forward and to the sides. An available back-up camera helps with the rear-view. People with shorter legs or less than great knees will like the tall, wide-opening doors, low step-in height and the excellent access to the second and third row seats.
AT THE CURB
People who hate on new cars for having no soul or individuality have no memory. Or, they haven’t seen the Flex.
Check out the grooved side-panels, the optional multi-panel Vista Roof, capless fuel filler, the foot rests for the second row passengers – and the available party time mini-fridge between the two second-row seats.
The Vista Roof has tilt and slide main sections and fixed rear glass sections (with privacy shades). You get air and natural sunlight throughout the interior. The mini-fridge is a great idea and it’s also one of the few such that isn’t merely a “cooler” but a real-deal refrigerator with a compressor that can chill your stuff down to 41 degrees. The only downside is it’s kind of small – it’ll hold about a six-pack – and it takes two-plus hours to achieve full cool-down.
Like a standard minivan or crossover you can drop and stow the second and third rows of seats to maximize cargo-carrying capacity – which totals 83 cubic feet with the second and third rows down. You’ve got 20 cubic feet behind the third row when they’re up. This is less than the 100-plus cubic foot volume that’s typical of most current standard minivans and mid-large crossover SUVs/wagons, but it’s still a lot of space. The length of the Flex is enough to permit carting home eight-foot-long boards with the rear gate closed. I know it is because I did it.
Eighteen-inch rims are standard on the base FWD deal – with the ever-popular 20s a major feature of the new Titanium package (they also come with the Limited). But you can also order 17-inch wheels with winter/all-season tires, too.
Fords are getting fancy. The $29k base model Flex includes a Lincoln-esque exterior keypad entry system, auto climate control AC, eight-way power driver’s seat, six-speaker stereo and a lot more, too. By the time you’re up to the Limited trim, you’ve got 19 inch and 20 inch wheels, heated seats, multi-zone climate control, real wood and leather trim, available power adjustable pedals, 110V inverter to run laptops or portable TVs, ambient mood lighting, power tailgate, GPS and a pounding 12 speaker Sony stereo rig with hard drive music storage and Sync integrated voice command to operate it all.
By the time you’re at the Titanium level, you are looking at a $40k Ford that’s as dressy and fancy as a Lincoln – or Lexus. That’s a double-edge sword, of course. On the one hand, it’s nice that Fords are getting this nice. But will buyers pay $40k for “just” a Ford – no matter how nice it happens to be?
The recently revived – and quickly re-retired – Ford Thunderbird got caught in this Catch 22. Most people thought it was a really neat car; very few people disliked it. It got a lot of looks. But T-birds didn’t get a lot of action at Ford stores – in many critics’ opinion because of the car’s almost-Lexus price tag.
I hope this doesn’t happen to the Flex. And it does have the advantage of starting out under $30k. The expensive Limited and Titanium packages aren’t the volume models.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Individuality still exists. Bless Ford for keeping the flame alive.