This is another in a series of posts I'm writing about my search
for a new car to replace my current leased Volvo, which I have to give
up in July.
Catch up with the entire series here.
Can two middle-aged mothers and four tweenage girls find happiness on a 270-mile drive through the desert to Las Vegas?
Oh, yes - especially when they're making the trip in a Flex: Ford's luxurious new six-passenger crossover vehicle. (Note: the model we drove only had seating for six, but other models will hold up to seven passengers.)
I've had my eye on the Flex for several months -- ever since I started seeing the model on the roads of Los Angeles. It kind of took me by surprise, and not just because of its cool look and retro styling.
You see, with all the news of the economic downturn and low auto sales, new cars stand out - especially when it's counter-intuitive to think they will find a place in the market.
For one thing, the Flex is not a hybrid or alternative fuel vehicle.
"You mean, it doesn't use flex fuel?" asked a puzzled environmentalist friend.
No. I'm not really sure of the origin of the name. I think it might have something to do with flexibility in configuring the interior space: ALL the seats (with the exception of the driver's) can be folded flat so you can transport some fairly large items in it.
It looks BIG - but according to Edmunds.com, when it comes to the Flex, looks are deceiving. It's actually 3 inches shorter than a Dodge Caravan - yet offers considerably more third-row legroom than a minivan or even a Chevy Tahoe.
It's also lower to the ground than a standard SUV - making getting in and out of the vehicle very easy.
With average mileage of 16 mpg City and 22 mpg Highway, the Flex's fuel economy isn't wonderful... unless you compare it to vehicles of similar size and capacity. It's about the same as GM's Traverse, the (non-hybrid) Toyota Highlander and Honda's Pilot -- but you've got to remember that thing about the legroom.
"Once you get your hands on one of those, you're not going to want to give it back," said my friend Tim, who is a car guy. When Tim shops for a new car, he reads all the automotive magazines (actually, he's doing that ANYWAY). He spends weeks test driving EVERYTHING and often rents models of cars he's considering so he can drive them around for a few days. Then, after all that, he goes out and gets a new BMW.
And folks like Tim may be the market segment Ford is going after with the Flex, because even the standard Limited model I drove has features that usually require an upgrade: Leather seats (including a 10-way adjustable power seat for the driver), wood trim, adjustable pedals, privacy glass, power liftgate, and tire pressure monitoring are all included in the base model (which is probably why the MSRP for this model was a whopping $36,555 - but you can get one with a lot fewer standard features for $28,550). When you're in this car, you feel like you're riding in a limo.
Then there are innovations Ford is offering on the Flex (both standard and optional), which make the vehicle truly exciting.
One thing I have learned to do when driving a new car is to figure out where the gas tank is - and how to release the cap for refueling. Okay, so this may not sound all that exciting to you -- but I loved it. It's harder to do than it sounds for some new vehicles, but really simple on the Flex, because it doesn't even have a gas cap! Since it's impossible to siphon gas out of the tank or steal the cap, there's no need for a lock or release mechanism -- so when the need arises, all you have to do is open the little door and fill 'er up... and you'll never have to face the embarrassment of forgetting to put the cap back on.
Ford says that the new system has a better seal and reduces fuel emissions from the tank, so it's being billed as an environmentally friendly feature. I just found it really convenient. And cool.
Also standard in the Flex Limited model I drove is "ambient interior lighting," which allows you to accent the front console, footwells and the two front cupholders with a choice of seven different colors. I know, it sounds kind of silly -- but the kids all loved it, and it added to the feeling that we were driving around Las Vegas in a party car.
Optional features everyone enjoyed included the "vista roof": four "skylights" over all three rows of seats, that let natural light into the vehicle. The passengers riding in the two back rows LOVED having their own moonroof.
The second row of seats on our Flex also came equipped with a refrigerator in the center console. This is not just an insulated cooler (although it will keep things cool when the engine is turned off ) but an actual refrigeration unit that even be used as a FREEZER. It will hold up to a six-pack of 12-ounce sodas, and allowed us to make our road trip with fewer stops, because our beverages stayed COLD.
But my favorite feature on the Flex was the SYNC communications system (a joint innovation between Ford and Microsoft). I know lots of cars offer bluetooth for the phone and a jack for an MP3 player -- but SYNC integrates those functions (as well as climate control and optional navigation system).
SYNC can also be operated via voice commands.
Now, I have to admit that I had trouble getting the voice commands to work. I did manage to tell it when I wanted to play music off my iPod and I even asked for one of my playlists by name. But the system was too complicated for my aging brain to get a handle on in the short time I had possession of the car.
However, I guarantee you that if I'm fortunate enough to own a vehicle equipped with SYNC, I'll figure it out. It just might take me a month.
So... I've covered all the gee-whiz cool features on the Flex. One question remains: How was the ride?
It was smooth, quiet and comfortable. It felt just like the big, American cars my parents drove when I was a kid. And it was powerful; the V6 engine gave me plenty of pick-up. I could have gone really fast without realizing it. But I didn't feel like driving fast. It rained for half the ride out of Los Angeles (until we hit the desert), so I took it slowly. This was fine, because the car is so comfortable that no one was in a hurry to leave it.
We also felt really safe. Its low center of gravity resulted in a very stable ride, even driving through gusty, stormy winds. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Flex its top rating, which is reassuring.
The car handles well, is easy to park - and our model included a Reverse Camera system (bundled with the Navigation system), which I absolutely loved.
In the end, my friend Tim was right: I didn't want to give the Flex back. And since Wednesday, when I had to return it, I've been trying to figure out if there's a way I can swing the payments for one when the lease on my Volvo runs out.
Right now, that doesn't look likely. I need to set my sights lower. But I hear the SYNC system is also available on the Edge, the Escape, the Fusion and the Focus -- all vehicles that I'm also considering for my purchase. They may not all have interior ambient lighting... but I might still be able to play my iPod and talk to it, too.