Love it or hate it, in a segment populated by look-alike swoopy blobs, the 2017 Ford Flex stands out as character-rich counterpoint, a people carrier that revels in its boxy, individualistic practicality. And make no mistake, the Flex’s unapologetically squared-off lines translate into an immensely practical vehicle that makes maximum use of its big footprint to deliver gobs of interior room, easy passenger access, and better-than-average outward visibility.
Driving the Flex [is] an unexpected pleasure: It accelerates with enthusiasm, corners with confidence, and provides a moderately high driving position (and therefore good outward view lines) without being tall and tippy.
As a bonus, the Flex’s low-riding wagon-esque style means that it’s hands-down one of the best-driving large SUVs on the road, even if it also dispenses with any notion that its available all-wheel drive will ever see off-road use beyond the occasional cottage access trail.
It’s got the power to please too, especially when equipped with the Limited trim’s available turbocharged 3.5L EcoBoost V6, which churns out an impressive 365 hp and a whopping 350 lb-ft of torque (the standard-issue, normally aspirated 3.5L Duratec V6 delivers a still-healthy 287 hp and 254 lb-ft of torque). Put your boot to the Flex Limited’s throttle and it scoots off like a hot-hatch, dispatching the 0–100 km/h run in a quick 6.5 seconds.
Comfort and room to spare
Inside, the Flex offers three rows of seating for up to seven. I found the heated and cooled 10-way power-adjustable front seats in my Limited trim test vehicle to be nicely padded and thoroughly comfortable, although they could perhaps use a little more bolstering. The 60/40-split folding second row is positively enormous, so you’re unlikely to get complaints from even the tallest teenagers, and it features adjustable backrests and a fold-down centre armrest with built-in cupholders (a second-row console is optional).
Even the 50/50-split folding third row is decently roomy and comfortable for adult-size passengers, and thanks to the Flex’s extra-wide rear door openings and passenger-side power folding second-row seat, accessing the third row from the curb side is easy-peasy. Where most three-row SUVs tend to treat the third row as a bit of an afterthought, the Flex’s has some party tricks, with the ability to not only fold flat but also fold forward (leaving a useful cargo well aft) or flip backward to create a comfortable tailgating perch.
Up front, the clean, uncluttered dash is anchored by a big eight-inch touchscreen running Ford’s well-regarded Sync 3 system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support (base models get a 4.2-inch screen and Sync voice activation). The Sync 3 system places emphasis on ease-of-use, with plain, easy-to-read graphics, quick responses, a reasonably intuitive menu system, and voice activation capability. The centre stack uses slightly finicky touch-sensitive climate controls, and while I’d prefer real buttons and knobs I found that the dual-zone automatic climate control (with manual rear controls) works well enough that I hardly ever needed to touch the controls anyway, instead mostly just changing the seat heating and cooling, which is controlled through the infotainment interface.
Interior materials are mostly up to snuff, although some of the components seemed better suited to the $29,353 base model than my loaded, EcoBoosted $45,699 Limited-trim test vehicle: There’s quite a bit of scratch-prone hard plastic scattered about, for example, and the interior door pulls are a bit hollow-feeling. I also found the impressionistic wood-grain-like trim inserts to be a bit polarizing – I quite liked them (they have a retro vibe that suits the Flex’s body style, and they’re certainly a lot better than a fake-looking attempt at real wood), but some of my passengers weren’t so sure. What is sure is that the big door pockets and capacious console bin mean that there’s plenty of room for all your stuff on a long road trip.
The 2017 Flex is available in three trim levels: SE, SEL, and Limited. SE models (starting at $29,353) come with front-wheel drive, cloth upholstery, 17-inch wheels and a decent list of standard equipment including manual air conditioning, leather-wrapped tilt/telescoping steering wheel, six-way power adjustable driver’s seat (with four-way manual passenger seat), cruise control, rear-view camera, reverse sensor system, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, ice-blue ambient lighting, illuminated vanity mirrors, solar-tinted glass, speed-sensitive intermittent wipers, power heated mirrors, power windows and locks, programmable MyKey with parental controls, and a six-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3-capable audio system with auxiliary input and optional satellite radio.
SEL trim (starting at $34,945) adds features including 18-inch wheels, fog lights, dual-zone automatic climate control, 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat and six-way power adjustable passenger seat, heated front seats, push-button start, remote start system, universal garage door opener and the Sync 3 infotainment system with 8-inch touchscreen. SEL models are also eligible for a wide array of optional equipment including all-wheel drive, leather seating, multi-panel vista roof, navigation system, blind-spot information system, 110V outlet, bigger 20-inch wheels and more.
My test vehicle’s Limited trim (starting at $40,997) added standard kit including all-wheel drive, leather upholstery, 19-inch wheels, 12-speaker audio system, 110V outlet, blind-spot monitoring system, HID headlights and LED taillights, and is eligible for an even wider array of optional equipment including the EcoBoost engine, park assist, heated and cooled front seats, heated steering wheel and more. The caveat is that if you start checking all the options boxes the Limited trim can quickly climb into unlimited budget territory: My test car had a whopping $10,950 worth of optional extras, bringing its as-tested price to $53,737.
Power and poise
Whether you choose the standard 287 hp Duratec V6 or the 365 hp EcoBoost V6, power is fed through a six-speed SelectShift automatic transmission, with front-wheel drive standard and all-wheel drive as an option in higher trims. EcoBoost-equipped models get AWD included, with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters in my test vehicle. The intelligent on-demand AWD system works seamlessly in the background and can send up to 100 percent of the power to the rear wheels when needed. Towing capacity is up to 4,500 lb (2,141 kg) when properly equipped.
The suspension uses MacPherson struts up front and a fully independent multi-link setup at the rear. Steering is by electric-assist rack-and-pinion, and four-wheel disc brakes provide solid stopping power. With my test vehicle’s low-profile 255/45R20 tires I found the suspension could hammer a little over sharp bumps, but in general it did an excellent job providing a comfortable ride while still delivering poised, almost sporty handling.
For the most part, all this makes driving the Flex an unexpected pleasure: It accelerates with enthusiasm, corners with confidence, and provides a moderately high driving position (and therefore good outward view lines) without being tall and tippy. However, thanks to its long wheelbase (2,994 mm) and overall length (5,125 mm) it has a rather wide turning circle, and finding suitable parking in the congested inner city can be a bit tricky. Helping matters somewhat is the availability of Ford’s excellent automatic park assist system, which can take over the steering duties and tuck you into surprisingly tight parking spots.
There’s no assisting with the fuel bills, however: The EcoBoost-equipped Flex is officially rated at 15.7 / 11.2 L/100 km (city/hwy), and my test vehicle’s trip computer was showing a long-term mixed average of 14.5 L/100 km when I picked it up. My own almost exclusively city fuel consumption was well above this at a heady 18.2 L/100 km. So the EcoBoost-equipped Flex is fun to drive, sure, but when you’re driving a vehicle weighing 2,189 kg, fun comes at a price.
Here today, gone tomorrow?
While the Flex’s polarizing looks have ample character, the unique style hasn’t translated into the kind of sales success Ford was hoping for: In the first couple years of its release, Canadian sales of the Flex were stronger than sales of the similarly sized and more conventional-looking three-row Ford Explorer (6,047 Flexes versus 4,121 Explorers in 2009; 4,803 Flexes versus 4,292 Explorers in 2010). In the US, the Flex competed strongly against the Explorer during those first years, even if it didn’t quite eclipse its more conventional rival. Recently, however, the Flex has struggled against the Explorer: Canadian Flex sales totalled only 2,587 versus 15,275 Explorers in 2016, and the proportional sales numbers are worse in the US.
As a result, it’s now rumoured that the Flex will be discontinued in 2020. For those on the “hate it” side of the divide this would seem a victory, but anyone who’s ever driven a Flex will know it means the loss of a family vehicle that’s as practical as any, more fun to drive than most, and well worth consideration if you’re in the market for a seven-passenger people-hauler.
|Peak Horsepower||365 hp @ 5,500 rpm|
|Peak Torque||350 lb-ft @ 1,500 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||15.7/11.2/13.7 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||426 L/1,224 L third row down/2,355 L second row down|
|Model Tested||2017 Ford Flex Limited|
|Price as Tested||$53,737|
$10,950 – Blue Jeans metallic paint $100; Equipment Group 303A including EcoBoost $6,800; Cargo Versatility Package $600; Appearance Package $900; Multipanel Vista Roof $1,750; Navigation system $800