Words: Robert Nichols
Photography: Robert Nichols
Published: February 23, 2016
Most of us will remember a time before crossover vehicles existed; the time when the minivan reigned supreme as the go-to-chariot for parents. Even less of us will reminisce of a time before that, the era of the station wagon.
To be sure we are on the same page, when I say station wagon I am not referring to the sleek and diminutive German offerings like the BMW 3 Series wagon or the Audi A4 Allroad. No, I am referring to the 70’s-80’s phenomenon that gave us massive American cars like the Ford Crown Victoria wagon; vehicles that came with the stereotype of being the choice of couples who had produced more than their fair share of children - they were thus forced to suffer the shame of driving what was effectively a small bus.
The thing is though, that stereotype really wasn’t fair. There was nothing else available that could haul a family and all their things with the exception of a full-size van, and they were woefully large and uncivilised to drive. In the mid-80’s when the minivan exploded onto the market, it quickly became the must-have shuttle for families of all sizes, and the station wagon was abandoned almost immediately.
Fast forward almost 30 years and we see a consumer base that wants nothing to do with the minivan but still require something spacious, comfortable and capable of filling many roles. The manufacturers have responded by delivering a glut of crossover vehicles of all shapes and sizes.
Then, in 2009, something unexpected came along; the Ford Flex. The Flex was and still is the odd duck in the market. It is not a sedan and it doesn’t really qualify as a crossover. In my humble opinion, the Flex is the modern day interpretation of the once abundant station wagon.
As I walked around the 2016 Flex Limited AWD I was testing, my opinion was solidified. The dimensions, silhouette and ride height all scream station wagon. Even the pop-up rear seats (although they no longer face backwards) are a feature lifted right out of the station wagon design handbook.
The Flex is a uniquely handsome thing whose styling will either interest you or put you off. Adding a bit of style to the overall look of the 2016 model I drove was the available Appearance Package. For $900 it offers blacked-out door handles, window sills, roof, lift-gate appliqué, grille and gloss black 20” rims. This package nicely contrasted the Bronze Fire Metallic paint and really made the Flex standout in any crowd.
You will also note the absence of the popular panoramic roof. Instead you will find no less than four glass panels of varying size and function. This option is called the Multi-Panel Vista Roof and adds $1,750 to the bill. Rounding out the exterior of the Limited trim level are Bi-Xenon headlights, LED tail-lights and the standard 19” aluminum rims.
Moving inside, you are met with a mix of textures. There are soft touch materials and plastics mingling with your choice of faux wood or, if you have the Appearance Package, panels that are best described as plastic-impersonating carbon fibre.
The dash layout is attractive yet simple, and the limited use of buttons and knobs enhances the open feeling of the interior. The new SYNC 3 system is standard for the SEL and Limited models. This is far and away the biggest improvement made to the Flex for 2016. Gone is the previous system with slow responses and a confusing setup. The new system has unflappable voice recognition, easy to read graphics, a sensible setup and features pinch and swipe function.
There are also capacitive touch controls for the heating, cooling and stereo that works well unless you are wearing gloves, and the 12-speaker Sony entertainment system is a nice feature as well. Even though it did not sound as nice as it did in the Edge, I chalk that up to acoustics.
The Flex can be optioned to accommodate 6 or 7 passengers. In the 6-passenger format you gain two second row bucket seats and the option of adding a cooled center console (basically a mini-fridge) between them. In the 7-passenger layout I drove, the second row featured a 60/40 split bench-seat that will fold down and flip up to allow access to the third row seats or some extra cargo space.
The Flex may not have the best cargo volume amongst the competition, but it is definitely has one of the easiest layouts to exploit. The low lift over height, automatic rear hatch, and boxy shape make it a simple vehicle to load just about anything. The automatic fold and tumble third row seating is a breeze to operate but not the easiest to get into; however it could accommodate smaller adults in a pinch.
All the seats were leather clad and comfortable but had little to no bolstering. They reminded me of a recliner in that they were soft, broad and in no way will they keep you in place. The driver and front passenger seats can be both heated and cooled and after a week of enjoying warm hands, the optional heated steering wheel (part of equipment group 303A) is now on the must-have list for my next car.
As with any family vehicle, safety is a priority and Ford has you covered. All Flex vehicles now come with a standard rear-view camera and numerous two-stage airbags. An interesting option are the inflatable rear seat safety belts that distribute the force of a crash across more of the passenger’s body than a standard seatbelt, which will help lessen the severity of some injuries.
Other optional safety tech includes: park assist, adaptive cruise and collision warning, blind-spot and cross traffic alerts. According to the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) the 2016 Flex scored the highest Good rating in all but the small overlap front test in which it scored an Acceptable. Not too shabby.
The bulk of consumers will likely stay with the standard 3.5-litre naturally aspirated engine. It develops a healthy 287 horsepower and a more than adequate 254 lb-ft of torque. Intelligent AWD can be paired to this engine, but it comes as standard equipment with the Limited model’s exclusive EcoBoost engine. Displacing the same 3.5 liters, the twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6 dishes out 365 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque, far more than is required for the school run.
With the force-fed engine, the Flex becomes the ultimate sleeper. It is capable of leaping off the line at a surprisingly rapid rate. Of course, this will cost you at the fuel pumps. Be warned, the turbo engine prefers premium fuel (but can run on lesser grades) and it will guzzle more fuel than the base engine. Had I not exercised great restraint, my average fuel consumption of 13.9 L/100 km would have been far worse.
There is only one transmission available across the range, a 6-speed automatic. For the most part it performs smoothly and unnoticed. It is not until you start to use the paddle shifters that things get a bit unrefined. The manual upshifts felt slow and harsh, making me draw the conclusion that the “Sport” setting for the transmission does little more than burn more fuel by holding gears longer.
The addition of paddle shifters puzzles me in this kind of vehicle. Due to its size and weight it will never be compared to a German sport wagon. So who is this for? The best method to smooth driving is to leave the transmission to its own devices and enjoy the drive.
On the road and compared to previous generations, the latest model displays very little flex and delivers a smooth and composed ride. While the acceleration is entertaining, the Flex starts to show its girth when the road gets twisty. Though the suspension has been polished resulting in better all-around comfort, there is still a tendency to understeer when things get feisty. The electric power steering offers little road feel but makes parking easy because of how light it is at low speeds; it convinces you it is a smaller car.
Even though Ford labels it a crossover, I maintain my stance that the Flex is the modern incarnation of the station wagon, and it should boldly advertise itself as such. After all, it occupies its own unique niche in the market. The Flex is precisely what a family needs, not too hard and not too soft. It remains a versatile alternative to the ubiquitous crossover: capable of hauling the entire family, pets and possessions included. For those who like to stand out but need to carry many people, the Flex should be on the short list.
型号 Model: 2016 Ford Flex AWD Limited
顏色 Paint Type: Bronze Fire Metallic
廠方建議售價 Base Price: $45,099
試車售價 Price as Tested: $58,439
軸距 Wheelbase(mm): 2,995
長闊 Length/Width/Height (mm): 5,126 / 2,255 / 1,760
車重 Curb weight (kg): 2,190
引擎 Engine: 3.5-litre twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6
最大馬力 Horsepower: 365 hp @ 5,500 rpm
最高扭力 Torque: 350 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm
波箱 Transmission: 6-speed automatic with paddle shifters
擺佈 Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD
前懸 Suspension-Front: MacPherson strut
後懸 Suspension-Rear: Multi-link
煞制-前 Brakes-Front: Ventilated disc
煞制-後 Brakes-Rear: Solid disc
油耗 Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km: 15.7 / 11.2 / 13.7
油耗 Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 13.9
輪胎尺碼 Tires: P255/45 R20