2009 Automobile All-Stars

Charlie Magee

The Class Act Among People Movers:  Ford Flex

Conventional wisdom says that the way forward for embattled U.S. automakers is to concentrate on building small, fuel-efficient vehicles. It might seem, then, that Ford's introduction of the Flex, with its seven-passenger capacity and generous proportions, is particularly ill-timed. But the Flex is a vehicle that defies conventional wisdom.

From the first, we were taken by the Flex's exterior design, which is both thoroughly modern and - with grooved body sides and an upright stance reminiscent of wood-sided station wagons from the 1940s and '50s - harks to the glory days of U.S. automakers. Although the distinctive Flex doesn't fade into the automotive landscape, its design has a subtlety that is untarnished by overwrought badging or tacky add-ons.

The interior is equally appealing. Chock full of high-tech features and yet supremely user-friendly, the cabin of the Flex is a masterpiece of ergonomic engineering. Material quality is first-rate, and every piece of switchgear has been designed for usability and ease of motion. The wide-opening rear doors and low step-in height provide easy access to the rear. Legroom in the second row is extremely generous, and the third row will easily accommodate adult-sized passengers. When equipped with options such as a refrigerated compartment between the second-row seats and a DVD player, passengers can ride in style for hours on end.

On the road, the Flex wafts along in hushed comfort, reflecting the emphasis that has been put on reducing noise, vibration, and harshness. The lone powertrain is a 262-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 mated to a six-speed automatic. Although it does the job well (and returns up to 24 mpg on the highway), we look forward to the introduction of Ford's turbocharged, direct-injection EcoBoost V-6, which debuts later this year.

The Flex defies conventional wisdom by being big when small is the watchword of the day, by eschewing the aggressive stance of SUVs to concentrate on refinement, and by emphasizing style while being as practical as a minivan. For that, the Flex is a 2009 All-Star.

-Amy Skogstrom

Base price range: $28,995-$37,255
Engine: 3.5L V-6, 262 hp, 248 lb-ft

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