They said we were crazy. "They" being our wives, of course. Three dads taking three kids, ages thirteen, eight, and two-and-a-half, on a road trip from Detroit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and then on to Yankee Stadium. But what better way to get an in-depth, real-life look at the new Ford Flex than to fill every seat, stuff the cargo hold, and head out on a real American road trip? Along the way we'd encounter not only countless freeway miles but also an hour of idling in line at the Canada/U.S. border; hills and curves along the back roads through the Catskill Mountains; brutal pavement and equally brutal gridlock in the Bronx; and winding, narrow parkways leaving New York City.
The sing-song-y tagline "Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet" attempted to put Chevrolet and baseball together in the public mind back in the 1970s, but we felt this new Ford was the right car for our trip.
Baseball, much more so than any other sport, values its past, and both our destinations are focal points of baseball history. Cooperstown, obviously, is the vortex, and not only because of the Hall of Fame. There's also Doubleday Field, a perfectly preserved ballpark from 1939, which sits right in the center of town. Dozens of shops sell baseball memorabilia to visitors, all of whom appear to be likely customers, since most are wearing baseball caps and jerseys of some kind or another. The town itself is an idealized version of Norman Rockwell's America, with its lively, old-fashioned Main Street, beautifully maintained Federal-style and Greek Revival homes, and picturesque setting at the southern tip of Otsego Lake.
Down in the Bronx, 2008 is the final season for Yankee Stadium. It opened in 1923, although an unfortunate, mid-'70s renovation changed its appearance considerably. While not the oldest major league ballpark - Fenway Park and Wrigley Field are older - Yankee Stadium has seen more history-making events than probably any other: papal visits, title fights (including the 1938 bout that saw Joe Louis defeat Max Schmeling and Muhammad Ali's win over Ken Norton in 1976), three NFL championships, and thirty-seven World Series (including Don Larsen's 1956 perfect game and the 1977 game in which Reggie Jackson hit three homers). Interestingly, the new Yankee Stadium, which is going up right next door, will revive many of the design elements of the original stadium, while of course upgrading the comforts and amenities to modern standards.
That mix of modern with a nod to the classic applies to the Ford Flex as well. True, the Flex is a brand-new model, with detailing and equipment that are thoroughly up-to-date. Yet there is a classic quality to the car's proportions, which steer clear of the pseudo-ruggedness of SUVs and the banal practicality of mini-vans. Instead, the Flex echoes the classic, upright design of wood-bodied wagons, picking up their thread some sixty years later.
If the Ford Explorer launched the SUV as America's family car back in 1990, the Flex is the SUV rationalized. It uses a car platform (the Taurus's) rather than a pickup base; it's not jacked up to straddle boulders it will never encounter; there are no push bars, no rear-mounted spare tire, no off-road tires for the African safari it will never take. It's as if the SUV, now entering adulthood, is finally ready to shed its macho pretensions.
Fatherhood does the same thing for guys. Just ask Automobile Magazine's design director, the tattooed, Harley-riding Nathan Schroeder, who had his squirming two-year-old son, Levi, on his lap at the Doubleday Cafe. Schroeder managed to entertain his son during the wait for our dinner, kept him from stabbing himself or anyone else with his silverware, and even got him to eat a few chicken nuggets.
Levi was a little antsy, but anyone would be at the end of our long day. The 500-plus-mile drive from Detroit was exacerbated by an hour wait to cross the border from Ontario into New York. When we finally got to the booth, the young customs guy dismissed the Flex as "too Scion xB-ish" (and he didn't even see the interior's multicolor lighting, which can be changed from red, to yellow, to blue, to green, to purple).
Although their shapes are similar, you could almost fit two Scion xBs inside the Flex (well, OK, maybe it'd be closer to one-and-a-half). The new Ford is based heavily on the Taurus X (née Freestyle) crossover, but the boxy design yields even more room inside. Critically for us, its second-row seats are more comfortable, and the cargo space behind the third-row seat is expanded. We had our biggest guy, six-foot-three-inch Schroeder, in the second row, where he could minister to our littlest guy, and both had plenty of room. Between their second-row chairs, our Flex Limited had a console refrigerator, which kept drinks cool. Up front, photographer Jim Fets and I sat on comfy, wide-butt seats and enjoyed nicely padded armrests, but I wished for a telescoping (rather than just tilting) steering column, which I find more useful than Ford's power-adjustable pedals in achieving a comfortable driving position. Fets's thirteen-year-old, Noel, and my son, Tommy, who's eight, were our back-benchers, and over the course of the four days, we heard no complaints from them - at least none related to their third-row accommodations. It helps that the third-row seats are set noticeably higher than the second row, which in turn is raised above the front seats. And let's not underestimate the value of a view, maximized by the Flex's arrow-straight beltline. The climb into the back was made easy by the Flex's low step-in height, wide rear door openings, and second-row seats that drop down and flop forward at the push of a single button.
We all packed light, but I was still concerned about fitting everything, since most crossovers have so little space behind the third-row seats. Luckily, the Flex has a minivan-style well in the floor, and it extends forward under the rearmost seats. We were able to slip some camera gear and baseball mitts under there before stacking one small and two standard-size roller bags, one camera bag, a small duffle, and - most important - a diaper bag in the main space.
Our Flex Limited was loaded with every conceivable option except the one most important for this trip: a DVD player. The wise dad is always prepared, however, so we fired up two portable DVD players, using power outlets in the cargo area and in the second row. At one critical juncture (when the portable players' inability to start I Love Toy Trains threatened to cause a meltdown on the part of toy-train-loving Levi), we supplemented with a laptop computer, which plugged into a 110-volt AC power outlet located at the back of the center console.
It was during this period of electronically induced bliss that we noted the Flex's quiet highway ride. The Flex is one of the first Fords to benefit from a new emphasis on sound quality. That means not just hushed cruising but even things like the sound of the door latches and less grating warning chimes.
To explain why his mommy wasn't going, Schroeder told Levi, "Because it's The Man Trip." As such, no vegetables were eaten, and bedtimes were ignored. We also had ice cream for lunch, and we never asked for directions. We did, however, make liberal use of the navigation system and found its new interface (which it shares with the new Lincoln MKS) to be one of the best we've experienced. Our electronics aptitude ranged from the pathetic (mine) to the advanced (Fets's - he had to have the new iPhone the day it came out). I found it easy to use, while Fets was impressed with its range of functions. We were particularly enamored of the screen's ability to integrate satellite radio info (artist and song title) in various sizes depending on what else is being displayed. We also liked the way you can toggle through various navigation display options just by hitting the "map" button. And we were taken with the Sirius weather-map function, which includes radar and five-day forecasts. The only disappointment was with the mapping software, which was not up to date with the location of some hotels.
"I'm going to go home and get one of these," said a Ford Excursion-driving dad from Connecticut, who was in Cooperstown for a father/son baseball tournament. If he does as he says, he can expect a significant decrease in his fuel bill, as our all-wheel-drive Flex's EPA-estimated 16 mpg city, 22 mpg highway ratings leave the Excursion in the dust. We exactly matched the highway figure before the hour of idling at the border, in-town driving in Cooperstown, and gridlock in the Bronx dragged down our average to an indicated 19 mpg.
Our route out of Cooperstown probably didn't do our mileage any favors, either, but it was incredibly beautiful, as we wound our way through the foothills of the Catskill Mountains on rural back roads, angling east and south toward the New York State Thruway. Steep climbs and the occasional two-lane pass didn't show the 3.5-liter V-6 in its best light; it does the job, but nothing more. The six-speed automatic makes the most of what's there, but the 3.7-liter engine in the Mazda CX-9 would provide more power and polish. Sometime in 2009, Ford will offer an upgrade in the form of its much-hyped EcoBoost V-6, a turbocharged, direct-injected unit that will debut next spring in the Lincoln MKS.
"The home office of baseball!" blurted out the toll collector on the Tappan Zee Bridge, after he spied the driver's Detroit Tigers shirt and figured correctly that we were on our way to Yankee Stadium for the All-Star game. When we got down to the Bronx, at the intersection of River Avenue and East 161st Street, it seemed that we had arrived not at the home office but at the teeming locus of baseball, what with the crush of cars, buses, and people around the stadium. Noel hopped out to assist while his dad squeezed off a few photos. We drove under the elevated train tracks, and the younger boys looked up through the multiple glass moonroofs every time a subway train rattled by overhead.
The game itself opened with Hall of Fame players standing at their positions alongside today's All-Stars. Seeing greats like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays added a special thrill and further cemented our two destinations. Of course, it was also exciting to see today's stars from so many teams all together on one field, among them Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, and Manny Ramirez. Some Yankee fans, though, couldn't put aside their Boston Red Sox hatred, even for one night. "GO BACK TO BOSTON, YOU TRAITOR TO NEW YORK!" screamed one woman behind us, who had been conversing pleasantly only seconds before Ramirez stepped up to the plate.
Still, the All-Star game was a fitting last-season hurrah for Yankee Stadium, and I wish I could say that we stayed until the bitter end: the fifteenth inning, at 1:37 a.m. But when you go with your kid, it can be just as rewarding to head out to the car with your tired little guy's head on your shoulder as it is to see the Minnesota Twins' Justin Morneau slide across home plate to clinch another win for the American League. By the time we finally were able to slip free of the city, carried north along the weaving parkways, our boys of summer had become boys of slumber. It being The Man Trip, no one said how good it felt to road trip with our kids, experiencing a sport that deftly blends the modern and the timeless, undertaken in a car that does the same. For a few days, at least, it was as if we'd hit time's pause button. But time does not stand still, of course; not for baseball, not for carmakers, and especially not for dads, who see their two-year-olds become eight-year-olds and then thirteen-year-olds in what feels like no time at all.
Although its conclusions were later challenged, a 1905 commission set up to determine the origin of baseball credited Abner Doubleday with inventing the game while he was a student in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. A schoolmate, Abner Graves, told the commission that Doubleday's changes to a common bat-and-ball game included sketching out a diamond-shaped field and introducing bases. In the early 1930s, a homemade baseball was found in an attic in nearby Fly Creek, New York, and it became known as "the Doubleday baseball." It was put on display with some other early baseball items in a room in the Cooperstown Village Club. The display's popularity led to the idea of a national baseball museum. At the same time, National League president Ford Frick proposed a hall of fame to honor the game's immortals. The Baseball Writers of America selected the first players in 1936, and the Hall of Fame, on Main Street in Cooperstown, opened to the public in 1939.
The House That Ruth Built
Originally, the Yankees didn't have their own ballpark, and for a long time the team rented the New York Giants' Polo Grounds for home games. By 1920, however, led by the popular slugger Babe Ruth, the Yankees were outdrawing the Giants at the Polo Grounds, so the Giants told the Yankees to find somewhere else to play. The following winter, Yankee co-owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast l'Hommedieu Huston bought land in the south Bronx, right across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan. Yankee Stadium opened in 1923, the first triple-decked ballpark, with an advertised capacity of 70,000. On opening day, Ruth christened the new stadium with - what else? - a home run.
FORD FLEX LIMITED AWD
Price (Base/As Tested) $37,255/$43,250
Engine DOHC 24-valve V-6
displacement 3.5 liters (213 cu in)
horsepower 262 hp @ 6250 rpm
torque 248 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
transmission type 6-speed automatic
steering Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Strut-type, coil springs
suspension, rear Multilink, coil springs
brakeS F/R Vented discs/discs, ABS
tires Hankook Optimo
tire size 235/55HR-19
L x W x H 201.8 x 75.9 x 68.0 in
wheelbase 117.9 in
track f/r 65.4/65.4 in
weight 4640 lb (per manufacturer)