First Drive: 2010 Ford Flex with EcoBoost

Different crossover, same style
Inside and out, the turbocharged Flex looks very much like the same vehicle that was introduced last year. Unique to the EcoBoost crossover are twenty-inch painted aluminum wheels and chrome-tipped dual exhausts.

EcoBoost will only be offered in SEL and Limited trims. That means you'll automatically get power driver and passenger seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, a six-disc CD player, and Sync, which incorporates media player control and phone integration. Stepping up to the Limited adds voice-activated navigation with back-up camera, ambient lighting, HID headlights, and LED taillights. All EcoBoost Flexes found on dealers' lots will also include the convenience package highlighted by adjustable pedals, a power liftgate, and a 110-volt power outlet.

Park it, Jeeves
The headlining technology in the EcoBoost Flex is Ford's Active Park Assist, a system that identifies parallel parking spots and then steers the Flex into them. Lexus has offered a similar system on the LS460 for several years, but Lexus's system is notoriously finicky, often canceling the process in the middle of a parking maneuver.

We tested Ford's system by parallel parking a Flex in a generous-sized space between two customized Flex SEMA show cars. To start, simply push a button and cruise the street. The Flex searches for a parallel parking space on the right side of the street. If you're on a one-way street and want the Flex to check the left side, simply turn on your left turn signal.

When a spot has been identified, the system alerts you with a ding, and the display in the dash lets you know that you need to continue forward a few more feet. Another audible alert will tell you when it's time to put the transmission in reverse. At that point, the hands go in the lap as the Flex takes control of the steering wheel. As the driver, however, you're still responsible for the gas and the brake pedal. If you want to try parallel parking at 40 mph, Active Park Assist will try to keep up with you.

As you ease on the gas pedal, the wheel steering spins to lock and the eventually back in the other direction. What with the magically spinning steering wheel, a series of audible beeps, and the live action in the rear-view camera screen, it can be easy to lose focus. Don't forget to hit the brakes, or you'll smack the car behind you. To complete the maneuver, shift back to drive and allow the Flex to move to the center of the spot.

The Ford system works surprisingly well. When we're finished, the Flex is perfectly centered in the spot, just inches from the curb. While the Lexus system uses cameras to identify spaces and obstacles, Ford's system uses four ultrasonic sensors at each corner of the vehicle. It also helps that Ford gives the driver full control over the gas and the brake, so you don't have to tolerate slug-speed parking. Had our space been smaller, it's possible that the Flex would have requested multiple shifts between reverse and forward to get into the spot, but it would in all likelihood still do a better job than you would. The Active Park Assist Technology will also be offered on the Lincoln MKS sedan and MKT crossover in 2010 and is only available on EcoBoost models of the Flex.

Premium performance, premium price
Technically, the Flex with EcoBoost will start at $36,115, but you'll have to special order that vehicle from the dealer. As mentioned, Ford is building all of its stock Flexes with additional equipment that it figures most buyers will want. That means the cheapest EcoBoost Flex SEL in stock on dealer's lots will run $39,995. Limited models start at $42,785 with the tacked-on options. Those are big numbers, but Ford does have a rare product on its hands, because this crossover offer V-8-like performance. Competition such as the Chevrolet Traverse, the Honda Pilot, and the Toyota Highlander still offer V-6 engines.

Ford hopes that EcoBoost will give even more buyers reason to shift from their large SUVs to a crossover. For those able to foot the bill, the Ford Flex with EcoBoost is an engaging, unique offering in the crossover segment.

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