First Drive: 2013 Ford Flex

The refreshed 2013 Ford Flex was first shown to the public at the Los Angeles auto show last fall, but the sunny climes of California couldn't have seemed farther away as we drove the Flex through snow, ice, rain, and sleet in western Oregon. It's a good thing our test cars were equipped with all-wheel drive and a full set of safety technologies.

Before we started driving, though, we had time to admire the facelift applied to the 2013 Flex. The old model's three-bar chrome front grille has been swapped out for a single chrome bar that fits between two black plastic trim pieces. The large Ford oval badge has been removed from the nose, replaced by large F-L-E-X lettering on the leading edge of the hood.

New black surrounds for the optional xenon headlights make for an even more imposing front-end design. The lower fascia gets a restyled air intake and fog lights, and all of the available wheels are redesigned. Dual chrome exhaust tips become standard on all Flex models, and many of the interior trim pieces are new for 2013. An optional Appearance Package further dresses up the three-row crossover with a black roof and mirrors, unique 20-inch wheels, leather seats, and special door trim panels.

Engine and Chassis Changes

Under the hood, the base 3.5-liter V-6 engine receives variable valve timing, boosting output by 25 hp and 6 lb-ft of torque to 287 hp and 254 lb-ft. The update also improves fuel economy slightly, to 18/25 mpg (city/highway) for front-wheel drive versions and 17/24 mpg with all-wheel drive. The engine proved smooth at all speeds and easily propels the Flex, even when our 4637-pound test car was weighed down by three passengers. For 2013, the six-speed automatic transmission's shift lever gains a toggle switch allowing drivers to change gears manually. However, even in manual mode the transmission will kick down under hard acceleration and change up before the engine's redline.

The optional EcoBoost twin-turbo 3.5-liter V-6 engine, available only with all-wheel drive, is unchanged at 365 hp and 350 lb-ft. It transforms the family-friendly crossover into a rocket, providing huge dollops of torque that make the Flex feel as quick as some sport compacts. We drove an EcoBoost Flex only briefly, but had plenty of fun on the Oregon Coast Highway.

All versions of the 2013 Flex have stronger brakes and other chassis updates. The former is courtesy of a larger brake master cylinder and booster, drastically reducing pedal travel and making for a firmer, more consistent feel. In fact, the front brakes are now identical to those on the Taurus SHO performance sedan. The non-EcoBoost Flex also gains electric power steering, which makes the car up to four percent more fuel efficient while also increasing steering feel. The new rack has a faster ratio and is hard-mounted to the front subframe to further improve precision. Retuned spring and damper rates on both models are designed to provide more responsive handling. We found the sum of the chassis changes made the Flex feel predictable and communicative, a boon on narrow winding roads covered in slush and ice.

Silence and Safety

Inside, many trim pieces have been updated, and the instrument cluster now has a single analog speedometer flanked by two LCD screens. Technologies including push-button start, rain-sensing wipers, remote start, and power-folding mirrors join the options list, while Ford's Sync voice-recognition system becomes standard equipment. Also on board is the latest version of the MyFord Touch infotainment system, updated for 2013 with clearer menus and more responsive controls.

The Flex's cabin is now quieter thanks to the addition of sound-deadening materials on the front shock towers, dashboard, hood, and rear wheel liners. By stopping what Ford calls "airborne" noise (as opposed to rumblings transmitted through the body of the car), the extra insulation makes the 2013 Flex between ten and 15 percent quieter than the old model. While we couldn't quantify the quietness change, a passenger in the third row of seats had no problem conversing with us at a normal volume.

Befitting a vehicle designed to carry families, the 2013 Flex also receives more safety gear. The optional Adaptive Cruise Control features a collision warning system that beeps and flashes red lights if the driver is about to rear-end another vehicle. Whereas some cars have the radar sensor for these systems visible in the front fascia, the Flex's unit is cleverly hidden behind a plastic panel in the lower grille opening.

Other such technologies include a blind-spot warning system; Curve Control, which can automatically slow the Flex by up to 10 mph if it enters a turn too quickly; and Torque Vectoring, which can apply one of the front brakes to prevent understeer when cornering. Ford's rear-seat inflatable seatbelts also join the options list. They are designed to reduce the risk of injuries to smaller passengers, and have proven a very popular option on the Explorer.

Will They Buy It?

The Ford Flex is a compelling alternative to a minivan or large SUV because it offers smart styling, generous interior room, and a pleasant driving experience. But the numbers don't reflect that: Flex sales have tumbled each of the last three years, and so far this year the Flex is the slowest-selling Ford vehicle on the market. Ford hopes that this slew of visual, mechanical, and safety updates will make the 2013 Flex more appealing to buyers, but they may not be enough to move this vehicle out of the shadow of the Explorer.

Specs:

2013 Ford Flex Limited AWD
On sale: Now
Base price: $42,005 (including $825 destination charge)
Price as tested: $44,270
Engine: 3.5L V-6, 287 hp, 254 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: 4-wheel

chaetophile
This vehicle deserves to succeed. I have a friend who considered one, but didn't buy because he has dogs and "The interior was too nice." He bought an F150 instead. If I was needing to move people and stuff around, this would be seriously tempting next to the Honda Odyssey.

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