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First Drive: 2010 Ford Flex with EcoBoost

With the 2010 model year, Ford is marking the start of its EcoBoost initiative, a plan that will dramatically effect the company's entire lineup in the coming years. By using turbocharging and direct injection with smaller-displacement engines, Ford says it can offer better performance and fuel economy. The company expects it will put 1.3 million EcoBoost engines on the road by 2013 and offer the technology in 90 percent of its models.

The Flex crossover is one of the first Fords to get EcoBoost. Using a 3.5-liter V-6, the Flex achieves V-8 performance with V-6 fuel economy. The Flex EcoBoost (which is only available with all-wheel drive) achieves the same fuel economy as the base all-wheel-drive Flex, which is rated at 16/22 mpg.

PowertrainThe technology in Ford's EcoBoost engines isn't revolutionary, but the company's plan for such widespread adoption is unique. In the 3.5-liter V-6, two turbochargers spin as fast as 170,000 rpm to force more air into the engine while fuel injectors spray gasoline into the cylinders at 2175 psi. Adding more air and fuel allows extra power to be squeezed out of each combustion event.

There are plenty of automakers that might detune a performance engine by 10 to 20 hp in the family crossover, but the Flex receives the same 355 hp that will move the Ford Taurus SHO, the Lincoln MKS, and the Lincoln MKT. Ford has decided that its first EcoBoost engine needs to place more emphasis on performance than fuel economy in order to build a positive impression of the technology. Future Ford engines using turbochargers and direct injection may focus more on the fuel economy side of the equation. Torque is rated at 350 lb-ft and spans from 1500 to 5250 rpm. It's that plateau-flat torque curve that creates an exciting and effective blast when the throttle is planted. Ford estimates 0-to-60-mph acceleration occurs in about 7 seconds.

EcoBoost Flexes all receive a manual-shift mode for the six-speed automatic transmission, along with steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles. The paddles are a great addition for the performance engine but could use some refinement. When the gear selector is left in drive, the paddles can't be used to effect a downshift. In manual mode, the transmission is happy to provide downshifts at a fairly quick pace but sometimes isn't restrictive enough (yes, we just said that). Multiple times, we asked for one too many downshifts, and the Flex obliged by dropping down a gear - right on top of redline. To top it off, the coarse, dull finish on the plastic paddle shifters looks out of place compared with the rest of the well-trimmed cabin.

More than an engine upgradeThe Flex with EcoBoost is more than just a Flex with a different engine. The engineering team has also modified the suspension with stiffer springs, higher damping rates, and a ride height that has been lowered by ten millimeters. Combined with the already-low ride height and excellent body control, the subtle changes make this Flex one of the best handling crossovers on the market and do a good job of disguising its 4839-pound weight.

Ford has also equipped EcoBoost Flexes with electric power steering (the base Flex will continue to use a hydraulic system). The primary advantage is that Ford can now incorporate its Active Park Assist (see below), but the system also adds a feature called Pull-Drift Compensation. When a driver has the steering wheel slightly turned to keep the vehicle straight on a crowned road or in strong crosswinds, the computer recognizes it and activates drift compensation. By adding small amounts of torque to keep the wheel off-center, the driver can reduce the amount of effort to keep the wheel cocked and car straight.

The enthusiast's crossoverFord touts EcoBoost's advantages with a pragmatic slant: better towing with above-average fuel economy. We agree that those are admirable attributes. But driving the winding roads of the Rockies outside of Boulder, Colorado, we came to admire the Flex EcoBoost as something else: an enthusiast's crossover. Combined with confident body control and surprising handling, the torque-monster engine creates a fun driving experience. All-wheel drive provides sure footing, and the paddle shifters allowed us to run up and down through the gears and keep boost at the ready.

To emphasize the Flex's towing credentials, Ford took us to Estes Park, Colorado, at an elevation of approximately 7500 feet. Towing trailers that were loaded with 2500 pounds of ATVs and dirt bikes, we ran up mountain roads in a GMC Acadia, a Dodge Durango Hemi, and a Ford Flex EcoBoost. While the normally aspirated engines--a 3.6-liter V-6 in the Acadia and a 5.7-liter V-8 in the Dodge Durango--wheezed from a lack of air, the Ecoboost's turbochargers kept the Flex steaming ahead. At sea level, the Hemi and the EcoBoost are on a much more level playing field - but the earth is not flat. The Flex can pull up to 4500 pounds and comes standard with a trailer sway control system when equipped with the towing package.

Different crossover, same styleInside 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, JeevesThe 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 priceTechnically, 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.