2019 Ford Flex SEL (USA)

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Looking quite unlike anything else on the market, the Ford Flex has been around, with only a few cosmetic changes, in production form for 10 years now. And the basic design goes back further than that, having first been seen as a concept car at the 2005 Chicago Auto Show. It was called the Fairlane then, and was intended to show how it was possible to produce a 7-passenger vehicle without it being a MiniVan, or an SUV. Based on the Ford CD3 platform, the Fairlane featured 3 rows of seats and particularly distinctive styling. The rear passenger doors were rear-hinged which certainly allowed for better interior views for auto-show viewers, this configuration also previewed the sliding doors of a minivan. Like so many concept cars these days, this was an early sighting of a car that Ford had already decided to build, and the production car was first unveiled two years later at the 2007 New York International Auto Show. By this time, the name had changed to Flex and underneath the car was built on the new and larger D3/D4 architecture that would underpin the Ford Taurus, Lincoln MKS and MKT. A notable change from the concept was the adoption of 4 conventionally hinged doors, as Ford chose to market it more as a wagon-type crossover. Several key styling features of the Fairlane concept would make their way into the production Flex, however. The most distinctive being a series of horizontal grooves in the doors, intended to evoke a Woodie look without using simulated wood. In a design similar to the Mini and the Range Rover, the roof pillars were blacked out, creating a “floating roof” effect. Production versions of the car went on sale in 2008, and Ford set the lofty target of 100,000 sales a year. That did not happen, with the best year being 2009, when just over 38,000 units were sold, before the number dropped to between 20 – 25,000 a year, which is what has been achieved ever since. Various customised and personalised versions appeared at most major US Shows, but these were largely to draw attention to the car rather than being what people would actually buy. Although there have been updates more or less every year since, the only really obvious ones came at the 2011 Los Angeles Auto Show, for 2013 model year cars. While the basic shape did not change at all, the front and rear brought in a new look. A single-bar grille replaced the three-bar grille, but other changes to the front end attracted even more attention. Along with the SVT Raptor, the Flex was a model that did not wear the Ford blue oval emblem; the hood wore “F-L-E-X” above the grille. On the tailgate, the Ford emblem was decreased in size and moved to the bottom right corner. Inside, the dashboard was updated, with a new 3-spoke steering wheel. Not much has changed since that time.

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When the Flex was first released, there were quite a few of them appeared in the Hertz US fleet, though circumstances conspired against me ever getting behind the wheel of one. And then after a couple of years, I realised that they had all gone, and for a long time now, the car has been conspicuous by its absence at Hertz facilities. Still keen to try one, I fell to wondering whether I would need an Avis rental, as I could see that they still carried the model. And then in the autumn of 2018, I spotted a lone example, on California plates at the LAX facility, and when I asked, it transpired that a few had been bought. That said, this is the only car I have seen during my Spring 2019 visit. It is grouped together with the larger 7-seater Crossovers, and was positively dwarfed by them when I found it parked up. A quick chat with my friends on the Gold Desk there, and the car was allocated to me, so I could find out what I thought. It turned out to be a 2019 car, built and plated in January, and registered in Arizona rather than California. And a badge on the boot said SEL, which meant more luxury than the entry level version.

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Standard engine in the Flex is Ford’s trusty 3.5 litre V6, which puts out 287 bhp, and it is combined with a 6 speed automatic transmission, driving the front wheels. AWD is option and there is a rather more potent 365 bhp Twin Turbo Ecoboost available on the top Limited model. The unit in the test car proved very smooth, as I expected, having experienced it in the Explorer, but I found that you needed to work it quite hard to maintain progress on even quite gentle inclines. This stems more from the gearing than the lack of power, I suspect, as. like most cars these days, the Flex is very adept it changing up to the highest of the 6 forward ratios at the earliest possible opportunity, and only changes down if you make it very plain that you need acceleration. Do this, and there is plenty. The downside comes at the fuel pump. I only covered 138 miles during my day with the Flex, and yet it needed 7 gallons to brim in, before returning. That computes to a rather disappointing 19.71 mpg US or 23.55 mpg Imperial, not a good result compared to rival offerings and also considering that there was no significant urban traffic time in this, just a steady speed up to the canyons and then some hilly roads, one-up during the day.

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More impressive are the other driving characteristics. This is, after all, a Ford, and so your expectations are for steering and handling that are well above class average. And they are. Perhaps not quite the stand-out feature that they are in some other Blue Oval models, but even so, there was plenty of feel to the well-weighted steering and the Flex could be punted around those bends on curvy canyon roads with plenty of gusto with little body roll and only the hint of understeer. Shod with relatively high profile 235/60 R18 alloys, the Flex rides well, too, with all but the worst of the road surfaces feeling smoother than many of them actually are. The brakes gave no cause for concern. There is a foot operated parking brake. Visibility is generally good, with plenty of glass, all bar the front windows of which are quite heavily tinted privacy glass. In case the almost vertical rear end is not obvious enough, the rear-view camera gave a clear view of what was behind when manoeuvering. The Flex does not have the second piece of glass in the doors mirrors that you find in a lot of Ford models, but there was a blind spot warning light, which proved useful on occasion, as well as rear parking sensors. The SEL version of the Flex features Ford’s keyless entry system with a numeric keypad on the B pillar by the driver’s door, with the figures just visible in strong light.

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Whilst the basic design of the dashboard has not changed during the Flex’ long production life, the details have, as customer expectations have moved on a lot in the preceding ten years. Not only are far more features expected, technology has allowed makers like Ford both to simplify the number of buttons and to offer a better user interface than early attempts such as Sync. So what the 2019 Flex buyer gets is a largely uncluttered design which proved mostly easy to use, constructed from mainly quality looking and feeling materials. There are an awful lot of different ones, though, with several different textures used, including some mercifully small inlays of a dark “wood” that is so obviously plastic and pretty horrid to behold. It is confined to small sections of the door casing and sides of the console and is less overt than is usually the case. Most of the rest is black with only a limited amount of silver for colour contrast. The instrument cluster is one that will look familiar to Ford drivers, complete with a turquoise pointer in the speedometer. This sit in the centre of the array of three spaces, with what you get to see on either side being configurable by the driver using touch pad style buttons on left and right steering wheel spokes. The left hand area can give you a rev counter, or a digital speed repeater as well as the fuel gauge, and potentially water temperature. Or you could opt to look at various trip mileage functions. The right hand area is more informational and shows things such as what is playing on the audio unit at the time. As well as the buttons for this, the wheel also houses the cruise control and audio repeaters. There is a single column stalk, with wipers operated by twisting the end. Lights are operated by a rotary dial on the dash to the left of the wheel. The centre of the dash contains the integrated colour touch screen for the infotainment system, which is now powered by SYNC 3 technology, a big improvement on the old Microsoft Sync system that went before it, and which can be driven by voice commands. Siri hands free, Apple Car Play and Android Auto are now included, and you get an easy to use navigation system. Underneath the screen are touch pad areas for some of the audio functions, and also for the dual zone climate control, and you may find these easier to use than going through the menu options on the screen. Sign, perhaps, of the age of the design is that there is still a CD slot. Audio quality was good, and I appreciated the XM Satellite radio when I was up in the mountains, where the FM signal just disappears. There is a keyless starting.

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This feels like a conventional car to get into, with none of the raised seating that you get in crossovers and SUVs, though when you realise just how much headroom there is, you will realise that this is not quite a regular estate car. Seat adjustment is electric, with switches on the side of the leather trimmed seat that allow you to get the perfect position, backrest angle cushion angle and elevation, and once installed, the seat proved comfortable enough though it is a bit flat and clearly designed for people with larger frames than me. There are 2 memory settings to store your desired position, and the seats have heating elements for those cold winter days and ventilation fans of the warmer ones. The steering column telescopes in and out as well as up and down. There are plenty of places for odds and ends, with a reasonable sized glovebox, bins on the doors, a cubby under the central armrest and various other recesses and cup holders in the centre console.

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There is lots of room for those in the second row of seats, with ample width for three people, for sure. The seats are split asymmetrically, and you can vary the position of the backrest with the same lever as the one you use to fold the backrest forward and flat. Again, headroom is particularly plentiful, and whilst the seats are not on sliders, so fixed in position, there is ample legroom even if the front seats are set well back. Occupants here get their own climate control zone, with the controls on the rear face of the centre console, above a large pullout tray which also includes cupholders. As with most cars of this size, the third row is aimed more at children than adults, though the latter could fit in and certainly tolerate short journeys here. To encourage access from the kerbside, the entire seat lifts up after you have folded the backrest onto the cushion, with an electric switch set in the door moulding being used to do this, giving a reasonable sized space to clamber through. Once there, the seat is set quite low which means that headroom is not the issue, but your thighs will probably not be flat on the seat cushion, more at an angle. There are roof vents for occupants here, and cubby holes in the side mouldings as well as cupholders.

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Even with the rearmost seats erect, there is some boot space, more than you often get in a 7-seater, and allegedly enough for five sets of golf clubs (if you pile them on top of each other, and there is a useful stowage well under the boot floor which would take all those odds and ends that you generally need to carry around. To create more space, you pull the release loop on the base of the backrest, and the backrest then drops down, and you then pull on the long strap which brings the entire seat assembly, pivoted in the middle back so it will now fold down flush into the floor, and level with the base of the tailgate. The rearmost seats are split 50/50. When both are folded down, there is a lot of luggage space. If that is not enough, you can fold the backrests of the second row down as well, which creates a very long and flat load area from the back of the front seats, though there is a bit of a gap in the middle between the third and second row. For still further cargo capacity, there are roof rails. The tailgate is large, and heavy, but on the test car was electrically assisted, both to open and to close.

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There are three trims available: SE, SEL and Limited. The test car was the middle of these, an SEL, and it appeared to have a couple of option packs fitted. The Flex SE has a base price of $30,575. Standard features include the SYNC smartphone integration system (with a USB port, Bluetooth, and voice command recognition), rear parking sensors, a rearview camera, and Ford’s MyKey system. You can add satellite radio for $185. All-wheel drive is not available on this trim. The Flex SEL has a starting price of $33,290. In addition to the SE trim’s features, the SEL comes standard with proximity key entry, push-button start, two additional USB ports, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front seats, satellite radio, the SYNC 3 touch-screen infotainment system, Siri Eyes Free iPhone integration, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto. You can add all-wheel drive for $1,950 and a panoramic glass roof for $1,595. You can also add second-row bucket seats ($695) and navigation ($795). The 202A Equipment package ($2,400) includes leather-trimmed first- and second-row seats, a premium seven-speaker audio system, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, and a power liftgate and this was on the test car. Top of the range is the Flex Limited, which starts at $38,790. The Limited comes with a power liftgate, a three-prong power outlet, leather first- and second-row seats, power-adjustable front seats, a 12-speaker Sony audio system, HD Radio, voice-controlled navigation, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross traffic alert. You can upgrade to the twin-turbo 365 bhp V6 (EcoBoost) engine and all-wheel drive (you’re required to add AWD if you want the EcoBoost) for $8,200. All-wheel drive by itself costs $1,950. You can also add a panoramic glass roof ($1,595) and second-row bucket seats ($695). The 301A Equipment package ($2,900) includes ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, power-folding third-row seats, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, and active park assist.

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Although Ford have not said so, I would imagine that this is the last year of production for the Flex. Not only is it by some margin the oldest model in their range, its sales have dwindled to a trickle, being outsold by the Explorer at a ratio of 12:1. And yet, for those who want a spacious vehicle without all the bulk of an SUV, the Flex still has plenty to commend it. Its lower centre of gravity makes it more car like to drive, it goes well enough (albeit liking a drink of fuel), is well finished inside and the prices are not that high. For sure it is not exciting, but no car of this type really is, but it has a certain (boxy) style to it, so if this appeals, it is definitely still worth a look.

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