There was a time when America?s self-anointed ?Wagonmaster? had cornered the market by selling three distinct minivans at the same time.
Ford?s Aerostar, Windstar and Mercury Villager represented an embarrassment of riches for anyone contemplating sliding doors as an automotive fashion statement. But minivans lost their popular appeal and Ford dropped all three in favour of its rapidly selling sport utility vehicles.
Still, once a wagonmaster always a wagonmaster as they say and Ford rebounded with a fresh ?people mover? concept called the Fairlane. That model?s slab-sided flanks harked back to the Ford Country Squire and other wagons our forefathers ? and comedian Chevy Chase ? might happily recall.
Based on Ford?s D3 front-drive platform (itself derived from Volvo?s P2 chassis) that formed the foundation for the Ford Five Hundred, Freestyle and Taurus X, the new-for-2009 Flex rode on a 13-cm-longer D4 wheelbase and made absolutely no apologies for its big footprint.
It also weighed 2.2 metric tonnes in all-wheel-drive form ? easily out-hefting your dad?s Colony Park wagon. Rather than resort to a wood grain appliqu? on the bodywork, designers specified horizontal strakes on the doors to evoke the look.
Meant to blend the best attributes of station wagons, minivans and SUVs, the Flex featured six- or seven-passenger seating that could fold down flat as needed, offered optional all-wheel drive and a mini-refrigerator between the second-row seats.
The Flex also offered Ford?s Sync voice-activated communications and entertainment system, mood lighting in seven selectable hues and a four-panel glass roof. A capless fuel filler was a spark of genius.
While all four doors were hinged, they were enormous, which aided entry and egress. Inside, occupants were treated to generous legroom, especially in the second row, though the driver had to contend with two shortcomings:
?Needs telescoping steering wheel, adjustable headrests. Finding a comfortable driver?s position can take time,? noted one owner in a post.
The Flex initially offered only one motor: a chain-driven DOHC 3.5-L V6, good for 262 hp and 246 lb.-ft. of torque ? the same engine powering the popular Edge sport-utility. It worked through a slick six-speed automatic transmission made standard.
For 2010, buyers of SEL or Limited models with all-wheel drive could order Ford?s new EcoBoost direct-injection, twin-turbo 3.5-L V6 that cranked out 355 hp and 350 lb.-ft. of grunt. A revised six-speed slushbox was attached, complete with hill-descent control and a true manual shift mode operated with steering-wheel paddles.
EcoBoost models also featured stiffer springs and revised shocks for a taut ride, as well as electric steering in place of the regular models? hydraulic system. Electric steering allowed for a sonar-based, self-parallel-parking system that worked better than the camera-based technology offered by Lexus. Also available in 2010, thankfully, was a telescoping steering column.
ON THE ROAD
Saddled with a lot of mass, the Flex was no flyer. Zero to 96 km/h came up in 8.4 seconds, no better than many econoboxes. The EcoBoost was markedly swifter, taking just 6.1 seconds to attain highway velocity.
The Flex telegraphed its portly stature in everything it did, making slovenly turns through a heavy and numb steering wheel. It moved like a big SUV, but at least it drove like a quiet one. Many owners remarked at how hushed the Flex remained even at supra-legal speeds. Crossing the continent? This wagon will make short work of it.
It makes short work of full gas tanks, too. Fuel economy is nowhere near as good as its optimistic ratings, although drivers accustomed to SUVs didn?t mind much. ?EcoBoost? is a bit of a misnomer, too.
WHAT OWNERS SAY
?I have had two Lincoln Town Cars and this is very comparable in ride, comfort and performance,? one enthusiastic driver posted. The minivan generation likely never had it so good and the Flex stands out as an uncommon offering in a crowded market.
Owners did raise a few reoccurring dependability issues in the Oakville, Ont.-built crossover.
Defective front caliper anchor brackets can cause abnormal wear in the brake rotors and pads, indicated by a telltale grinding sound. Misaligned or corroded brackets can cause the rear brakes to drag as well. Ford has made revised parts available.
Other reported hiccups include leaking axle shaft seals, power-steering fluid leaks (in very cold weather), jerky transmissions, malfunctioning console displays and flimsy interior trim pieces.
Sync was singled out for noisy phone calls, poor voice recognition and failed USB ports. Fixes may include revising the module software and replacing the microphone.
The Flex?s DNA may contain more SUV than automobile, but it?s a welcome crossbreed just the same. The Wagonmaster is back.
2009-11 Ford Flex
What?s Best: Long-distance spaceship, library quiet, unique profile
What?s Worst: Overweight and clumsy with brake woes
Typical GTA prices: 2009-$18,000; 2011-$25,000