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Made-in-Canada maxi crossover

The 2016 Ford Flex in top-of-the-line Limited trim and in a new colour - Too Good To Be Blue. Tricked out in a new blacked-out Flex Appearance Package, this model adds an edgier look to a unique minivan alternative.

  • Ford Flex 2016-main

THE PROS & CONS

    • What’s Best: Full-size roominess, good engine choices, varied trim levels.
    • What’s Worst: Squared-off style just too odd for some tastes, fuel economy needs improvement.
    • What’s Interesting: Always interesting how functionality takes a back seat to looks. Some customers will never get over the Flex’s originality.

When the Ford Flex debuted nearly ten years ago, it polarized opinions with its two-box architecture and rectangular lines.

Its design style referenced everything from retro vacuum cleaners and refrigerators, along with an obvious connection with wagons of the past.

Horizontal styling cues dominate the Flex and Peter Horbury, one of Ford’s top designers at the time, pointed out the strong front brow, the squared-off grille and the straked lines that pay tribute to the “woodies” of another era.

As he put it, the design was

a recognition of the past, done in a modern way

We’ve all gotten used to seeing the Flex on the road since then, but it remains a difficult vehicle to define.

Some wags have joked that the Flex blends all the qualities of a station wagon, minivan, SUV and hearse.

But the benefits of its shape and design seem clear enough.

The Flex lives up to its full-size, three-row, seven-passenger crossover ranking with ample room throughout the cabin, thanks to generous proportions and that long, squared-off roofline.

Second row seating is especially spacious and, yes, adults might actually fit into the third row. And the airy, big-windowed greenhouse, as tested, benefits from an optional multi-panel vista roof.

The seating position perches you slightly higher than sedan height but lower than an SUV seating position, making for a comfortable hip-point and big door, easily accessible entry into the vehicle.

Luggage is swallowed through a rear hatch that opens to take 566 litres, 1,223 litres with the third row folded or up to a maximum of 2,356 litres behind the first row.

The Flex comes in three trim levels – SE, SEL and Limited.

The SE ($31,799) starts with a 3.5-litre TI-VCT V6 (287 hp, 254 lb/ft) mated to a six-speed SelectShift automatic, channeling power through a standard front-wheel-drive system (FWD)

The SEL ($38,799) carries over with the same powertrain, adds mid-level extras and offers an all-wheel-drive (AWD) model ($40,799).

The Limited ($45,099), tested here, tops out with a healthy list of included goodies, and makes AWD standard.

Our tester also adds $11,200 worth of techy driver assists, options and packages, starting with Ford’s 3.5-litre twin-turbo EcoBoost V6 (365 hp. 350 lb/ft) mated to the same six-speed automatic but adding steering wheel shifter paddles.

This upgraded engine adds best-in-class V6 power and a little adrenalized edginess to family hauling duties with snappy acceleration and a quicker throttle response.

Fuel economy with this EcoBoost engine is rated at 15.7/11.2L/100km (city/hwy), which works out to about an extra litre of gas every 100 km, compared to the standard V6. My real world results with this more powerful, turbocharged motor averaged out to about 13.9L/100km (comb).

I’d like to see slightly better mileage than that but the Flex satisfies as a smooth sailer, sedate and comfortable in town or on the highway with a remarkably quiet absence of road and wind noise for a vehicle with the aerodynamics of an outhouse.

For 2016, upscale Ford Flex models add SYNC3, Ford’s new communications and infotainment system featuring faster performance, conversational voice recognition and smartphone-like touch screen operation.

I’m on the fence about this new feature, recognizing its inevitability but still preferring regular buttons and knobs to the uncertain and driver-distracting screen jabs that often result in input miscues. Of course, that could just be fumble-fingered me.

Our tester also displays other new cues for 2016 – a unique Too Good To Be Blue colour and a first-ever Flex Appearance Package ($900) that blacks-out the roof, door-handles, window sills, 20-inch wheels, grille and applique for a custom-like treatment that looks surprisingly cool.

Now, summing up the Flex, some reviewers will trot out the old “hip to be square” platitude.

But I’m not so sure.

I mentioned earlier that the Flex was difficult to define.

But it has also proved to be difficult to love with sales numbers below Ford expectations.

For the most part, consumers have been reluctant to embrace the sharper edges of rectangular design, as in the Honda Element (discontinued), Nissan Cube (dead) and Scion xB (gone). Only the snooty G-Wagon, Jeep Wrangler and Kia Soul remain to soldier on.

Rumour has it that the Flex might be phased out with the advent of the next generation Explorer in a year or two.

But despite limited sales, the Ford Flex has developed somewhat of a cult following, especially in California where the surf mentality and the Flex’s “woodie” styling seems to resonate particularly well.

And if Ford could just get bums in the seats across the rest of North America, drivers and passenger would find the Flex to be a roomy full-size crossover with comfortable seating, spacious cargo room and all the amenities you could ask for.

I want to cheer for the Flex because it is made here in Canada, alongside its Lincoln MKT sibling and the Edge and MKX at Ford’s Oakville, Ontario plant.

And with its unique style, it is still a one-of-a-kind alternative to the family minivan.

Ford Flex AWD Limited 2016

BODY STYLE: Full-size, three-row, seven-passenger crossover (CUV)

DRIVE METHOD: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive; six-speed automatic transmission with standard AWD

ENGINE: 3.5-litre direct injection, twin turbo EcoBoost V6 (365 hp, 350 lb/ft)

FUEL ECONOMY: (Premium recommended, Regular OK) 15.7/11.2L/100 km (city/hwy)

CARGO: 566 litres, 1,223 litres behind second row, 2,356 litres behind first row

TOW RATING: Class III 2,041 kg (4,500 lb) (when equipped)

PRICE: Ford Flex AWD Limited MSRP $45,099. As tested $56,299.

WEB SITE: www.ford.ca

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