2013 Ford Flex first drive: Gangsta wrap

2013 Ford Flex

Ford’s 2013 Flex is perfect for the gang – or gangsta.

Portland, OR – Portland’s Pearl District, with its urban vibe and dampened demeanor, should supply the perfect backdrop for the 2013 Ford Flex. Portland serves as one of the West Coast bastions of the anti-California movement, while Ford’s two-box Flex – updated for 2013 – is the obvious antidote for both truck-based SUVs and more conventional station wagons. If Ford was previously known for exploring and (country) squiring, they’d like you to know there’s a just-left-of-center architecture between those two extremes with a spacious interior,  flexible seating and available all-wheel drive.

Were the spacious 2013 Flex a home, you’d call it a maxi pad; in concept form it was known as the Fairlane. Introduced to the global audience at the Detroit show in 2005, the Fairlane  featured three-row seating for six, tight exterior dimensions that reduced its visual heft and an avant garde interior to die for. In the wake of Scion’s upright xB and Honda’s Element the Fairlane was more of the same, albeit for a more mature crowd. And given the Fairlane’s larger – but not too large – size, it was seemingly targeted at Scion prospects with a history of binge eating.

To Ford’s credit, the basic idea has changed little since the launch of the concept. It is – to be sure – longer, which provides for luggage space behind the third row. And the front overhang seems to be more obviously front-wheel drive, but given that it is front (or all) wheel drive that’s to be accepted. But in today’s production Flex there’s little to disguise that visual heft; thankfully, updates to the 2013 platform would seem to reduce the perceived mass behind the wheel.

The Portland area can enjoy/suffer snow in the middle of March, making it perfect for an updated Flex with available all-wheel drive. Our test vehicle’s info card suggested a fully-equipped Flex with an EcoBoost V6 boasting 365 horsepower. However, we simply weren’t feeling 365 horsepower; the Flex was certainly – to its credit – responsive, but not almost 400-horses responsive. Fortunately for our seat-of-the-pants evaluation our seat was right and the info card wrong; our Flex had the standard 3.5 liter DOHC V6 with 287 horsepower, a 25-horsepower bump over what was available in 2012. Connected to a 6-speed SelectShift automatic, the ‘cooking’ V6 provides more-than-adequate acceleration, along with a relaxed – and efficient (17 City/24 Highway) – cruising capability.

The platform of the 2013 Flex has also enjoyed some upgrades. Torque Vectoring Control uses the car’s brakes to imitate a limited slip differential, balancing the engine torque between the front wheels during cornering. This both improves grip and reduces the front end’s tendency to understeer. You won’t, obviously, confuse Ford’s chassis work with that of Mazda’s on their Miata, but for two-plus tons of people mover the Flex comes across as willing and credible.

The exterior sheetmetal benefits – we think – from a modest nip-and-tuck. The front is now slightly rounded, which creates “more visual harmony between the front and the rest of the vehicle.” The car’s ‘FLEX’ moniker is now front and center on the hood. In back, standard dual exhausts are just what your neighbors were hoping for, while an available applique incorporates an integrated rear view camera, giving you a clear view of the bicycle right before backing over it. Despite the refresh, the Flex’s in-your-face attitude remains; in the right color, with the appropriate wheelset, this is no mom-mobile – unless your mom is Queen Latifah.

Inside, Ford’s design team is still not reaching the threshold set by the concept, but customers will find a modern and “sophisticated” driver zone, along with new seat trim and foam. We found the seats spacious but a tad flat, making getting in easy but staying in more problematic. For the intended audience they’re probably perfect, but for the twisties in and around Portland less so. Legroom is great for front and second-row passengers, and still reasonable in the third row, but if we were on the platform team we’d argue for a shorter footprint and an occasional – and foldaway – third row seat.

Were you to roll your own, you can select from SE, SEL and Limited trims, starting at roughly $31K and finishing somewhere north of $45K. We’d keep the ordering simple, and the MSRP on this side of $35,000. For that we’d have a credible alternative to the minivan (Ford – notably – is no longer in the minivan business, save for the commercially-specific Transit Connect…), and an exterior package fully appropriate to our inner ‘gangsta’. Which we’re working on…