First Drive: 2013 Ford Flex [Review]

A new grille and a few interior tweaks keep Ford's Flex pretty fresh, but can it compete with its internal rival, the Explorer?

With the outgoing Flex the kind of niche vehicle that Ford says it covets, it is easy to see why the Blue Oval only subjected its in betweener three-row crossover to a minimal amount of refreshing for 2013.

Based on clinics and surveys of owners, they determined that 67 percent of Flex buyers have stayed with the brand, stepping up to other products once they have driven the current model. In other words: Don't mess with success.

That said, Ford's similarly-sized and priced Explorer has been going gangbusters since it hit the market last year, a fact that has long left us scratching our heads about the Flex's future.

Strength in its subtlety
Subtle improvements have taken place from the front of the Flex all the way to its tail. At first glance, the most obvious change would be the absence of the brand's trademark Blue Oval in the center of the newly revised grille, which itself is a modernistic play on the previous three-bar setup of last year's Flex. Large-ish block letters spell out the Flex name on the hood's leading edge, but we can't help thinking the big new grille looks as though inspired by the "VISOR" eyepiece worn by actor LeVar Burton in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

At the rear are standard dual exhausts with a metallic-look panel that enhances the appearance on the back hatch. Six new variations of wheels, including 20-inchers, are available for buyers to personalize the appearance of their Flexes.

Inside, many of the buttons are gone, replaced with panels that appear inspired by the touch panel arrays in the Chevrolet Volt. As we saw BMW do several years ago with their iDrive system, Ford has continued to refine the MyFordTouch that is used in conjunction with the company's SYNC system of voice recognition controls. Two 4.2-inch screens flank the instrument cluster, while a nine-inch monitor handles navigation, climate, audio and Bluetooth functions.

Seats in front are climate-controlled, which we love on both hot and cold days. The second row continues to show why the Flex is a spectacular road-tripper, while the third row surprises with its comfort. A cooling box for beverages is still an available option.

Interior noise receives more suppression through the use of wrapped shock towers, dash insulators and acoustic rear wheel liners. The overall drive was extremely quiet as a result.

Adaptive cruise control with braking assist is now part of the safety features that are in the 2013 Flex. Thankfully, we never a chance to experience it during our test-drive in and around Portland, Oregon, and its surrounding logging communities. On the other hand, Ford's Blind Spot Information System with cross traffic alert was part of our Flex Limited AWD tester, where it became a welcomed assist. in this admittedly large station wagon-like vehicle. The system gives off both audible and visual information when another vehicle is in the blind spot.

Two mills, no waiting
The 2013 Ford Flex features a choice of two engines, two drive configurations and one slushbox. Standard is a newly developed 3.5-liter V6 with twin independent variable camshaft timing that puts out 287 horsepower at 6,500 rpm (an increase of 25 horsepower over the outgoing model) and 254 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. It's available in front-wheel, or, like our test model, all-wheel-drive. The EPA has rated the engine as capable of 18/25 mpg.

The other motivating factor is the 3.5-liter EcoBoost twin turbocharged V6. The same engine that has been raising eyebrows in the F-150, it mostly delivers on its "power of a V8, fuel economy of a V6" promise. Unchanged from last year, it produces 365 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque and receives its diet of 87 octane fuel by direct injection. Estimated mileage slots in at 16/23 mpg.

Our 3.5-liter Ti-VCT V6 engine was mated to Ford's six-speed SelectShift automatic transmission with shifter button activation. Well-suited to both engines, it uses the same shifter knob-mounted toggles as found in the new Mustang. We think the buttons are awkwardly placed and would be better controlled with paddle shift levers mounted on the steering wheel, like those found in the EcoBoost equipped Flex and Taurus SHO.

After spending the morning behind the wheel of an EcoBoosted Ford Taurus SHO, we were expecting a big letdown once in the Flex Limited. What we found instead impressed us with its power and response, despite the 4,637-lbs. mass that these four all-weather tires were carrying. Remembering that we were not driving a top-fuel dragster, we were still surprised by the acceleration provided by the naturally aspirated engine.

Improved braking now works in conjunction with the Flex's Torque Vectoring Control and Curve Control technology. Fancy words for sure, they essentially mimic a limited slip differential usually found in higher performance vehicles than a typical crossover. While encountering one of the flash snowstorms that happened in Oregon's logging areas, we managed to come into a moderate left-hander turn too quickly. We could feel slippage start to occur as we turned harshly in the snow, but braking was automatically and almost imperceptibly applied to the left front wheel, which allowed the outside wheels to catch up, and in effect, shortened the length of the turning radius.

The technology could go a long way towards the prevention and elimination of guardrail hickeys.

Leftlane's bottom line
Still not everyone's idea of a pretty face, the 2013 Ford Flex offers subtle improvements in style and comfort, with major improvements in safety.

Together, they continue to make it a solid performer in its segment.

It's unlikely that these refinements will elevate the quirky Flex over its Explorer rival, but we appreciate Ford's efforts at renewing a niche vehicle.

2013 Ford Flex base price range, $30,885 to $44,330.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.