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CarGurus Expert ReviewThe Good
Lots of passenger and cargo room from its boxy design, a turbocharged V6, available all-wheel drive, unique styling, laudable safety scores and bountiful standard amenities make the quirky 2012 Ford Flex a solid choice in a large crossover.The Bad
Not quite minivan practicality, less total cargo area than many competitors, frustratingly difficult folding rear seats and, under hard acceleration, a pair of noisy engines all result in a crossover that’s more of a hit with the media than with the public in the 2012 Flex.
The CarGurus View
Ford’s 2012 Flex crossover owes a lot of its appeal to the box-like design that gives everyone aboard their own space. An adequate base engine, meanwhile, is backed up by the available EcoBoost turbocharged V6 for some serious zoom, while ride and handling remain well-mixed. Tire-kickers should be advised, however, to bring some serious cash to the showroom, as these big crossovers don’t come cheap.
At a Glance
Remember the old Ford "Woody" station wagons? Well, take away the tacky faux-wood exterior trim, single up the headlights, jack the suspension a little and, ta-da, behold the 2012 Ford Flex. Like its prehistoric forebear, this large crossover can tote lots of stuff—plenty of people in 3 rows of seating and even a good-size camper trailer. Where the two differ is in the fact that the Woody was a gas-guzzling, ponderous and oversize boat, while the 3-year-old first-gen Flex is a comfortable, fuel-efficient and just-right family automobile that seems to have made a hit with reviewers, though sales have yet to reflect this media attraction. One reason for this popular disdain may be that, like its long-daparted ancestor, this is not an inexpensive people hauler. And those with a penchant for all the available bells and whistles, including an EcoBoost turbocharged V6, can bring the Flex's MSRP to nearly astronomical heights.
In any case, the 2012 Flex lineup begins with the base SE and continues climbing through the middling SEL, the higher-midlevel Limited and the top-shelf Titanium. All trims are delivered with standard front-wheel drive (FWD), while the SEL and higher trims can be equipped with Active All-Wheel Drive (AWD). The two higher trims are additionally available packing the aforementioned EcoBoost V6 turbo. All trims come with a cornucopia of standard appearance, comfort and convenience amenities, as well as 83.2 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats folded, while options, though pricy, encompass most but certainly not all of those traditional touches that most potential crossover owners want.
For this year, the folks at Ford have added some extra touches here and, alas, taken away one there. The rear wiper has been relocated for a less rain-besotted view through the rear window, a new flip-open rear armrest in the Limited and Titanium trims includes storage and cupholders, and roof side-rails are now available to those trims packing the available Vista Roof power sunroof. Don’t look for the lower-midlevel SEL to carry the available EcoBoost V6 any longer, however, as this potent powerplant has been deleted from its repertoire of options.
Of course, more than a few of those who kick the Flex’s all-season radial tires are doing so mainly to avoid purchasing the dreaded minivan. Thus tires will undoubtedly be kicked, as well, on Ford’s own Explorer, not to mention GM’s Chevy Traverse, Buick’s high-end Enclave (even its name sounds luxurious) and GMC’s Acadia. All of the above offer equal or better utility and flexibility, with the GM offerings additionally packing 8-passenger people-toting skills. Mazda’s sporty CX-9 is also worth a look before committing to the Flex, which, apparently, more consumers take advantage of than do professional reviewers.
All 2012 Flex trims start out with the standard 3.5-liter variable-valve-timed V6 powerplant and 6-speed shiftable automatic transmission. This base engine puts out 262 hp at 6,250 rpm and 248 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. FWD Flex trims carrying this normally aspirated V6 are estimated to get 17 mpg city/24 highway, with AWD-equipped trims getting an estimated 16/23. Towing, meantime, is maxed out at a respectable 4,500 pounds when the available Class III towing package is installed.
Should some serious scoot be required, Limited and Titanium AWD trims can be fitted with an available twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6 engine and a 6-speed automatic transmission that comes with the obligatory steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Look for 355 hp at 5,700 rpm and 350 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm from this blown V6, with gas mileage, surprisingly, holding fairly steady at 16/22. Again, with the Class III Trailer Tow Package, this peppy prodigy can haul some 4,500 pounds.
Those Limited and Titanium trims that boast Ford’s Active AWD carry an on-demand system that allows the Flex to cruise in FWD under normal driving conditions, and when surface conditions get slippery, the AWD system automatically and instantly transfers torque to all 4 wheels while it's needed, then back to FWD when conditions improve.
Reviewers accord the normally aspirated V6 its due as perfectly adequate for most driving needs, with enough oomph for reasonably confident merging and passing. A 0-60 time of 8.9 seconds, at least in one test, indicates a respectable pace accelerating from red lights, but, according to most reviews, the standard 6-speed shiftable automatic continues to require pedal-to-the-metal prompting for necessary downshifting at highway speeds.
On the other hand, reviewers remain captivated by the power thrown out of the EcoBoost turbo V6. Its 0-60 time of 6.6 seconds won’t blow away a V8 Mustang, but judicious use of the 6-speed automatic’s wheel-mounted paddle-shifters ought to get you a squeal or two from the lights and rock-solid passing performance on the highway. Both V6s, meantime, are described by reviewers as a tad noisy on hard acceleration, but each is noted to damp down nicely at cruising speeds.
Ride & Handling
All 2012 Flex trims are noted by reviewers to offer a surprisingly refined ride. Though not quite as plush as its faux-wood-clad ancestors, this hefty crossover handles most rough surfaces comfortably, with none of the float and wallow once common to the Woody. Much of this, of course, is due to the up-to-date 4-wheel independent suspension that boasts MacPherson front struts, a multi-link rear end and stabilizer bars fore and aft. The SE trim’s 17-inch painted alloy wheels and all-season tires are well-suited to serious ride comfort, with even the SEL’s 18-inch wheels and tires delivering a quite respectable trundle over broken pavement.
With their 19-inch and 20-inch tires, respectively, the Limited and Titanium editions nonetheless produce at least tolerable ride comfort, according to most reviews, with the stiffer sport-tuned suspensions on the EcoBoost-equipped higher trims producing confident cornering and a tighter steering feel. Many reviewers remain confident that none of the Flex trims will disappoint in their comportment on the roadway, though a few maintain that the EcoBoost-equipped variants far outstrip their normally aspirated siblings in outright handling excitement. Additionally, all reviewers find the Flex to have a pleasingly tight turning radius for its size, a definite advantage in tight situations.
Alas, if there’s an Achilles Heel to the Flex’s otherwise commendable under-way performance, it’s in bringing this hefty hauler to a stop. Reviewers note that this big crossover’s brakes are strong enough, but a bit of sponginess in the pedal and a lot of nosedive during hard braking maneuvers can be a bit disturbing. Tests, however, have the Flex coming to a controlled stop from 60 mph in 131 feet, which is, according to most experts, pretty much average for its class.
Cabin & Comfort
Besides the alloy wheels, some painted and some polished, that adorn all 2012 Flex trims, even the lower-priced editions flaunt a respectable number of standard appearance, comfort and convenience features.
The base SE, for instance, comes with cloth upholstery and front bucket seats with a 6-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, as well as a fold-flat front passenger seat, digital keypad power door locks and power windows and mirrors. Leather, chrome and simulated alloy cabin trim accents are complemented by a telescoping and tilting leather-wrapped steering wheel, while occupants are all embraced by front and rear air conditioning and comforted by front and rear floor mats. Standard techno goodies, meantime, include rear parking sensors and cruise control, bolstered by an MP3-capable single-CD player with 6 speakers.
Next up, the SEL sports heated, height-adjustable front seats with a 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat and 6-way power-adjustable and fold-flat front passenger seat, as well as simulated wood door trim. Heated outside mirrors, a universal remote garage door opener, tri-zone climate control and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, meantime, are complemented by satellite radio, a USB port, Bluetooth hands-free communications and voice-activated Sync audio and communications interface with turn-by-turn driving directions.
The upper-midlevel Flex Limited boasts a satin-aluminum-trimmed power rear liftgate, premium leather upholstery (vinyl third-row seats), standard memory for driver's settings and a folding rear armrest, with storage, that’s new for this year. This high-end trim also sports Sony premium audio components, including 390 watts of power, a CD/DVD player, HD radio and a grand total of 12 speakers.
The flagship Titanium, finally, adds faux-suede alcantara leather upholstery inserts to the mix, along with upgraded cabin accents and unique exterior upgrades, including unique exterior mirrors and a matte-black grille.
Lower trims continue the tradition of remaining eligible for many items that come standard on the higher trims, with all trims in the running for such extra doodads as roof rails, remote engine start, sport pedals and a Class III Trailer Tow Package. Second-row reclining bucket seats with the power-release fold-down feature can also be added to any Flex trim, though this option results in limiting passenger capacity to 6 passengers. The SEL additionally remains in the running for the Convenience package, which sports power-adjustable pedals, along with a number of items that come standard in the higher trims.
Standalone options like leather upholstery, Sony premium audio and the Vista Roof with power front sunroof and rear fixed-glass roof panels are available to the SEL and higher trims, while the high-end Limited and Titanium trims can each be delivered with Active Park Assist for help in parallel-parking situations. Finally, chrome roof rack and side rails (now available with the Vista Roof), rear-seat DVD entertainment, a refrigerated second-row console and voice-activated hard-drive-based navigation with integrated rear-view camera wind up the list of notable options for the two higher trims.
Reviewers in general look favorably on the Flex's cabin layout with its big-box roominess and overall ambiance. Seats are described as comfortable and supportive enough, though all could, according to most reviews, use a bit more side bolstering. Most reviewers remain impressed that hard plastics are well distributed among the generous soft-touch surfaces, and that the available navigation suite is reasonably easy to use and doesn’t intrude significantly upon other functions. Ample rear-seat space is a most welcome change from the cramped-third-row norm, though most reviewers do complain that the hump in the rear floor does little for rear center-passenger legroom. Alas, total cargo area remains less than that of most rivals, according to virtually all reviews, most of which also bemoan the fact that in added amenities, the Titanium trim offers only marginal improvements over its Limited sibling despite a sizeable increase in price.
In keeping with its family-oriented nature, all 2012 Flex trims are equipped with 4-wheel antilock brakes (ABS), electronic brakeforce distribution and, of course, traction and stability control. Three-row head airbags are standard across the lineup, as are dual front side-mounted airbags, front fog/driving lights, dusk-sensing headlights, a post-collision safety system and a remote antitheft alarm. Both the Limited and Titanium trims, meantime, additionally boast standard xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights.
A further standard safety feature in all Flex trims is Ford’s touted MyKey owner programmable feature that allows parents to govern top-end speed and audio volume when sis or junior borrows the Flex for an evening.
Finally, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the 2012 Flex a Top Safety Pick award for its highest possible score of Good in all safety tests. Meantime, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has tested Ford’s cunning crossover only for rollover protection and gives it their second-highest rating of 4 stars.
What Owners Think
As previously mentioned, a number of reviewers comment that the Flex seems more media-friendly than market-friendly. This could be that despite its reputation as an expert’s darling, the Flex is not without its faults. Pricy options, a less-than-pumped-up standard V6 and touted mileage figures that don’t match real-world numbers are among the complaints voiced by owners of the 2012 Flex. Other owners, meanwhile, are disappointed with this quirky ute’s poor seat bolstering, as well as the difficulties encountered when having to deal with the standard manually folding rear seats. Of course, the retro look that illuminates this crossover’s differences from the typical Ford product sparks both support and dissent, doubtless a contributing factor toward a bewilderingly belittled bottom line.
All this ought to be mitigated, however, by those owners who praise the Flex lineup, top to bottom, for its surprisingly compliant ride and heady handling, its quiet and roomy cabin, its plentiful standard comfort and convenience features, and its Sync-led state-of-the-art techno-goodies. The EcoBoost turbocharged V6, needless to say, gains its share of owner kudos for nearly flawless performance, while this classy crossover gains further thumbs-up for its comforting all-around sightlines, decently hefty trailer-towing abilities and its easy-in, easy-out door widths and low step-in height.
by Eric Tallberg
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