Here at Techshake, the Ford Flex holds a special place in our hearts. I’ve personally reviewed two of them, and we ended up getting one as a long-term tester (thanks to Kevin Miller making the monthly payments on it). The Flex was intended as Ford’s minivan replacement, since Ford waved the white flag several years ago with the death of the Freestar minivan. Though the Flex doesn’t quite live up to the potential of having the utility of a minivan with the style of a crossover, it’s a fine family hauler. We asked for an updated 2012 model to see if MyFord Touch ruins the Flex or improves it.
When car designers start with a blank sheet of paper, as the Flex’s stylists did, they often try for a polarizing design. They know that they won’t please everyone, and with the diversity of the new-car market in the U.S., they really don’t have to. The objective is often love-it-or-hate-it, rather than “meh.” From that standpoint, the Flex’s designers succeeded. In terms of the big picture, it shares some traits of Land Rovers, some of MINI Coopers, and some of the rest of the Ford lineup. I like it, but many hate it. Once, Ford thought that it would be able to sell 100,000 or more Flexes per year; it has never hit those numbers. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Flex become a one-generation vehicle that survives only a single model cycle. After all, Ford basically created a less-controversially styled Flex in the Explorer, which shares much of its chassis and powertrain hardware. The updates to the Flex for 2013 – which on the outside are mainly confined to new headlamps and a new grille – make the design more interesting than a box with ribs on the doors that it fundamentally is.
With its intense push for more in-car technology and connectivity, sometimes it seems that Ford can’t see the forest through the trees. The company claims that MyFord Touch is a selling point that attracts buyers to the brand. Unfortunately, it’s also a magnet for criticism from the likes of auto reviewers, customers, and – unfortunately for Ford – quality-survey participants. So, I might as well pile on as well.
Conceptually, it’s flawed. When it was once possible for me to adjust the radio or the climate controls without looking in my 1993 Oldsmobile Achieva thanks to its simple knob setup, this is impossible to do in a MyFord Touch-equipped vehicle. There is zero tactile sensation to help you aim for the target button; you’re touching a flat piece of plastic. When I last reviewed a Flex (pre-MFT), I muttered under my breath about its rows of similar, small, rectangular buttons. MyFord Touch is worse, because at least small buttons are better than no buttons. A little muscle memory lets you get pretty close to pressing the right button without looking; that’s much more difficult when you have to aim for a flat area that has almost no tactile feedback.
Then there are the issues with a lack of responsiveness to touch inputs. When touching the screen, it’s sometimes slow to respond, so you touch again, thinking your first input didn’t register. So you do that, but then the system records two presses and you miss the desired radio station, for instance. Or go an extra degree warmer. I also encountered a frustrating issue with the Flex’s Bluetooth pairing with my iPhone 5. I did the initial pairing with no problems, and was able to use the handsfree phone feature as well as Bluetooth streaming audio for the first four days I had the Flex. But on the morning of the fifth day, I received a call that went to my handset instead of ringing in the car’s speakers. I couldn’t transfer the call to handsfree, so I un-paired the phone (and deleted it from the Flex’s list of devices) and attempted to re-pair it, but for the remaining three days, could not do so. It literally would not pair with my phone again. I Googled this issue and it appears that others have encountered it as well. I was fortunate enough to be swapping the Flex for my next press car, but if I owned it, that would have driven me crazy and required a trip to the dealer to fix. A friend had a different Bluetooth pairing issue in his 2011 F-150, and Ford’s recommended solution was to disconnect the truck’s battery to reset the system.
The gauges are also different in the new Flex vs. the old one. Where there once were traditional analog gauges, with a prominent speedometer and tachometer, there’s now a large, central speedometer flanked by small color TFT screens that display any number of trip computer-type data points, as well as controls for vehicle settings like Ford’s MyKey, and ancillary gauges such as oil pressure, tachometer, and more. Personally, I prefer two large analog gauges with a large TFT information center nestled between them (like Audi does), but Ford’s approach may be less expensive.
Elsewhere inside, the 2013 Flex continues to provide very good materials and excellent seats for all-day comfort, at least in the first two rows. There is no such thing as a “minivan replacement,” only a minivan wannabe, so by stepping away from the practicality (and, ahem, stigma) of minivan ownership and choosing an avant-garde vehicle like the Flex, you do sacrifice practicality. The third row is puny compared to a minivan’s, and the ceiling is much lower. Though it looks like a crossover, it’s actually much closer to being a Taurus wagon dimensionally than to anything else. The seats all fold flat, but are not flush with the floor; instead, they create a “platform” that’s disturbingly close to GM’s lame attempt at fold-flat seats in its last-ditch effort to make its minivans competitive in the middle of the last decade. So, where I could stand my very large Cannondale mountain bike inside the interior of our family Sienna with the third row folded (and the front wheel not removed), there is no way this is possible in the Flex. I didn’t even try.
Though I did not perceive any on-road improvements in this Flex vs. the 2009 model that I tested three and a half years ago, there is a bit more power underfoot; the 2013 Flex gets an upgraded 3.5 liter V6 that produces 287 horsepower; its 2009 predecessor offered 262 horsepower. Twenty five horsepower is a difference that you can feel; while I left the 2009 Flex wishing for more power (which is available from the 365-horsepower Flex EcoBoost, which we’re long-term testing), I actually felt that 287 was adequate for a family hauler – at least one that’s driven with loved ones safely buckled inside. The Flex’s 6-speed automatic is reasonably responsive to throttle inputs, and now allows the driver to tap up/down to a specific gear. First-year Flexes omitted that capability.
I seem to say this about a lot of cars I drive, but I’ll say it here again: you will not win any races in this car. You might do well in a straight line, but it’s just too unwieldy and gangly when the road starts to curve. There’s just a little too much body hanging above the wheels, and there’s body roll as a result. Family hauler-spec brakes will fade quickly under extreme conditions. The electric power steering feels all right; better than the same system in my wife’s 2013 Toyota Sienna, for instance. It’s a little on the light side but does feel nearly natural (meaning hydraulic).
It’s likely that the Flex will be a one-generation vehicle. It never achieved the sales levels that Ford expected (Ford sold 17% as many Flexes in 2012 as it did Explorers) and its presence in Ford’s lineup is redundant. That being said, it’s a good vehicle and a solid family hauler, so if you want something that looks a little different, gets decent mileage, and has nice (though sometimes frustrating) in-car technology, the Flex may be worth a look.