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Flex: A new Ford image ... or just over the top?

Two obvious design elements on the Ford Flex: horizontal grooves on the door panels and a Mini-like “floating roof.”
The 2009 Ford Flex crossover is all about conveying a new image.

The Flex is a visual indicator of the changes going on at Ford at a time when the automaker desperately needs a home run.

The Flex's boxy, wagonish exterior design signals Ford is willing to break away from the me-too crossover styling model and take a risk. The word "polarizing" appears as a styling description in a Ford news release.

"You fundamentally can't deny this is a vehicle that you are noticed in, that says something about you," says Kate Pearce, Flex marketing manager. "You are not a wallflower when you are driving in this car. It is very different."

The basics: Two design elements stand out on the Flex's wagonlike exterior: the horizontal grooves in the door panels and the apparent influence of the Mini Cooper in the greenhouse and two-tone paint scheme.

Richard Gresens, chief designer for the Flex, said the grooves are character lines that convey precision, uniqueness and continuity.

"If you look at the four grooves and you look at the three-bar grille, that whole horizontal motif sort of follows its way around the car," said Gresens. "You go around the back, you will see the same motif on the back."

Another design element is what Gresens calls "the floating roof," created by giving each roof pillar a glossy black finish, in the style of the Mini Cooper. The standard roof is body color; buyers can select white or silver as an option.

"A floating roof means there is no body color tie-in to the body side," he said. "We thought it was distinctive for the car. It also allows us to personalize it."

As for the interior, the look and feel is high-end, even on the base SE model. The standard cloth seats on the SE feature a tweedlike fabric with a hound's tooth pattern for the inserts.

The Flex's platform evolved from the front-drive platform that underpins the Ford Taurus, Taurus X, Mercury Sable and the upcoming 2009 Lincoln MKS sedan. For the Flex, the wheelbase was stretched 5 inches to create wider front door openings and boost second-seat legroom.

Additionally, the front and rear overhangs were shortened; the Flex overall is 0.5 inches longer than the Taurus sedan. The track is about an inch wider. All-wheel drive is optional.

A new multilink rear suspension was engineered to boost cargo-carrying capability over the Taurus X crossover and avoid a harsh, uncomfortable ride when 19- or 20-inch wheels are selected. The rear suspension design will be shared with the MKS.

Ford Flex vs. Honda Pilot
How the Ford Flex compares with the Honda Pilot
 2009 Ford Flex2009 Honda Pilot
Wheelbase117.9 in.109.2 in.
Length202.3 in.190.9 in.
Width79.9 in.78.5 in.
Height67.6 in.71.0 in.
Curb weight4,498 lbs.4,319 lbs.
Base engine3.5-liter V-63.5-liter V-6
Horsepower262 @ 6,250 rpm250 @ 5,700 rpm
Torque, lbs.-ft.248 @ 4,500 rpm253 @ 4,800 rpm
Transmission6-speed auto.5-speed auto.
EPA mpg17 city/24 hwy. (fwd)17 city/23 hwy. (2wd)
Base price*$28,995$28,230
* Includes shipping

Notable features: The second-row seats fold and tumble forward to ease access to the third row. An optional system folds and tumbles second-row seats at the touch of a button located on the C-pillar.

A nice feature is the optional two-model compressor-driven refrigerator. It can keep contents cool to 41 degrees or keep food frozen to minus 5 degrees. The refrigerator can operate when the engine is off; a sensor cuts power to the refrigerator before the vehicle battery is drained.

Compromises and shortcomings: The captain's chairs available in the second row lack armrests. Additionally, despite all the hoopla about second-seat legroom and comfort, the seat bottom is on the short side on models equipped with a second-row bench seat. A longer seat bottom would provide better thigh comfort.

Nuts and bolts: The Flex goes on sale this month. The base Flex SE carries a $28,995 sticker, including shipping; fully loaded, it stickers at around $43,000. A six-speed automatic transmission is standard. Fuel economy for the fwd model is 17 mpg city/24 highway; the awd model gets 16/22. Six- and seven-passenger seating is available; the third seat accommodates two people.

The skinny: The Flex has the Ford brand's quietest, best-looking interior, along with excellent ride and best handling for a family vehicle. But the Flex team is holding its breath now that gasoline has passed $4 per gallon in some markets. 

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