Would sliding doors have avoided sliding sales of Flex?

Rick Kranz is product editor for Automotive News
Here's a question to ponder: Would sliding doors have made a difference in Ford Flex sales?

The Flex was introduced in 2008 as kind of the anti-minivan. It is positioned as a trend-setting vehicle, aimed at people who want a stylish ride with the utility of a minivan but without the minivan stigma.

Ford says it's a crossover. To this guy, it's a 21 century station wagon. No matter what you call it, it isn't selling.

Ford had a lofty goal when it hit the market in mid-2008: 100,000 annual sales. Last year, 38,717 were sold. This year through August, 25,218 were sold, a 9 percent drop compared with the same eight months of last year.

The Flex evolved from the Fairlane concept, introduced at the January 2005 Detroit auto show. The concept was the signal that Ford was abandoning the minivan segment after the Freestar's failure, and it was creating a vehicle with all of the functionality of a minivan but without the soccer mom image.

It was a minivan-looking concept, but it had suicide-style doors that swung back instead of minivan-trademarked sliding doors. The word “minivan” was taboo. One Ford executive called the Fairlane a “people mover.” Another said it was a “family hauler” that didn't look like it smells of dirty diapers. The Fairlane would be at home in the clubby atmosphere of the Hamptons, he said.

However, even before final production, there were some doubts about the rear passenger doors. Should the production vehicle have conventional or sliders? The conventional doors were approved because they were less costly. The extra money was used to upgrade the interior, giving it the looks and feel of a luxury vehicle.

Most blame the Flex's body silhouette for the dismal sales. If so, sliding doors were probably the best doors for this shape.

After all, minivans are boxy vehicles.