Flex is wagon for 21st century

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It's not a Scion xB grown fat on chocolate fudge ripple ice cream, nor is it a Mini Cooper Clubman that's grown into adulthood.

Instead, consider the 2009 Ford Flex as a 21st century iteration of what a 1966 Ford Country Squire station wagon would look like if Ford had continued developing station wagons. It has all the attributes of a classic (if tall) wagon -- four doors with a high squared-off roof, a rear hatch and three rows of seats inside.

In fact, Ford isn't classifying this big (201.8-inch) grooved-side, white-roofed vehicle -- neither SUV or crossover. So I'll settle for minivanized station wagon, the closest competition for crossovers such as the six-place Chrysler Pacifica and eight-place Saturn Outlook or the eight-place Honda Pilot.

The Flex's styling is a flat box atop another, presaged in 2005 when Ford showed off the six-passenger Fairlane concept. Reality followed concept pretty closely.

The blunt nose has Ford's signature three-bar grille, the wide lower air intake flanked by chrome-trimmed fog lamps. The lower air dam melds into the front fender flares, which frame nine-spoke alloy wheels wearing 19-inch Hancook Optimo radials.

The flanks sport four grooves to break up the flat sides. In back, a top-hinged power hatch with brushed alloy accent and two fluted alloy exhaust tips. It's tall -- nose high to me, but shorter and wider looking than a Ford Expedition or Chrysler minivan.

The wide front door accesses a roomy cockpit. The perforated leather looked like a wrinkled vinyl tablecloth, loose on the driver's seat base, exposing foam underneath.

The interior design looked elegant otherwise, with plastic wood on the dash, doors and steering wheel top and silver on steering wheel and dash center. The tilt/telescope four-spoke steering wheel has remote stereo, voice-command and hands-free telephone buttons and cruise control, framing the blue-lit 120-mph speedometer and 7,000-rpm tach with integrated gas and temperature gauges and inset trip computer gauge.

But the dash center is the nerve center of the Flex. First, an 8-inch touch screen satellite navigation system with Sirius Satellite Radio and Sirius Traffic Link, the latter accessing real-time traffic, weather radar, sports scores, gas stations with prices and five-day forecasts.

The back doors open very wide for easy access to two more roomy, comfortable bucket seats that have small limolike wedge foot rests.

There's a 110-volt outlet and rear a/c controls. The seats flip flat or fold forward at the touch of a button for extra storage or access to the third-row seats. In between the center seats, a padded armrest flips forward to access a refrigerator/freezer that cooled up to seven soda cans quickly.

Overhead, a Vista Roof with a front power moonroof and three fixed glass panels with retractable sunshades. The third-row seats have low backs and tall head restraints. These flip or fold flat, creating a load floor (with center row folded) big enough to carry a double bed and box spring.

Our Flex was motivated by a 3.5-liter V-6 with 262-horsepower and a six-speed automatic transmission with all-wheel-drive. The result -- a leisurely pace to 60 mph of 8.8 seconds with smooth gear shifts and decent passing power.

The ride was comfortable, bumps swallowed with a hint of bounce, but tied down for a comfortable family cruiser. With traction and stability control, plus all-wheel-drive that transfers torque front to rear and side to side, the Flex took turns with a stable feel and some body roll.

There was real understeer when pushed, traction control kicking it authoritatively. The power steering was direct, the power disc brakes offering decent stopping power, but showing some fade after a few hard stops.

A base front-wheel-drive Flex starts under $30,000. Our all-wheel-drive Limited started at $36,555 with all above standard except: $2,375 navigation system; $1,495 Vista Roof; $395 white roof; $870 power-fold heated second row seats; $760 refrigerator and $100 center console.

SPECS

THE VEHICLE: 2009 Ford Flex, a front- or all-wheel-drive, six-passenger crossover


BASE PRICE: $28,700


PRICE AS TESTED: $43,250


ENGINE: 24-valve 3.5-liter V-6 producing 262 horsepower


TRANSMISSION: Six-speed automatic


EPA MILEAGE: 16 mpg city, 22 mpg highway


WHEELBASE: 117.9 inches


LENGTH: 201.8 inches


WIDTH: 88.8 inches


HEIGHT: 68 inches


CURB WEIGHT : 4,640 pounds


Cargo capacity : 20 cubic feet/43.2 cubic feet with third row folded/83.2 cubic feet with second row folded


TOWING CAPACITY : 4,500 pounds


FUEL CAPACITY : 18.6 gallons of regular unleaded


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