I usually review gadgets on this blog, but my latest acquisition is a little larger than most. The 2013 Ford Flex wagon is a huge, expensive, awesome gadget. But like all gadgets, not everything is perfect. Let me take you for a ride, and maybe you’ll see what I mean.
Copious Space For a Family of Five
I have three growing kids, including one who is rapidly approaching the dreaded teenage years. Although I am a small car fanatic, I finally gave into the family’s demands for something larger. We shopped around for a vehicle with three rows of seating and plenty of cargo capacity, but came up almost empty.
At least here in the US, 3-row vehicles generally fall into one of three unacceptable categories:
- Minivans are eminently practical, but no longer the great deal financially that they used to be. Most American minivans now cost $30-$40,000 and deliver fuel economy significantly less than 25 mpg. And American minivans have grown substantially in the last two decades, with small vans like the Mazda MPV and original Dodge Caravan eclipsed by giant extended maxi-vans like the latest Chrysler “minivans” and the American-market Honda Odyssey. Plus, minivans have a serious negative stigma for many US drivers.
- Crossover SUVs have taken America by storm, with nearly every brand offering some kind of off-road-sounding (but on-road-only) trucklets. Most of these have just two rows, however. Those that have three tend to be of the “shoehorn some kids in the back” variety, and rear seats sized for the under-8 crowd won’t work for me. Plus, it’s hard to put a family’s worth of luggage behind the third row in most crossovers. Add in modest fuel economy and eye-popping premium pricing, and cross these off my list.
- Many Americans have turned to real trucks to fill in the gap. Vehicles like the Chevy Suburban dominate the “big family, big luggage” demographic. But I just couldn’t bear driving a three-ton gas guzzling monster. No Suburban for me!
There are desperately few cars that don’t fall into one of these three categories:
- The little Mazda 5 is an awesome three row “micro-van”, delivering solid fuel economy and excellent utility at a very modest price. It’s such a good car that, the last time my family went shopping, we bought one! But the 5 is just too small for teenagers and their friends. We keep ours just for running around town.
- The Mercedes-Benz R-Class is an awesome vehicle, and, as long as the diesel engine is selected, a pretty good performer as well. But space is tight, and cost is unsurprisingly heavy.
- The relatively obscure Dodge Journey has had terrible reviews, and is no bigger than the Mazda 5.
- I even thought about the Tesla Model S, considering it can be ordered with seven passenger seating. But the rear seats are way too tiny, the cost is high, the range isn’t good for trips halfway across America, and it’s not even widely available for purchase!
This leaves just one vehicle: The Ford Flex (and its ugly brother, the Lincoln MKT). I’ve always liked the “boxier than thou” styling of the Flex, but was repulsed after traveling just 16 miles per gallon in a rental Flex a few years ago. Plus, the Flex is even bigger then almost every vehicle mentioned above, barely fitting into our garage!
Reconsidering the Ford Flex
I spent months examining the automotive landscape, trying to decide what made the most sense for my family’s needs. It finally became clear that the Ford Flex deserved a second look, especially after I spotted a refreshed 2013 model on a dealer’s lot.
Gone is the mundane Taurus nose, replaced by a downright cool “Cylon” look. More importantly, the new 3.7 L Ford Cyclone V6 engine delivers 25 mpg on the highway, a massive improvement over the old engine. Plus, it got a “thumbs up” from the rest of the family for copious interior space, good driving dynamics, and a slick look.
For more info, see “Yes! Ford Offers “X-Plan” Pricing for Shareholders!“
We decided to buy a Flex using the Ford X-Plan to avoid the usual dealer pricing and options runaround, but the actual purchase was much more difficult. Since the 2013 Flex was a brand new vehicle, it was hard to locate one with the right combination of options and colors. Our local dealer finally convinced one in Michigan to part with the perfect Flex: A silver-on-blue 2013 Limited model with the tan interior.
Great Things About the Ford Flex
Everyone immediately fell in love with the car, happy with the generous legroom in all three rows. And I love the fact that there’s always plenty of room behind the third row, with a deep well and split-fold-flat seats.
Our high-end Limited model includes just about every electronic convenience known to man, including many we really didn’t ask for. But some have proven fabulously useful:
- The rear-view camera is great, even adding visual guides for parking. It’s an indispensable feature in a vehicle this long!
- The auto-unlocking doors are very nifty! If you’re carrying the key, you just touch the handle and the car is unlocked.
- I love the fuel economy graph shown in one of two gorgeous 4.2″ LCD screens in the dashboard. It encourages thrifty driving without being intrusive or “cutesy”.
- The Flex drives fantastically thanks to active “torque vectoring control” which uses the ABS to assist in cornering.
Before buying the Flex, I was mainly concerned about the massive size of the vehicle. How well would it drive? How could I handle it in a tight parking lot? What about the terrible fuel economy? But all of these things are addressed by these gadgets. I am pleasantly surprised by the handling, parking, and fuel economy!
Cursing at MyFord Touch
I was just as wrong in my criticisms of the Flex as I was about the things I thought I’d love. One reason I wanted the high-end Limited model was the gorgeous 8″ LCD touch screen with MyFord Touch, Microsoft Sync, and navigation.
I had heard the rumors of dissatisfaction with MyFord Touch and Sync, but assumed they were incorrect. Certainly a gadget freak like me could handle an in-car computer, even if the luddites were complaining to Consumer Reports! How wrong I was!
The many systems sharing the center stack seem constantly to be fighting with each other. That screen is used by the Sony audio system, Microsoft Sync audio computer and hands-free phone, Sirius XM radio, Ford navigation system, climate control, and even the interior lighting. MyFord Touch is supposed to make everything work together harmoniously, but the entire experience is awful:
- Today’s iPad and smart phone users are trained for sensitive capacitive touch screens, but the MyFord Touch screen is resistive, requiring a solid press
- The user interface is “throw it out the window” slow, often lagging well behind your command
- The system is incredibly buggy, even after a major upgrade in December. I’ve had it refuse to turn off and play the wrong audio input, and the update broke WPA2 WiFi password input (yeah, it does that, too!). The radio channel labels often mysteriously disappear, too!
- Certain features are disabled while the vehicle is in motion, but it’s not clear which and when.
- Prioritization of inputs is bizarre – don’t expect to use Bluetooth while your iPhone is charging with the USB cable!
- Many controls are duplicated, triplicated, or quadruplicated between the screen, console buttons, steering wheel controls, voice commands, and other switches.
- The high-end Sony stereo comes with anti-friendly non-tactile (capacitive!) touch-sensitive “buttons” for audio and climate that are impossible to use without looking down and slow to respond.
- Voice control seems to override everything else, and is the only way to tune HD radio stations, but it’s frustratingly “step-by-step” and interactive, requiring a minute of back-and-forth conversation to input navigation directions.
I hate to say it, but Consumer Reports and Edmunds are right: MyFord Touch is a defect not a feature. As John Siracusa fabulously put it, hardware companies are notoriously awful at software!
The various vehicle sensors are similarly duplicative. Blind-spot lights in the side mirrors are useful, but the cross-traffic alert system is rarely correct. And the Flex features sensors in the rear bumper in addition to the (useful) rear-view camera. I’ve turned off the beeping from these useless systems.
A Few More Issues
There are a few non-software issues with the Flex, too. But nothing I couldn’t live with and still love the car.
Getting in and out of the third row is made more difficult by the fixed console in our 6-seater model, though power folding second-row seats help. And the kids were not used to the non-sliding rear doors, swinging them wide and often bashing my Miata!
The HID headlights are fine, but the fog lights don’t seem to produce any light at all. Even in the fog. The automatic headlight sensor seems to be fooled by reflections off night time fog and snow, leaving the lights off when they’re needed. The “rain-sensing” wipers don’t notice some rain (unlike the Mazda 5’s decade-old system) and don’t control the rear wiper.
One more complaint: Ford’s “Easy Fuel” capless fuel filler system is the most Rube Goldberg “amenity” I’ve seen in ages. Since people often have trouble tightening their gas caps, Ford decided to “make it easy” by inventing a crazy-overengineered system with gaskets, flaps, and a vacuum pump! I wonder how reliable this thing will be…
The 2013 Ford Flex exceeded my expectations in every driving and utility-related area, but the terrible MyFord Touch system really detracts from the vehicle. I would highly recommend buying a Ford Flex if you’ve got a family of 5 or 6, but try to get one with old fashioned buttons and dials!