What do you see when you look at this vehicle? A 4/3-scale Mini Clubman? An overinflated Scion xB? A long wagon? A low minivan? Ford wants you to see a 1986 Taurus, a 1965 Mustang, or a 1956 T-Bird. A design icon. Whether or not you can squint that hard, the new Flex will never sell in numbers like some of those earlier icons, but its sleek, striking design and execution seem likely to propel it to more auspicious sales than the last "game-changing" low-roof three-row Grand Tourer to come down the pike -- Chrysler's Pacifica.

Part of that vehicle's problem was that its foundation was a high, flat minivan floorpan and firewall, which imposed some serious design constraints. Ford started with the Taurus/Taurus X foundation-footwells, center hump, and all-and moved the rear wheels five inches aft, with all proceeds going to benefit rear-seat legroom. The result is a roomier vehicle that's only slightly longer and lower than the Taurus X but looks considerably sleeker. That's because the designers have taken great pains to keep your eyes moving horizontally, not vertically, from the roof panel that "floats" above a blackout greenhouse to the horizontal strakes carved into the doors and rear hatch panel to the bold three-bar Ford grille. Even the keyless entry buttons are secreted in the blackout B-pillar (they illuminate when you place your hand near them). And note the utter absence of any trompe l'oeil SUV trappings-no cartoonish wheel flares, no ribbed or two-toned rockers to exaggerate ground clearance, and no vestigial brush bars formed into the bumpers. No, Flex's $1850 optional intelligent all-wheel-drive system promises nothing more adventurous than secure on-road traction in bad weather.

The linear design motifs are echoed inside, where former DKNY menswear designer Anthony Prozzi borrowed heavily from the couture biz. The horizontal graining on the dash and door-panel inserts looks like it might have been diverted from becoming a Louis Vuitton Epi Leather handbag or wallet. The seat inserts are similarly nontraditional, ranging from mini houndstooth-pattern cloth on the base car to leather perforated in a diamond pattern on top Limited models. Other innovative interior options include a true refrigerator/freezer ($760) that sits between the middle-row bucket seats and Sirius Travel Link. This $19.95/month satellite radio subscription upgrade brings real-time traffic info with rerouting to your nav system, along with national weather service info, sports scores, movie listings, and even fuel pricing info that can navigate you to the cheapest station (providing you pop for a Limited model with the $2375 navigation and reversing-camera option).

Getting in and out of this low-rise transporter is a breeze through the wide-opening doors, even in tight parking spaces. That's because the threshold is moved well inboard of where most cars put it, and the doors wrap under to seal at the very bottom of the rockers so no grime ever accumulates where it might fowl a pant leg. Access to the third-row seat is as easy as pressing a single button on the C-pillar that electrically folds and dumps the middle seat. Once back there, moderately sized adults can easily tolerate a cross-town commute, enjoying reasonable legroom and stadium-seat forward visibility that can be further improved with the headroom-expanding $1495 Vista Roof option that provides glass panels over the third row bench, each middle-row bucket, and an opening moonroof in front. Ironically, for me, the Flex's least comfortable seat was the left front, thanks to an aggressively raked (per federal mandate) passive head restraint that forced my noggin too far forward. The only alternative is an active headrest, which Ford needs to find the budget to offer.

The transformation from Taurus X to Flex involved more than the five-inch taffy-pull. A revised rear suspension relocates the coil springs inboard so the shocks can move outboard where they stand almost straight up to provide more efficient damping. (No, plywood won't fit flat on the floor between them, but it can slide in atop the armrests.) Beefing up the front and rear anti-roll bars relieved the shocks of some of their roll-control duty, allowing them to provide a more comfortable yet controlled ride. The rear of the chassis is also reinforced to accept a class-III hitch, boosting Flex's trailering muscle to 4500 pounds (enough to cover most boats and lightweight travel trailers). The stretched wheelbase and low center of gravity reportedly make this a stable, comfortable tow vehicle (trailer-sway mitigation isn't even programmed into the stability and roll-control system). The optional rearview camera makes lining up the hitch a no-brainer.

How's it drive? As I imagine a 2009 Country Squire would, had the traditional three-row family wagon been allowed to evolve and SUVs and minivans had never happened. Driving north out of New York City through the "what recession?" bedroom communities of Larchmont and Mamaroneck in Westchester County, the Flex demonstrated reasonable acceleration, and its handling was about as sprightly as one expects in a two-ton car. Ride is supple and controlled with minimal lean or fuss in turns, but the long wheelbase and mass are natural deterrents to any boy-racer inclinations. So is the transmission, the selector for which offers only "D" and "L." That's grossly inadequate and a manumatic shifter must be added ASAP, if for no other reason than to enable folks to maintain proper engine braking in mountain descents without the unanticipated downshifts "L" brings. A "hill" mode supposedly improves transmission responsiveness and reduces hunting when towing, climbing, or driving briskly, but it's no substitute for a proper +/- gear selector.

Of course, many intended buyers-some of whose mansions we drove right past-may not care about such things and will simply be delighted that at highway speeds the driver and third-row passengers can communicate without shouting themselves hoarse, and that six adults can cohabitate for a carpool-lane commute into town. And even if the sleek looks and suave appointments never achieve icon status, they should at least pass muster with the Westchester Joneses.


2009 Ford Flex
Base Price $28,995-$37,255
Vehicle layout Front engine, FWD/AWD, 6- or 7-pass, 4-door wagon
Engine 3.5L/262-hp/248 lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Curb weight (dist f/r) 4450-4650 lb (mfr)
Wheelbase 117.8 in
Length x width x height 201.8 x 79.9 x 68.0 in
0-60 mph 7.5-8.5 sec (MT est)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 16-17/22-24 mpg
CO2 emmisions 0.99-1.06 lb/mi
On sale in U.S. Summer 2008

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