First Drive: 2010 Ford Flex EcoBoost
Powering Its Way to the Top of the Class
Introducing a new engine a couple years after a vehicle goes on sale isn't all that unusual. But, only one year after the Ford Flex first came out, there are several updates and upgrades for the 2010 model that make this nearly the equivalent of a mid-cycle refresh -- and this was a strong vehicle to begin with, not one already begging for improvements.
The big news is that there are now two engine options: the 262-horse, 3.5-liter Duratec 35 V-6, last year's only source of power in the Flex, is now the base engine. (Those who buy the SE or front-drive SEL or Limited get the Duratec.) As far as base engines go, this one's no slouch, getting the Flex to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds. Optional motivation is now provided by a 355-horsepower, 3.5-liter EcoBoost twin-turbo direct-injection V-6 (essentially the same configuration that's made its way into the Lincoln MKS and MKT). It also offers 350 pound-feet of torque at an impressive 1500 rpm, with a fairly flat torque curve. Ford gave an "about" 7.0-second 0-to-60-mph acceleration time for the Flex with EcoBoost. Shows what 93 extra horses will do.
This engine serves as the premium option, available only with all-wheel drive and it's an option only in the SEL or Limited. This means someone who wants a front-drive Flex can get one for as little as $29,270, but the least expensive Flex with EcoBoost is an AWD SEL, costing $36,890. The EcoBoost sits in the engine lineup where an optional V-8 would've been -- except unlike stepping up to the added power of a V-8 from, say, a V-6, there is no fuel-economy penalty, and it'll run on regular gas. Whether Flex buyers choose the Duratec or EcoBoost, AWD Flexes get 16 mpg city and 22 on the highway. (Front-drive models get 17/24 mpg.)
The Duratec's six-speed automatic remains unchanged, but the version backing the EcoBoost was strengthened to handle the increased torque. Addressing complaints of only having the choice of "D" or "L" with the Duratec, the EcoBoost's transmission comes with paddle shifters accessed through a manual mode on the floor-mounted shifter. Both six-speeds have identical gear ratios.
The new engine is surprisingly smooth and does a fantastic job of getting the crossover up to speed. The EcoBoost achieves this with a feeling of confidence and strength like a V-8, and with very little of the whine or lag you'd typically associate with a turbocharged engine. The paddle shifters came in handy on grades and when passing slower vehicles and is something we hope Flex owners will use. And 93 additional horses more than makes up for the EcoBoost's 4800-pound base curb weight.
For a sportier feel, Ford engineers made some adjustments to the suspension tuning and dropped the ride height by 10 mm. The biggest weakness here, though, is with the electric power steering, which does not provide enough feedback to the driver. But with that downside come several new features that may make up for the compromise.
For example, it does provide a feature for those who tow, which should help with one of Ford's big goals with the Flex. Ford wants to take advantage of the fact that buyers are moving away from full-size SUVs to smaller, more efficient vehicles. Ford's goal is to lure those who want better fuel economy than a full-size can offer but who still want power and towing capacity -- as long as they're towing less than 4500 pounds, which is the max tow capacity for the Flex. The electric power steering uses pull-drift compensation that helps offset the effects of a heavy crosswind, which would come in especially handy with a trailer in tow. It works behind the scenes, so all a driver would observe is that the vehicle isn't pushed into another lane in high winds.
For would-be luggers, whether driving a Flex with Duratec or EcoBoost, a Class III trailer tow package is available, and that package comes standard with trailer sway control. We towed 2500 pounds of personal watercraft behind a Flex Limited, and it felt quite confident, with no noticeable sway.
The electric steering also means another new-for-2010 feature comes to the Flex: active park assist. This system uses ultrasonic sensors to determine whether a space is large enough for the Flex to parallel park in, and then does the job for you. You control throttle and brake; it does the rest.
It's fairly intuitive, and gets the Flex close to the curb without hitting it, but it wouldn't be a bad idea for dealers to show their customers how to use the system. (Push the button on the lower left side of the center stack, watching for information below the gauge cluster. Drive forward until you see that the system sees a space that's big enough, put the Flex in Reverse, and take your hands off the wheel. Accelerate and brake as you see fit and put the Flex in Drive and Reverse when the system suggests it so you can finish parking.) Parking is faster than with other systems like this and works quite well.
The interior of the three-row cabin was already one of Ford's finest, with excellent headroom, deep, cushy seats, and excellent soft-touch surfaces on the doors and dash. It also continues to offer great options such as Sync, the refrigerated console, and 110-volt inverter. Of the few changes that were made, the biggest was in response to customer complaints that the steering wheel tilted, but didn't telescope. That has been fixed for 2010. As is the case with the interior, exterior styling also remains relatively unchanged, with the exception of a new 20-inch wheel option.
Ford has committed to a strategy where several vehicles start with the same foundation yet end up with unique personalities and styling. (Note how different the styling of the Lincoln MKT is from that of the platform-sharing Flex.)
This philosophy allows the company to produce vehicles more efficiently without badge engineering and allows the company to respond more quickly to customer input. This is how Ford was able to do so much to the Flex in only a year and managed to make this crossover a viable alternative to a full-size SUV for those who aren't doing hard-core hauling. And the combination of power, efficiency, and capability puts the Flex among the best in its class.
|2010 Ford Flex with EcoBoost|
|Vehicle layout||Front engine, AWD, 6- or 7-passenger SUV|
|Engine||3.5-liter/355-hp/350-lb-ft DOHC twin-turbo V-6|
|Curb weight (dist f/r)||4850 lb (mfr)|
|Length x width x height||201.8 x 79.9 x 68.0 in|
|0-60 mph||7.5 (MT est)|
|EPA city/hwy fuel econ||16/22 mpg|
|CO2 emissions||1.06 lb/mile|
|On sale in U.S.||Late summer 2009|