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Photography by Dave Everest

Price: $43,965
Major equipment: : Panoramic Vista Roof ($1,495), rear console fridge ($760), navigation system ($2,375), rear-seat DVD entertainment ($1,995)

In the fleet: 12/04/2008 – 12/11/2008

Approximate mileage driven: 1,850

J. BARUTH: The assignment we gave this “crossover utility wagon” sounded simple: Transport four people, plus all their gear, plus a full complement of tools and supplies for an eight-hour endurance race, from Powell, OH to Braselton, GA, in the dead of winter, on bad roads, in a single ten-hour stint the night before the race… and then turn around and do it in reverse two days later.

Oh yeah, a few more things. At least two, and usually three, of those people would want to be operating their laptops at all times. If they weren’t working, they would want to be entertained, and since there would be no time to stop for meals, there would have to be room in the car for everybody to stretch, eat, put their laptops aside, and take the occasional nap. Plus the roads would be unfamiliar, so we’d need a decent nav system. Everybody brought their iPods, but not everybody wanted to hear music.

In other words, it was a typical family road trip, except the “family” was a hastily assembled race team… which is the most dysfunctional family of all. An Explorer would have been too cramped; a Suburban would be too noisy, big, and bouncy; a Mercedes R-Class could probably do the job, but you’d need to spec one up to seventy-five grand to get the features. So we tried Ford’s avant-garde station-wagon-that-isn’t. Would the Flex be equal to the task? Could any Ford car be worth nearly forty-five grand? If so, why?

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On the back roads, the Flex can hustle. That Intrepid didn’t stand a chance.

This isn’t Motor Trend, so we don’t have to pretend to be “critical” and “objective” before delivering the good news. As has been reported elsewhere in the auto press, the Flex is a solid home run, delivering a completely unique combination of abilities at a price that, while no bargain, is a fair representation of the product’s excellence. We’d have no difficulty spending our own money on a Flex — although, as you’ll see, this one wouldn’t be our choice.

There was no way I could turn down a last-minute invitation to co-drive the Voodie Racing supercharged Miata in the December NASA-Southeast eight-hour endurance race at Road Atlanta, so I packed up a four-man crew and followed Voodie’s Expedition Limited down I-75 to the South, ya’ll. My crewmembers were all scheduled to “work from home” during the long weekend and would need to be on the phone or online for the vast majority of the trip, so I was faced with doing the entire drive up and down myself. When our third driver called and revealed that he’d missed his flight from Detroit to Atlanta, I realized that I’d be driving for more than half of an eight-hour race, in a car I’d never driven before, around a track I’d never seen. It was shaping up to be a bit stressful, but the arrival of the Flex on the morning we were scheduled to leave relieved a lot of my concerns.

To begin with, the big wagon’s interior is absolutely first class. The “Fairlane”-inspired interior looks fantastic, but more importantly, it places all the controls within easy reach and makes it absolutely obvious how to accomplish basic tasks. There’s nearly a Phaeton’s worth of room in the second row, and with the third row folded we had room for crew uniforms, tools, helmets, and plenty of food. Did I mention the refrigerator? Consider it mentioned. That extremely effectively piece of equipment, along with the full-power 120-volt AC outlet in the second row, made the Flex a big hit with the laptop brigade. The seats were a little hard, particularly up front, but at the end of a seven-hundred-mile, nearly non-stop trip, the general feeling was solidly positive.

The race itself was grueling — broken muffler, snapped belts, persistent fuel and exhaust leaks into the interior that nearly rendered me unconscious in the final stint, front brake pads that caught on fire, a hair-raising 100-mph excursion off the end of Turn One courtesy of a brake-checking Spec Miata — so we ended up retiring at the six-and-a-half hour mark and heading back to the hotel to clear the fuel fumes out of our heads and get some rest. The next morning, we decided to make the return trip “interesting” and “fun” by letting the Voodie Expedition hit the freeway without and choosing a long string of two-lane mountain roads as our return path. We didn’t realize that there would be serious snowfall that day up in the Great Smoky Mountains, nor did we realize that cars would be bouncing around the icy hills like pinballs in our path.

Luckily, the Flex can be driven like a car, not a truck, which is perhaps the real reason to prefer it over the full-sized SUVs which offer more room for similar money. With the right idiot at the wheel, it can be hustled up and down mountain roads at speeds that would be unreasonable in an Expedition or Tahoe. Unfortunately, to get to those speeds, you’ll have to expose the two shortcomings of the Flex we drove: drivetrain and power level. This truck needs the AWD to truly shine; without it, there are too many times when the inside front wheel simply spins on corner exit. (Yeah, we drove it a little harder than most people would have, but that’s kind of our thing, you know?) On long mountain grades, the Flex is also a little bit short on power. Add a trailer, and it would be worse.

We’d be inclined to tow the race car with our own Flex, and it’s probably possible to keep it at the 4500-pound limit, so AWD and more power would be necessary. The extra driveshafts and Universal Joints are available right now; the extra power is coming courtesy of EcoBoost in June. So our ideal Flex would be a fully-equipped Limited with AWD and the twin-turbo. While we’re at it, it would be nice to have softer seats and radar cruise control…

…which would make it a Lincoln MKT, dontcha know. Still, as sharp as the MKT is, it doesn’t quite have the show-car look of the Flex, and it’s going to cost about ten grand more with similar equipment. It might be best to stick with the Ford variant in this case. Your wallet and taste will be the deciding factors.

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The spiritual heritage of the Flex is really much more about those great old American wagons, but there’s something about the uncompromising design that makes it feel like a a distant relative to that old Type 2.

Make no mistake, however: if you want to take four to six people somewhere in outstanding comfort, it’s hard to beat the Flex. The price is tough to swallow, but where else can you find a vehicle with this kind of capability? We arrived back in Ohio in record time, without any dented sheetmetal, and without joining the hordes of minivans and SUVs that were in snow-filled ditches along the way. The styling is sharp, the interior is money, but it’s really the drive that sold us. It’s not just a pretty face, and if you’re looking for a reason to choose this wagonesque “CUV” over the jacked-up competition, we’d recommend putting in some seat time at your local dealer. The old slogan, “Ford has a better idea”, certainly applies here. We’d pick one over a minivan for the seating position and steering feel alone.

As for my crew… Some of them were a little beat-up from the December cold, the pain of scrambling under the car, the burns, bangs, and scratches that come from working in a hot pitlane, and the occasional accidental swallow of spilling fuel under the car, but they all agreed to come back to Road Atlanta for the next “enduro”. I can’t blame them; I’m an exciting driver and a stellar team leader. There’s only one catch: they’re demanding a Flex for the next trip, too.

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Jack Baruth

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