Pros: Offbeat good looks; elegant interior; upscale options and electronics; comfortable on long drives

Cons: Small cargo area behind third-row seat; low ground clearance; city fuel economy only so-so; no side blind-spot alert system

Those seeking a roomy and comfortable way to move themselves and five passengers around, including kids, have a number of choices. But if you count yourself among those looking for more than mere transportation, something with styling that isn't for everybody but still turns heads, is easy to maneuver and above all has excellent safety features and crash test ratings, the 2012 Ford Flex deserves a good long look. Unlike many full-size Crossover Utility Vehicles (CUVs), the Flex doesn't try to imitate the look and feel of a large SUV. Its decidedly boxy shape is punctuated with grooved side panels, a broad aluminum panel covering the rear liftgate's lower half and an available white-capped roof. The Flex's low-to-the-ground stance precludes it from even attempting an off-road excursion, but it does make for one nice-handling CUV.

What the Flex lacks in off-road and heavy towing ability (it's rated at a max of 4500 pounds) it more than makes up for on the civilized streets. The Flex offers seating for seven people or a cargo bay big enough to haul home a 55-inch flat-screen TV.

Ford offers two V6 engine choices in the Flex. Both are reasonably fuel efficient on the highway, although city economy is nothing to write home about. And there is an all-wheel-drive model for those who regularly deal with winter's worst. The Flex also offers Ford's full suite of electronic navigation and hands-free SYNC communication options to help make keeping in touch while traveling as easy as 1-2-3.

Available in four trims (SE, SEL, Limited and Titanium), the Flex can go from a nicely equipped family vehicle for around $30,000 to a fully decked-out cruiser that has no trouble wearing a $50,000 price tag.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Ford Flex outshines the competition with an interior that is truly unique. From the elegant diamond-pattern leather seating to the handsome dash to the sculpted door inserts, the Flex looks and feels like a premium crossover. While we can't say we're thrilled about the small knobs and buttons used to control the audio and ventilation, we generally like the layout and features found on the Flex's instrument panel.

The Flex's roomy interior offers a number of configurations, including a choice of bench or bucket second-row seating. When equipped with the bucket seat option, a refrigerated center console can be ordered. The Flex's third-row seat may prove too narrow for two adults, but young children should be quite content, especially if your Flex is equipped with the dual DVD rear-seat monitors. When not hauling people, the Flex's second- and third-row seats fold flush to create a level loading floor; an available power folding third row and power liftgate make it even easier to load large or heavy cargo.

Technology

The 2012 Ford Flex offers a host of technology and convenience options aimed at both driver and passengers. A Vista Panel multi-panel roof provides a power sliding front sunroof along with two small fixed glass panels over the second-row occupants and one enormous glass panel over the third-row seat. Individual DVD screens mounted behind the front-seat headrest keep the kids entertained, while a refrigerated center console keeps beverages and snacks cool and dry.

Audiophiles will love the available Sony 12-speaker, 390-watt stereo, made even more user-friendly by the SYNC hands-free communication system, which allows voice control of an iPod or a cell phone. The SYNC system also provides Vehicle Health Reports, 911 assist and the ability to read incoming text messages to you. Flex Limited and Titanium models feature standard ambient floor and cup holder lighting that can be changed to suit the driver's mood.

Ford's voice-activated navigation system is one of the better we've tested, with a large, bright monitor, touchscreens that are easy to use and understand and features such as Sirius XM traffic and weather. A rear backup camera projects its image on the navigation screen, and the sonar-based rear parking assist can alert the driver of objects near the bumper.

Perhaps the coolest option on the Flex is the Active Park Assist, which can parallel park the vehicle for you, requiring only your input to select reverse or park and to brake when prompted.

Performance & Fuel Economy

Ford offers the Flex with two V6 engine choices, both of which are hooked to a six-speed automatic transmission, with the SelectShift six-speed automatic as an option. The standard engine on all trims is the 3.5-liter V6 rated at 262 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque. Fuel economy estimates for this engine are 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway (2WD) and 16/22 mpg (AWD). For most needs, the 3.5-liter does just fine, with good throttle response, smooth operation and plenty of power for pulling and passing even when fully loaded. Those who prefer a bit more kick in their car can opt for the EcoBoost V6, which is essentially the same 3.5-liter engine equipped with twin turbochargers. Rated at 355 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque, the EcoBoost produces V8-like pulling power while demanding only a small penalty at the pump, with an estimated 16/23 mpg. The EcoBoost engine is only available on the Limited and Titanium trims and only with all-wheel drive and the SelectShift transmission.

Safety

Airbags cover the Flex's front passengers from both front and sides, while side curtain airbags cover all three rows. Ford's AdvanceTrac with roll stability control is also standard, bringing electronic stability and traction control. The EasyFuel capless fuel filler does away with the traditional screw-on fuel cap, and available lighted puddle lamps help you see when stepping out of the vehicle at night.

Driving Impressions

The 2012 Ford Flex is one of our favorite vehicles. It is easy to drive, can haul lots of people and stuff and gets pretty good fuel economy on the open road. We also like the Flex's quirky good looks, and we love the excellent 360-degree visibility provided by its nearly all-glass greenhouse. On the road, the Flex delivers a very supple ride and a quiet cabin, thanks in no small part to a heavy use of laminated side glass. In congested urban settings, the Flex is surprisingly easy to maneuver despite its long body and wheelbase. The Titanium trim's big 20-inch wheel and tire package helps the Flex round curves without drama, and the steering feel is nicely weighted and responsive.

Merging and passing from the base 3.5-liter V6 is strong and linear, but if you're looking for seat-of-your-pants acceleration, the 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine is the obvious choice. The EcoBoost engine brings both an boost in power and extra grip provided by the accompanying all-wheel drive.

Other Cars to Consider

Chevrolet Traverse - The Traverse has a wider, more comfortable second- and third-row seat arrangement and more cargo space behind the third row seat.

Honda Pilot - The Pilot is more SUV-looking, a feature some may like. It offers more ground clearance, but its roof is more difficult to reach when loading skis or a cargo carrier.

Dodge Durango - The Durango's V6 is impressively powerful, and there is the option of a HEMI V8. The Durango can also tow more weight than the Flex.

Toyota Highlander - The Highlander holds its value better than the Flex and comes in a hybrid version.

AutoTrader Recommends

Truthfully, the base SE trim comes very well equipped, is reasonably priced and holds its value fairly well. If you don't need automatic climate control and power folding seats, the SE provides all the basics a family requires. For a few hundred dollars more, you can add must-have options such as SYNC and SirusXM. If money is no obstacle, a fully loaded Titanium with the EcoBoost V6 is the way to go: power and luxury combined in a unique package that looks fantastic rolling on 20-inch chrome wheels. Top it off with the Vista Roof and two-tone roof panel, and you'll have one of the sharpest seven-passenger CUVs on the road.

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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