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TUESDAY, APRIL 30, 2013, 10:14 A.M.

2013 Ford Flex is different by design

Every so often a car rolls down the pike that helps people just say no to minivans.  The Ford Flex is one of those rare examples that aren’t burrowing out a new genre of soccer mom-mobiles in the crossover segment.  With the utilitarian chops to comfortably accommodate three rows of six-footers, the off-beat retro styling of a hotrod station wagon, and an available 355hp V6, the Flex deserves to be celebrated as a family hauler that hasn’t given up on living a little.   

Stylistically the Flex is bound to alienate a certain portion of consumers who prefer cars that are designed to look like other cars.  Personally I give kudos to most any vehicle that hasn’t swallowed the bland pill.  Regardless of whether it pleases your critic’s eye or not, it would be hard to argue the Flex doesn’t stand out - it certainly wasn’t designed to blend in.  

Inside, the Flex uses the boxy design to its full advantage.  There’s room for up to seven passengers, six if you opt for the dual captain’s chairs in the second row.  Going without the middle seat isn’t a clear compromise as it gives the cabin a much roomier feel and opens up a clear path to the rear of the car. 

Thanks again to the rectangular roofline, there’s ample head and leg room in the far rear for a full grown (and even slightly overgrown) adult.  When not in use every seat behind the driver’s will fold flat to the floor.   Maximum cargo space tops out at 83 cubic feet, which for the number crunchers out there, is a solid amount of space for a full-size minivan. 

Features-wise the Flex is very generous, even in its base SE trim, which starts at $30,900.  Every Flex comes standard with 17-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights, rear privacy glass, rear parking sensors, cruise control, air-conditioning, six-way power driver seat, leather-wrapped tilt/telescoping steering wheel and a six-speaker sound system with auxiliary audio jack.  Ford’s base version of the Sync infotainment system is also standard.

In the upper trim levels the Flex quickly transforms into a legitimate luxury contender with options such as 20-inch wheels, multi-panel rear sunroofs, automatic parallel-parking system, adaptive cruise control, blind spot warning, collision warning with brake support, heated second-row captain’s chairs, refrigerator, satellite radio and 12-speaker Sony sound system with HD radio.  

Whether equipped with any of the upscale options or not, the Flex’s extroverted personality would be harder appreciate if it were a slouch off the line.  Fortunately every Flex comes standard with a 3.5-liter V6 that’s good for a stout 285 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque.  When equipped with the standard front wheel drive and six-speed automatic transmission, EPA ratings come in at 18mpg city, 20mpg highway.  With optional AWD, fuel economy drops by about 2mpg combined.

But, if you’re looking to have some real fun, Ford will be happy to supply the Flex Limited with a turbocharged 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 that pumps out 355hp and 350lb-ft of torque.  The engine is only offered with all-wheel drive and the six-speed auto; steering wheel paddle shifters are thrown in for good measure.  With the big boy power plant the Flex can make it to 60mph in a giggle-inducing 6.6 seconds, although fuel economy does takes a hit down to 16city/21 highway.

With either engine option the Flex looks and feels the part of a family car that’s happy to clash with mom jeans.  Making a concerted effort to stand out in such a fiercely competitive family market is a commendable endeavor unto itself.  Fortunately the Flex packs enough quality substance behind its image to make it a smart buy as well as a bold one.  Being able to pull off the station wagon look doesn’t hurt either.   

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