Times are changing, as they are well known to do. The generation that shunned wagons because of horrible memories of being strapped into the back of one and driven halfway across the nation to spend a week with the grandparents is losing its grip on market trends. True, most of the current wagon buyers favor the tall, AWD-equipped crossovers but if you’re in the market for a more traditional longroof, Ford will be more than happy to cater to your desires.
When the B-Bodies waved goodbye in 1996 we were left with only Volvo for our long-wagon needs. It’s understandable; it would’ve been weird if anything else had happened, really. We had seen the future and it had four-wheel drive and a truck chassis. Truck-based SUV’s were here to stay and it would take a fuel crisis to take them off from the pedestal we had built for them. The Chevrolet Suburban did everything a Roadmaster could do, and climb a mountain to boot; why would you want anything else? Flash forward to the 2005 Chicago Auto Show, when Ford decided to bring something rather special to the show.
The Ford Fairlane Concept. The first time that the nameplate had made an appearance since 1971, when Ford replaced it with the Torino. Instead of an intermediate sedan, we got a tall wagon with suicide doors and a three-bar grille that would become an integral part of Ford’s design language for their upcoming model. Inside, it was all about that retro design with cues to the ole’ woody surfing wagons and a two-spoke grille in front of very simple (dare I say, aftermarket-looking) gauges. Very nice, and rather sedate for a concept. Not the sort of thing that gets the media all hot and bothered–especially in a year when Ford was also parading the Shelby GR-1 Concept and a Mustang GT Concept to tease everyone about the upcoming model. With all this going on around it, the Fairlane could be excused for blending into the crowd. Little did we all know that Ford had other plans in mind.
After a name change and a little tour to gauge public interest in 2007, the Flex was launched to the public in 2009. It looked almost identical to the Fairlane concept; sure, the suicide doors had gone, and the interior had become considerably more cost-effective thanks to the joys of Ford’s enormous parts bin, but here it was. A real long-wagon from an American manufacturer. Happy days are here again. You could even have it as a woody.
No, you’d think there wouldn’t be a single modern car that would look very nice with wood paneling, but the Flex, thanks to its not-quite-retro design, actually works it quite well. I’ll admit to cheating a bit here. The wood paneling isn’t actually from Ford itself but is an aftermarket addition. Still, you have to admit it works in a way that it couldn’t with any other vehicle currently on sale.
In 2013 the Flex got a thorough makeover that managed to keep it retro-inspired, yet at the same time made it considerably more modern and stylish. If you’re more interested in performance than looks you’re also in for a treat, because Ford decided to give it the same 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine that it fits to the Taurus SHO. It’s good for 365 horsepower and a 0-60 time of 5.7 Seconds–exactly the same as a 1970 Oldsmobile 442, 2003 Nissan 350Z or a first-generation Acura NSX.
I’m concerned though; U.S sales peaked in 2009, when 38,717 of the neo-wagons made it out of the dealerships. The sales have been slowly but steadily declining. In 2014 the Flex only had 23,822 takers, and this past month sold only 1,848 units. Compare it with the 23,058 units that the Explorer sold during the same period of time. Maybe there are still some horrible road trip memories in the collective consciousness. Nevertheless, cars like this one, the Cadillac CTS and the Golf Sportwagen mean one thing: The manufacturers haven’t quite given up on the wagon concept. And why would they? Wagons are practical, spacious and mostly reasonably priced. Market trends cycle, and hopefully the time for the non-crossover wagon to return to relevance is closer than we can imagine. Wood paneling will probably remain within a very small niche, though.