CC Newsstand: RIP Ford Flex – The Mulally Era’s Second Strangest Vehicle

Pour one out for the Flex. Production recently ended for Ford’s retro-themed three row crossover. Despite never reaching Ford’s 100k sales target, the crossover soldiered on for ten model years. A pretty remarkable run for such a niche vehicle. But for a decent chunk of its life, it was a boundary pushing, spacious, and technologically sophisticated people hauler for those in search of something a little less mainstream.

The Ford Flex and Lincoln MKT’s demise heralds the official end of the D4 platform. That architecture started out life as the Volvo P2 platform, which Ford then adapted for its own uses. The Blue Oval’s decision to utilize assets from Mazda and Volvo easily qualifies as one of the smartest auto industry moves of all time. Ford likely saved billions of dollars in development costs for the Fusion, Edge, Explorer, Flex, and all their Lincoln and Mercury equivalents. It’s one of the reasons why they avoided bankruptcy. And it also allowed the Flex to live a much longer life than it had any right to.

The team responsible for Ford’s marketing in the late 2000s and early 2010s created remarkably sassy ads and this one is no exception. It’s also completely spot on about the Flex. Ford’s largest three row crossover to date can likely thank the Freestyle/Taurus X for its existence. Ford essentially deemed it necessary to offer an urban focused three row (Freestyle, Flex) and off-road oriented sport utility vehicle (Explorer) since 2005, in addition to the Expedition. Technically speaking, the 2020 Ford Explorer and Lincoln Aviator still fulfill that mission, although the latter is obviously a lot more expensive than the Flex.

Judging by its appearance and platform, it really seems like Ford wanted the Flex to improve upon the formula established by the Freestyle/Taurus X. Perhaps designer Peter Horbury also wanted to refine the aesthetic he created with the 2006 Fusion and the other three bar grilled vehicles of this era (he also designed the 1999 Volvo S80, which coincidentally spawned the platform that Ford used for the Flex). Although unlike its predecessor, the Flex strikes a bolder design. Here’s a relevant quote from a September 2007 piece about the Flex:

“The Flex is a modern version of a station wagon. Its long, flat roof and slab-sided styling is a risky departure for Ford. But true to Horbury’s design philosophy, the vehicle uses traditional Ford styling cues such as the three-bar grille. So at least part of the Flex is easily recognizable as a Ford. Horbury also says the Range Rover and the Mini Cooper influenced the Flex’s design.

Of course we all know that Horbury likely borrowed some elements from the Scion xB too, but he’d probably never admit that. In any event, it seems like Ford theorized a bolder design would woo urban professionals to their subversive three row. Additionally, Ford’s engineers also felt their newest crossover could use more tweaking. The Flex boasted a wheelbase five inches longer than the Taurus X while being about two inches longer and an inch and a half wider. The boxy design also contributed to better visibility and additional cargo capacity. Like the D4 platform Explorer, the Flex was significantly more refined than its predecessors as well.

Ford saw fit to equip the Flex with some advanced technology. Very few mainstream automakers offered any type of adaptive cruise control ten years ago, but it was available in the Flex in 2012 for the 2013 model year. Active Park Assist remained an option after the 2010 model year too, which allowed anxious drivers to let the Flex park itself. But one option stood above the rest with its uniqueness: a compressor-driven refrigerator. Yes, both the Flex and MKT offered one between the second row seats. It also operated as a freezer and could chill items down to 23 degrees. Neat! Here’s another interesting piece of trivia for you: The Ford Flex and Lincoln MKT (along with the D3 Taurus and MKS) belong to a select group of Ford Motor Company vehicles that featured every iteration of 8 inch touchscreen infotainment offered by the Blue Oval thus far.

The Flex’s powertrains remained the same throughout its entire life. Ford offered the Duratec 3.5 liter V6 as standard equipment for 2009 and the 2010 model year saw the addition of EcoBoost 3.5 liter V6, which was the twin turbocharged engine’s first appearance in the Ford lineup. With a minimum of 262 horsepower, both powertrains were quite robust when the Flex was new and they remain competitive on the models still sitting on dealer lots. Given the criticism Ford faced with the first D3 vehicles over the 200 horsepower Duratec V6 and its supposed lack of power, the inclusion of the 365 horsepower EcoBoost V6 almost seems like Ford wanted to clap back hard at the critics. It worked. You won’t find any review that lists the EcoBoost as a detriment to the Flex lineup.

And what was detrimental to the Flex? You’re looking at it. Not the front end, really. More like the entire design itself. It seems buyers prefer three row crossovers that look at least somewhat capable of going off-road. Just think about the other crossover failures of the decade: Subaru Tribeca, Toyota Venza, Honda Crosstour. None of those were very attractive and they all would look out of place off pavement. By contrast, the Flex was at least attractive to some people. A lot of shoppers still recoiled at its design, but I really never heard it being called ugly, even by future Explorer owners. The Flex is the automotive equivalent of an unmarried bachelor who owns a cat. It makes sense and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, but on some fundamental level it’s a bit weird.

The only Flex I sold was a CPO model. A couple probably in their early fifties traveled all the way from Nantucket island to Newburgh, New York to buy it. They had relatives in the area so the 6+ hour drive to get to the dealership wasn’t as insane as it sounds. I think they belonged to the exact demographic Ford envisioned for the Flex: They were quite successful (he worked for Nantucket’s government in some capacity and had been doing it for some time) and had a lot of money but didn’t want anything too flashy. They traded in a GMC Acadia that was already falling apart despite being about four years old. His wife bears the distinction of being the only woman I’ve met who actually liked the Flex for its looks.

Ford probably would have preferred if the couple purchased the Flex new, but pre-owned is really the only place where the Flex really succeeds. Additionally, its platform probably contributed to it staying around for so long, because why else keep something like this alive unless it was relatively cheap to make? The relatively small investment necessary to create the D3/D4 platforms, combined with the success of the Explorer, likely explains why the oddball three row survived for ten years. Perhaps a higher up had a special affinity for it or something.

The question is, how weird was the Flex? Quite weird, but not the strangest vehicle of Mulally-era Ford. As William explained earlier, that distinction clearly belongs to the MKT. If that thing sported remotely decent styling it would have been a smash hit for Lincoln. Because anyone who experienced a Flex or MKT (especially with the EcoBoost) until about 2015 likely found them to be refined and decently appointed vehicles.

In any event, I’d even rate the C-Max as more mainstream than the Flex. There was never any doubt as to who would purchase a C-Max, and before the substantial drop in gas prices around 2015, it made sense in Ford’s lineup. By contrast, the Flex existed alongside the Explorer. The D4 Explorer debuted with larger dimensions than most of its competitors in the non-luxury three row segment. There wasn’t any real need for a slightly larger stablemate. And after Ford added the Platinum trim to the Explorer, the Flex could no longer be considered the upscale alternative.

That doesn’t mean the Flex wasn’t significant. It offered a distinctive aesthetic that is in too short supply today. The Mazda CX-9 might have supplanted it as the go-to three row for those looking for a sophisticated and urbane non-luxury crossover, but the Mazda blends in a bit more than the Ford (it’s also just as niche as the Flex too, at least in sales). Unconventional platform-mates of mainstream vehicles rarely exist for as long as the Flex did, and for that it deserves some recognition. I suspect these will be quite popular at car shows about fifteen years from now.

Related Reading:

CC Outtake: 2016 Ford Flex and Explorer – Same Goods, Different Packaging by William Stopford

Future Classic: Ford Flex – Wood Paneling Costs Extra by Gerardo Solis