I like the Ford Flex. It’s a cool-looking crossover with a great interior. My biggest problems with the Flex when it came out as a 2009 model were fuel economy and lackluster performance. So, when Ford invited me out to Boulder, Colorado to test drive the 2010 Ford Flex EcoBoost, I was intrigued. Would direct injection change my mind about Flex? Let’s drive.
First Glance – Carburetion vs. Fuel Injection vs. Direct Injection
You’re going to be hearing a lot about direct injection in the coming months and years. It’s the latest in fuel delivery systems for internal combustion engines, and it promises greater efficiency and more power from the same fuel. I’m no engineer, but here’s how I understand it: Gas engines used to have carburetors, which regulated the mixture of fuel and air that went into the combustion chamber. These fairly simple devices grew more complicated as engine technology got more sophisticated. With the advent of catalytic converters, carburetors were replaced by fuel injection systems, which provided much more precise control over fuel flow by spraying fuel directly at the intake valve. A fuel injector is an electronically controlled valve that can open and close many times per second. The fuel injection system includes the injectors, pumps and sensors that report back to the electronic control unit (ECU), which in turn regulates the flow of fuel. The big advantages over carburetion are greater control, and the ability to change the rate of flow in response to conditions and demand.
Direct injection takes the concept of fuel injection one step further, increasing the pressure that fuel is injected into the engine. Instead of being injected into the intake valve, fuel is atomized and injected directly into the combustion chamber. The fuel can burn more fully, and more energy can be extracted from each drop of gasoline. So, you can get more power with greater fuel efficiency from a smaller engine that uses direct injection.
In the Driver’s Seat – The Boost is Back
The Ford EcoBoost engine takes the direct injection concept, and applies twin turbos to it. Turbochargers use exhaust gas to force compressed air into the engine, which boosts engine performance without a substantial penalty to efficiency. The two turbos on the EcoBoost are water cooled, which Ford claims will help with long-term durability.
So, how does it all work? Ford’s goal was V8 performance with the fuel economy of a V6. Does 355 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque, with 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway with AWD sound like “Mission Accomplished”? Performance is about more than the numbers, which is why we actually drive these SUVs before reviewing them.
I drove the Flex on two stretches – first, a fuel economy challenge from the Denver Airport to the St. Julien Hotel & Spa in Bolder, Colorado, a distance of about 45 miles, mostly freeway. I drove very conservatively, keeping the speedo at 55 and using the cruise control, and the Flex’s trip computer reported that I achieved 26.2 miles per gallon. While hardly a scientific test, I was still impressed with the result.
My second stretch was from Boulder (elevation 5344) to Estes Park, Colorado (elevation 7522). Direct injection with twin turbochargers simply eats up the road. Passing slower traffic is a breeze. There’s no hint of turbo lag (the pause in action before the turbo spools up to speed), and power delivery is smooth and linear. It really does feel like a V8. It doesn’t sound like a V8, though. It doesn’t sound bad, but it still sounds like a V6.
On the Road – Towing a Trailer
While we were in Estes Park, Ford set up the opportunity for us to tow a trailer with the Flex, which can be equipped with a Class III hitch and Trailer Sway Control. The towing limit is 4,500 lbs, which is a lot for a crossover. Because we were on public roads, I didn’t get the chance to really swerve and see how well Flex handled the load, but it seemed truly easy to tow with the Flex. If you regularly tow small loads, like a motorboat or small camper, you now have a viable crossover option to the big SUV or pickup truck you thought you had to drive.
I’m still underwhelmed by Flex’s driving dynamics on an everyday basis. I was pleased by the addition of a tilt/telescope feature for the steering column, but I found the feel of the electrically-assisted power steering to be a little numb. Despite the additional power, Flex is still a very staid ride, more of a family hauler than a hot rod – not a criticism, just an observation and categorization. As a matter of taste, I prefer an SUV that’s a little lighter on its feet, a little more responsive than the Flex. But I would not hesitate to take a Flex on a cross-country drive – it would be a great road trip SUV.
Electric Power Assist Steering (EPAS) has allowed Ford to show off with a cool optional ($550) feature: Active Park Assist (APA). It uses sensors to parallel park the Flex automatically. If you’ve tried Lexus’ Advanced Parking system, you’ll be blown away by Flex’s system, which is faster, easier to use, and just plain better than the Lexus system.
Last year, I declared Flex “Right crossover, wrong time.” With base prices ranging from $28,495 for the base SE model to $31,270 for the SEL to $37,165 for the loaded Limited (plus options), the Flex is pretty competitively priced. But an EcoBoost engine is only available in the SEL (starting at $39,940) and Limited (starting at $43,580), creeping dangerously close to luxury prices.
If you’re considering a Ford Flex EcoBoost, you should also take a look at a few other seven-passenger vehicles. The Honda Pilot offers a lot of vehicle for the money. Toyota’s Highlander Hybrid is also capable of delivering substantial fuel economy. Chevrolet’s Traverse, GMC’s Acadia and Buick’s Enclave represent the best thinking over at GM on the seven-passenger crossover. Mazda’s CX-9 is the most fun to drive of the bunch, and offers a completely different interpretation of the styling equation.
If you liked the Flex’s styling from the outset, and were just looking for more performance and some smart upgrades, the Flex EcoBoost may answer your objections. I can’t wait to see how this engine gets applied to future crossovers and SUVs, and how the technology gets applied to future engines. Hey, if they can squeeze V8 performance out of a V6, imagine what kind of performance they can wring from a V8.