If Pablo Picasso had painted an automobile during his dalliance with cubism, it might well have looked like the recently launched Ford Flex.
The 2009 Ford Flex is a rather striking cube, a unique, highly handy helpmate that possesses the aerodynamics of a bulldozer blade and a Christmas stocking full of pleasant surprises.
Perhaps the most unexpected feature of the Flex I just tested was the set of portable, upholstered foot rests I found in the second of the big guy's three rows of seats. The last time I encountered these comfy little wedges was in the back seat of a Bentley.
Indeed, the Flex is as unusual as it is useful, and that makes it kind of hard to categorize. The sheer roominess and utility engendered by its 83 cubic feet of cargo space suggests a minivan, a term that makes Ford wince because it is the kiss of death among soccer moms in search of a more adventurous image.
You could (and many do) call it a crossover SUV, since it is available with all-wheel-drive as well as front-drive. Then again, it doesn't really look like a sport ute because its designers went out of their way to avoid the usual macho, SUV styling cues. There is none of that effort to make the vehicle seem full of manly manfulness. No egregious wheel flares, no ribbed or two-tone rocker panels trying to exaggerate ground clearance, and no hefty gray bumpers that sing that immortal Monty Python song: "He's a lumberjack and he's OK."
Personally, I like to think of it as simply a large, one-of-a-kind station wagon.
The functionality suggested by its boxy design is accompanied by a generous serving of comfort. The latter is first evident when you open the super-wide, 44-inch doors. The ease of ingress and egress they provide is enhanced by the design of the thresholds. They are set well inboard, thus making it easy to get in and out even in tight parking situations.
The comfort quotient is also improved by the roominess of this six- or seven-seater. Head and hip room are considerable in all three rows of seats and so is leg room. The second row of seats boasts an incredible 44.3 inches of legroom, which means your son, the 6-8 basketball star, will never be in danger of playing kneesies with the front seat.
The seats are particularly comfortable, and real friends on long rides. Like the rest of the very attractive interior, they are also a tad out of the ordinary. The seat inserts are houndstooth cloth on the base vehicle, and diamond-patterned, perforated leather on the top-of-the-line Limited model I tested.
Elements of the interior, particularly the doors, restate the vehicle's functionality with a chunky look reminiscent of old Volvos. My favorite interior touch was the way a wood insert at the top of the leather steering wheel rim completed the strip of woodgrain trim running across the dash.
The fine attention to detail inside the Flex is matched by the quality of the materials and workmanship. The car looks nicely screwed together, both inside and out.
While the base car is well equipped, the Limited model I drove was really loaded. The standard toys on that guy included leather seats, ambient lighting, a 10-speaker Sony sound system with satellite radio, dual-zone climate control, and heated power front seats.
There were also some exotic options, including a refrigerator in the second-row console ($760), heated second-row bucket seats that folded forward out of the way at the touch of a button ($870), and a $1,495, four-pane Panoramic Vista Roof. (If you remember the Olds Vista Cruiser, you are showing your age.)
All of this self-coddling comes with a price tag. While the Flex starts at $28,550 as a front-drive SE model, the Limited all-wheeler I drove has a base price of $36,555. When you tack on the tester's delivery and options, the list price comes to $43,250.
The Flex offers a quiet, comfortable ride. But it is a big beast of burden, so don't expect anything huge in the way of performance and fuel economy. The 3.5-liter, 262-horsepower V-6, feeding into a six-speed automatic, provides adequate power. But, with over 4,800 pounds to haul around, it isn't going to paste you back in your seat.
The front-drive Flex has EPAs of 17 city and 24 highway, while the AWD model I tested is rated at 16 and 22.
2009 Ford Flex Limited AWD
Base price: $36,555.
As tested: $43,250.
Standard equipment: All-wheel-drive and the usual luxury suspects, plus nifties like a power liftgate.
Options: Power folding second-row seats, back-up camera.
Fuel economy: 16 m.p.g. city and 22 highway.
Engine performance: C+.
Styling: Unique, functional.
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper, powertrain and road assistance for five years/60,000 miles.
Ben key: Four Bens, Excellent; Three Bens, Good; Two Bens, Fair; One Ben, Poor.