There's nothing classified about the fact that new product spurs auto sales. Look at Ford's recent gains. Sure, good quality scores have helped. But the sales success has been triggered largely by a car carrier full of new models.

Suffice it to say that new-car buyers like the latest.

In the case of the Ford Flex, the company has taken the new-product-sells thesis one step further by offering significant improvements to its big crossover even though it's only one model year old. (Normally, automakers wait at least a year or two longer to "refresh" a vehicle.)

The major upgrade in this boxy exercise in practicality is the addition of the EcoBoost V-6 engine, an option on the higher-end Flex models. The EcoBoost, essentially the same engine that's used in the Lincoln MKS and MKT, is a twin-turbocharged, direct injection version of the Flex's base 3.5-liter V-6.

The addition of the turbos and the more efficient direct fuel injection system proves rather noteworthy: It raises the engine's output to 355 horsepower from 262 without decreasing fuel economy. What that means, in effect, is you're getting V-8 power with the regular V-6's thirst.

Available only on all-wheel-drive models, this $2,220 engine option makes the Flex one lively guy out of the chute. It gets from 0 to 60 in about seven seconds, which is roughly 1.5 seconds faster than the Flex with the normally aspirated base engine - and pretty darn quick for a vehicle that weighs 4,800 pounds.

As you might expect with a vehicle weighing close to 2.5 tons, fuel economy numbers - it has EPA mileage ratings of 16 city and 22 highway - are not exactly Ford Focus arithmetic. But when you place it up against other big SUVs, and consider what it can do, its mileage is relatively good.

Indeed, this guy has a cavernous interior that includes three rows of seats, and it can tow up to 4,500 pounds.

In the process of getting the Flex up to speed in a hurry, the EcoBoost engine proves a smoothie with a minimum of annoying turbo lag. The engine is buttoned to a beefed up version of the six-speed automatic used with the base engine. Unlike the base gearbox, this one has a manual shift feature operated with steering wheel paddles purloined from a BMW 3 Series.

The top-of-the-line Limited EcoBoost I tested sported a number of additional fresh wrinkles. The new vehicle has sportier suspension tuning and sits nearly a half-inch lower than its cheaper counterpart. Its new electric steering system makes possible an innovative feature called "pull-drift compensation" that automatically counter steers when crosswinds and crowned roads are encountered. Obviously, combating crosswinds is of particular interest if you are towing a trailer.

The EcoBoost model is also available with several other innovations: trailer sway control, hill descent control, and a parking assist that automatically steers your car into a space - after its ultrasonic sensors have determined the space is large enough. After more than 20 years of living in Center City and South Philadelphia, I don't need any help parallel parking. But for suburbanites who can't get into parking spaces twice as long as their car, it's probably a good idea.

Driving the Flex Limited EcoBoost proved a more pleasurable experience than I had expected from a beast of burden. It handled very nicely for a fairly large and heavy crossover, and the ride was excellent. The big antilock disc brakes did a nice job of shutting it down. The only sour note was the steering system's lack of road feel. It was just a bit too numb for my tastes.

Adding to the driving experience was a nicely assembled, high-quality interior, comfortable seating, readily employed controls and gauges, and good visibility.

All this comfort, power and practicality comes with a price tag, of course. While the base, front-drive Flex starts at under $30,000, the all-wheel-drive Limited with EcoBoost opens at $42,465.

The Flex gets the government's top five-star rating for frontal and side crashes, and four stars for rollovers.


Ford Flex Limited


Base price: $42,465

As tested: $43,635 (including shipping)

Standard equipment: 3.5-liter turbocharged engine, six-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive, and the usual luxo-gear including leather, a Sony premium sound system, reverse sensing and rearview mirror, and voice-activated navigation system.

Options: Two-tone paint.

Fuel economy: 16 m.p.g. city, 22 highway.

Handling: Fine.

Engine performance: Exceptional.

Styling: Boxcar provincial.

The Ben Key: Four Bens, excellent; Three Bens, good; Two Bens, fair; One Ben, poor.


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