The bold, boxy exterior of the Ford Flex is such a forceful statement, it can distract from the other notable features of this generously sized, six- to seven-passenger crossover vehicle.
But Flex stylists aren't retreating. For 2013, they updated the Flex front end with new fascia, grille and headlights for a more impactful appearance.
Even the blue Ford logo has been removed from the grille now, leaving the word "Flex" spelled out in large letters across the front edge of the hood.
If this is not enough of a distinctive look, Flex buyers can opt for a roof color that's different from the body of the vehicle. As an example, the test 2013 Flex came with a Silver, two-tone roof atop a body painted Deep Impact Blue.
Try finding this combination on a factory-built Honda Pilot or Dodge .
The Flex also is one of the few large people haulers that offers a turbocharged, gasoline V-6. Ford's EcoBoost V-6 generates 365 horsepower and 350 foot-pounds of torque at 3,500 rpm in the hefty, 4,800-pound Flex. This compares with the 250-horsepower, non-turbo V-6 with 253 foot-pounds of torque at 4,800 rpm that's the only engine available in the Pilot.
Consumer Reports lists the Flex as a recommended buy with average reliability overall, but prices — particularly for a Flex with EcoBoost engine — can be eye opening.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $31,795 for a base 2013 Flex SE with front-wheel drive. This base model comes with naturally aspirated, 287-horsepower V-6 and cloth seats with middle second row that's a bench. The lowest starting retail price, including destination charge, for a 2013 Flex with all-wheel drive is $36,145 and this also includes the non-turbo V-6. The lowest starting MSRP and destination charge for a 2013 Flex with the turbo V-6 is $45,195.
This luxury-segment price stems from the fact the turbo is only available on the top-of-the-line Flex Limited which comes with standard luxury features such as perforated leather seats, 19-inch wheels, blind-spot monitor, navigation system and Sony audio with 12 speakers. Also, the turbo engine is only in the 2013 Flex Limited with all-wheel drive.
In comparison, the starting MSRP, including destination charge, for a base, 2013 Pilot with front-wheel drive is $30,350, and a 2013 Dodge Durango which has three rows of seats and a 290-horsepower, naturally aspirated V-6, has a starting retail price of $30,490 with rear-wheel drive.
The Flex can be difficult to describe. Some people call it a crossover SUV because it sits lower to the pavement than a traditional SUV and has more car-like ride and handling. But others see the Flex exterior shape as a wagon, albeit one that stretches 17 feet in overall length and stands 5.7 feet tall.
These dimensions make the Flex longer than the Pilot and but shorter in height.
But then, the Flex does not have as low a floor as a minivan does, and it requires a bit more work than a minivan to get inside to the third row.
Whether it's the odd looks, the difficulty in describing what the Flex is or the pricing, the Flex is the lowest-selling Ford-branded SUV/crossover/wagon. Sales last calendar year totaled 28,224, which is only a quarter of the total U.S. sales for the Pilot. And so far in calendar 2013, Flex sales are down another 22 percent from what they were last year at this time.
Still, the roomy interior of the tester was impressive. Front-seat passengers get nearly 42 inches of headroom and nearly 41 inches of legroom. In comparison, front-seat headroom in the Pilot is 40 inches, with 41.4 inches of legroom.
In the second row, Flex riders can have an amazing 44 inches of legroom as the separate captain's chairs can slide fore and aft to adjust legroom between second and third rows.
Meantime, even adults can sit decently comfortable in the Flex's third row seats for two with an impressive 38.7 inches of headroom — vs. 37.8 inches in the Durango — and legroom of 33.3 inches. This third-row legroom surpasses the 31.5 inches in the Durango and 32.1 inches in the back of the Pilot.
The Flex dashboard can appear a bit massive, but the selection of soft-touch plastics and textures looked good in the test vehicle.
But the sizable metal pillars at the sides of the windshield were major obstacles for a driver trying to make turns into crosswalks.
Because the Flex tester had the turbo, it came with suspension tuned for a bit tighter body control than a base Flex. As a result, the test vehicle rode through twisty mountain roads without conveying a loose feeling of uncontrolled weight shift back and forth.
There was a less tippy feeling overall, but passengers felt road vibrations, and the optional 20-inch wheels sometimes sent strong impacts from potholes through the vehicle.
The uplevel, 3.5-liter, double overhead cam, turbocharged V-6 delivered power smoothly and strongly and worked through a six-speed automatic.
In the Limited, there are paddle shifters at the steering wheel so a sporty-minded driver can select forward gear shifts on his or her own. But it's debatable how many Flex buyers want to use this feature.
Fuel economy isn't great, even when the Flex carries only one person and no cargo. The tester averaged just 18 miles per gallon, which is on par with the federal government ratings.
Some 2013 Flex models were among nearly 400,000 Ford vehicles recalled late last month because a fuel module may crack and cause fuel to leak, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.