The Flex that vexed my ex, and other wagon tales
Flex. What a stupid name. I can’t tell you how the station wagon that went by the evocative and appropriate “Fairlane” on the concept-car circuit became “Flex” in production in 2009. It might have had something to do with Ford’s embarrassing crush on NYC disc jockey “Funkmaster Flex.” Not only did Ford allow the fellow to “customize” a pre-production example of the Flex, it actually sold an outrageous-looking “Funkmaster Flex Edition”—its take on the big Expedition SUV—for a whole year.
Eventually the company wised up to the breathtaking stupidity involved in naming cars after someone whose primary audience took a train, taxi, or Town Car to work, and the whole episode disappeared down the same auto-manufacturer memory hole used for the Chevy Volt Dancers, the Chevy Volt “Time Capsule” advertisement, the Chevy Volt “Elevator” advertisement, and the Chevy Volt.
Except, of course, for the permanent damage done to Ford’s prospects for seven-seat market penetration. The worst part about the name “Flex” is there wasn’t anything particularly flexible about the vehicle to which it was attached. If you were hoping for a disappearing center seat like in the Chrysler minivans or some sort of avant-garde storage arrangements, you were out of luck. This was nothing but a long-wheelbase take on the Ford Freestyle wagon, which in turn was a wagon take on the Ford Five Hundred, which in turn was a steel-suspension take on the Volvo S80. The only “flexible” thing about it was the odd ability of the power-operated third-row seats to do a flip-flop and become astoundingly uncomfortable rear-facing seats for impromptu tailgate parties. This is not the sort of feature which should figure into naming a car. It would be like calling the W210-generation Mercedes-Benz E-Class the “Floppy Cupholder.”
Truly a shame, because when you looked past the silly label and the hugely polarizing styling, the Flex was just about the perfect family vehicle. It had all the virtues of a ’70s full-sized station wagon in a far tidier and easier-to-park package. (Heck, some of them could self-park, assuming the spot you’d chosen was large enough for a human to do the same task while drunk and blindfolded.) It was easy and pleasant to drive, more so with the EcoBoost twin-turbo V-6 that appeared in short order. The electronics and luxury features were comprehensive even by today’s standards. Last and certainly not least, Ford’s breadbox was extremely safe, posting outstanding results in every possible crash test while offering the additional active palliatives of stability control and optional all-wheel-drive.
That last sentence is why I took delivery of an everything-including-the-refrigerator Flex Limited in the oft-advertised cinnamon-with-white-roof configuration, back in the winter of 2008–09. I was about to be a father for the first (and, it turns out, only) time. I wanted the safest vehicle possible. My wife hated the looks of the thing, which seemed to be an almost universal reaction among women of her generation and all the generations around it. How did Ford flub that so badly? What made it build two very expensive wagons—the Flex and its hearse-ish cousin, the Lincoln MKT—which provoke immediate revulsion in the vast majority of distaff drivers? Had its marketing team accidentally added six zeroes to the estimated target demographic of permanently-single male architects who had adopted six children?
To convince Mrs. Baruth of the wagon’s merits, we used a press-fleet Flex to take my four-person race team to an enduro at Road Atlanta, a 1200-mile roundtrip. She’d been charmed by the way it worked, at least. “I don’t have to look at the thing while I’m driving, anyway,” was her final, and approving, verdict on the matter.
That cinnamon Flex did a brilliant job of hauling my child and my race car; I used it and a U-Haul trailer to notch up a few wins in the NASA Great Lakes region. As long as the road to the track in question was relatively flat, the Ford was up to the task of hauling 4750 pounds on the freeway without too much drama. I’d been using a 2003 Land Rover Discovery 4.6 prior to that, with its 100-inch wheelbase, so the Flex was a cinch to operate in comparison.
Alas, my bright-green Dodge Neon ACR wasn’t all I pulled in that car. As my marriage disassembled itself in protracted and uncomfortable fashion, the Flex played temporary host to a panoply of hairdressers, psychologists, and art students, plus one federal law-and-order type who used to send me selfies where she was standing in Guantanamo Bay wearing vintage polka-dot dresses. They were all horrified by the thing, but the alternative was my profoundly uncouth old Porsche 911, which had no heated seats or individual climate control. When my wife reached her personal quota for shenanigan tolerance she took the Flex with her, at which point she started dating the crew chief from my old race team. He’d apparently fallen for her during that long ride in the press-fleet Flex a few years before. This bit of sentimental irony did not prevent her from immediately trading our characterful cinnamon baby-wagon in on a Ford Edge of no discernible color whatsoever.
“The Flex,” I snapped at her upon learning of this decision, “is the safest possible wagon for our son.”
“It is also,” she replied, “the ugliest.”
At about the same time, my brother was buying a Flex for his family. A front-wheel-drive, cloth-seat stripper in SE trim; as far away from my refrigerator-equipped Limited as possible and restyled by Ford with a lazy facelift that made it look less like a show car and more like nothing in particular. In the seven years since, he and his wife have put over 170,000 miles on it. They’re on just the second set of rear brake pads. Nothing has broken or gone awry. It has given yeoman service and asked nothing in return. If Ford wagons had been this good in 1970, or even 1980, we would be talking about the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry the way people talk about the Peugeot 505—as fascinating footnotes in automotive history.
Alas, the reliable and remarkable Flex arrived in a market where people no longer had much faith in Ford’s ability to build a great car. More importantly, they no longer had much faith in cars, period. So the buyers chose the Honda Pilot over the Flex by a ratio of something like 15 to one. General Motors had smarter, if more cynical, product planners on board, so its Flex-fighters were massive Lexus-ish blobs on stilts that weighed nearly a half-ton more than Ford’s tiny wagon while providing nothing else of additional value besides a higher seating position. They too stomped the Flex in a marketplace battle that more closely resembled a turkey shoot.
This does not mean that the boxy wagon does not have its admirers. To know this for sure, you only need to see the prices of used examples, which are formidable. A Flex with 100,000 miles is worth real money to a lot of people. The dealers stopped carrying the new ones in any kind of quantity years ago, but that doesn’t stop 20,000–25,000 people from walking in and ordering a Flex every year. This, despite the fact that the vehicle hasn’t been updated in more than half a decade. It’s being sold against the Pilot that replaced the Pilot that replaced the Pilot it faced in its debut. Anecdotally, I’m told that the vehicle most commonly traded in on a Flex is… a Flex. Some people just really like them.
I’m one of those people. I spent nine years thinking about how much I missed my cinnamon 2009. As Robert Zimmerman sang,
“I seen a lot of wagons, but she never escaped my mind.”
Which explains why in February of this year I managed to get myself tangled up in a blue Lincoln MKT Reserve Elite EcoBoost. Knowing that I’d have one shot at buying a Flex before production stopped, I decided to buy a fancy one. The MKT is silent, rapid, and comfortable. My son and I use it for his cycling events, in which we often have four bikes, an extra passenger or two, and several very large bags of equipment. It’s never a problem. There’s nothing about it I’d change, really. We even get some use out of the stupid flip/fold rear seat; he sits there between races, protected from the sun by a raised tailgate that I am told is the single largest magnesium casting in human history.
My ex-wife was driving her new CR-V the day she saw my blue-whale Lincoln for the first time. “God, it’s even uglier than the Flex,” she noted. I’d just been thinking that her grey Honda was even less characterful than her neutral-color Edge had been. She’s certainly on the right side of history, as the kids say. The market has spoken loud and clear on the relative appeal of four-cylinder “cute-utes” and twin-turbo, leather-lined, hilariously misshapen station-wagon/minivan hybrids. One of these lives has a future, to quote the fellow from The Matrix, and one does not.
“What is that thing?” I’m frequently asked. “Is it a van or an SUV?”
“Neither!” I chirp, with deliberate cheer. “It’s better than that! It’s a wagon… it’s like a Ford Flex.”
To which the usual response is something like… “The Flex? Oh yeah. I remember those from a long time ago.”
“They still make them!” I chirp, with even more deliberate cheer. “You can go get one!”
Well, as of November 25 that will no longer be the case. Production will stop and the line will close, as it already has for the Lincoln. No farewell-tour year of production, no updates, and no replacement. At least I got mine before it was too late. So long, Flex. You had a stupid name, but you were a truly intelligent car.