What happens when a subspecies falls prey to evolutionary overspecialisation? The 2008 Ford Flex is what happens.
When J. Mays took over from Jack Telnack as Dearborn’s styling supremo in 1997, his avowed aim was to re-emphasise Ford’s homegrown product identity, appointing former Volvo design chief, Peter Horbury in 2004 as Executive Director for design with responsibility for FoMoCo’s cache of US brands.
By mid-decade, it had already become apparent that the US market was losing its appetite for minivans, but Ford, like most of its domestic rivals lacked the market foresight to discern which direction the American consumer would definitively turn. In 2005 Dearborn previewed the Fairlane concept, team-Horbury’s attempt to create a different kind of vehicle – part MPV, part estate car. Two year’s later, closely based upon the themes set out in 2005, the Flex was introduced at New York’s NYIAS. Billed as a crossover, it retained the Fairlane’s distinctive styling features, notably the series of horizontal grooves stamped upon the door skins, said to evoke the so-called ‘woodie’ wagons of yore.
Based on Ford’s D4 platform, shared with a number of domestic Ford vehicles, including the Explorer SUV, the Flex was front-wheel drive, with four-wheel drive available as an option. Suspension was independent all-round (ride quality was a strong point) and power was from a 3.5 litre Duratec V6 mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. In 2010, a twin turbocharged Ecoboost V6 provided over 350 bhp, which given the Flex’s considerable avoirdupois, was probably no harm.
The car’s shape was characterised by an overt product design aesthetic, which was both deceptively simple, yet really quite sophisticated – its two volume layout employing a cantilevered roof and flush wrap-around glazing. Horizontals were a defining theme, from the grille, the lineal beltline, low roof, side-flank strakes and clean, largely unadorned surfacing.
Richness lay in what was removed, and one might suggest, in the few stylistic flourishes that were retained. Its 2012 refresh improved matters further, with changes to nose and tail, which if anything made the Flex an even more attractive and cohesive looking vehicle.
Flex by name and so by nature, the vast cabin featured three rows of seating. Material quality was praised, reviewers at launch suggesting it to be Ford’s finest-ever US interior, with fit and finish being considered of the first order. The design theme, like that of the exterior was linear and all the better for its clean lines and visual restraint.
An argument could be proposed to suggest that the Flex resembles the current Mini Clubman’s older and somewhat better upholstered American cousin, but if anything, it’s the Canadian-built Ford which is the more accomplished design, the one truer to its ideals and fitter for its intended purpose. Sales peaked in 2010, but apart from a brief blip in 2015 (when they dipped below the 20,000 mark), have proved consistent, albeit consistently disappointing might prove to be the consensus amongst Henry’s spreadsheet jockeys.
The rationale behind its lack of market penetration can be put down to a number of factors. Firstly, its arrival coincided with the global financial crash and a spike in fuel prices. The Flex may not have been an SUV, but it drank like one and for a time at least, buyers sought less dipsomaniacal alternatives.
Secondly, a good half of the population (notably the female half), simply detested its appearance – ‘it looks like a hearse’, being the most commonly heard refrain. Even Mr. Horbury’s wife is reported to have revolted upon first sighting, rounding upon her husband to “get that thing off my driveway”.
It’s possible that without the economic downturn, the Flex might have gained more early headway, but it’s unlikely that either it or anything else could have held out against the unstoppable rise of the CUV. So while the Flex might be considered an honourable attempt at bridging the crossover gap, any product whose appeal cannot be grasped without explanation is probably the wrong product, whatever its virtues.
The irony being of course that it was probably better suited to the task of ferrying passengers and paraphernalia than the average large SUV, while offering a decent driving experience, a cosseting ride and (it would appear), a durable ownership experience.
With Ford now intent on pursuing a crossover/ SUV-only model policy, it seems that despite its (admittedly modest) sales holding firm, the Flex is scheduled to be stuffed head-first into a woodchipper – most likely next year. This being so, we really ought to see it for what it most likely is, and salute the last remaining full-sized American station wagon of the classic idiom. Because what we all know from our studies is that the good Mr. Darwin brooks no argument.