Darwin’s Estate

What happens when a subspecies falls prey to evolutionary overspecialisation? The 2008 Ford Flex is what happens.

Post-facelift Flex (c) cargurus

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Pre-facelift rear. (c) automotorpad

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

18 thoughts on “Darwin’s Estate”

  1. I have always really liked the clarity of purpose and handsome, clean design of the Flex. It is disappointing that it isn’t more widely appreciated and find it odd that American women, who are happy to drive large SUVs, allegedly find its appearance offputting. Perhaps it’s just an idea ahead of its time? Every time I hear about the mooted “Road Rover”, I think of the Flex. I fully realise that the JLR vehicle should be a great deal more sophisticated (and efficient) but, for sheer practicality, the Flex is unbeatable.

  2. Comments about similarities to hearses remind me that the focus groups are not very good at detecting problems. I am here thinking that when Ford got a sample of users into a room to look at the model, none of them had the bad manners to speak their mind. The same applies to the dear old Opel Signum and maybe the Renault VelSatis. Is the customer right? When are they wrong? I´d be interested to hear about the way clinics are done for new cars. Presumably the participants don´t know who makes the car and know the facilitators are disinterested parties (i.e. their feelings won´t be hurt by negative comments). And I expect the new car is shown with competitors too so the discussion is relative to existing products. So, how come no-one said “that looks too much like a hearse”?
    I don´t think it does look like a hearse, no more than any estate car – it´s probably only 10% lower than an SUV. People are more sensitive to small proportional differences than I give them credit for.

    1. Angel: Yes, inded, there is something 240-like in the Flex. The 240 estate was a super car, despite the upper rear door-frames. It´s a funny puzzle when someone puts words on a half-formed thought.
      Andrew: No, I haven´t. The numbers of people involved are probably tiny. I have also never been asked to participate in an opinion poll and those are much more extensively used.

  3. has anyone in the world of DTW been to a car clinic/focus group type thing? I’ve read about them in Autocropley and Car ages ago but personally know no-one who has.

    1. I had the opportunity to participate in a clinic for the Kia Magentis in 2001. It was an interesting but (from my point of view) avsurd experuence.

    2. At first, I thought there might be a simple solution to the “looks like a hearse” issue: simply buy a Flex in any colour other than black or grey*:

      However, upon further investigation, it appears that American hearses come in a wide variety of shapes and colours, catering for all (and no) tastes:

      What is it with the pram hood bars? Are they compulsory on American hearses? Actually, I suppose a convertible hearse would be handy if the dearly departed wanted to catch some rays on his journey to the afterlife, so they may be onto something here.

      Angel and Richard, those Volvo estate rear door frames irritated me to an irrational extent. Given the importance of estate car sales to Volvo, surely it wouldn’t have been a major ask to engineer a custom window frame, avoiding that slightly home-made look?

      Andrew, I’ve never been asked to participate in a focus group, but am plagued by requests for feedback relating to online purchases. Most use the Likert Scale as a measure of (dis)satisfaction, but many give you no opportunity for free-form feedback, or ask why you’ve scored a 1 (very dissatisfied) for one aspect of the goods or ordering and supply process. I realise that they’re really not interested in individual feedback and the Likert Scale results are simple to aggregate and average out, but it’s still annoying.

      * Yes, I realise the yellow one above looks like a taxi instead.

    3. @Daniel

      approx half the cost of tooling for a vehicle external panels is in the doors and door rings. Only GM spends for different panels that few will ever notice.

      Perfect example, they just redid their 2019 full size pickups. Every single panel is different: doors, tailgate, fenders, hood, roof !… everything.

    1. Ah, landau bars! I don’t know why they’re called that, but it’s down to the American way of taking your last drive. We prefer to have a view and so our hearses are glazed. The Americans prefer privacy and so their hearses don’t have big windows along the side. Rather than have a vehicle that looks like a van (though the French do this) they visually break up the expanse of metal or fibreglass with bars which are meant to look like the frame of a soft top. Think an old style pram.

  4. Given my ineptitude in this regard, it’s just as well I wasn’t around to proof-read the American Constitution, otherwise the Second Amendment may have enshrined in law this sort of thing:

  5. The Ford Flex. Those who liked it, liked it a lot. Most women did not even consider it because it wasn’t an SUV but a wagon and thus totally out-of-style just like people movers, or minivans as they’re known here. And hubby wasn’t going to fool them, thanks all the same!

    https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2009/07/review-ford-flex-ecoboost/

    Well, that was 2009. As time went by, the comments changed. By 2017, a more rational view emerged.

    https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2017/02/2017-ford-flex-limited-ecoboost-review/

    I put about zero reliance on European views of recent US cars, simply because the off-the-cuff opining has no basis in actual experience of driving the vehicle in question. Fun to read to see how far off base they are, though. The reverse is often true – only a few European car models are sent this way, and subcompact hatches with diesels certainly aren’t. Yet based on what does arrive, similar off-base conclusions erupt about Europe-only vehicles, probably including from me. The exception is the awful Fiat 500 which everyone finally agreed on over here, and you can’t even give ’em away in cornflakes packets.

    In context of its normal surroundings, the Flex still stood out from the crowd in its design. And the crowd never warmed to it. A niche vehicle in that it was unique with no competitors in the form factor, but interesting and not a total dud mechanically.

  6. Bill: Thanks for your comment. I have to draw attention to this bit: “I put about zero reliance on European views of recent US cars, simply because the off-the-cuff opining has no basis in actual experience of driving the vehicle in question. Fun to read to see how far off base they are, though.” Since DTW is European, do you include us? It´s that in the case of Eoin´s article here, I can´t find a lot that is worth taking issue with. It´s not a driving report so there´s no claim about what Eoin thinks it´s like to be in.
    Regarding the European views being “off-base” I´d much rather prefer to think of them as being other data. They may not be accurate judgements but it is an indication of how people think which is interesting in itself.
    Life if short and cars are many. I don´t think it´s possible to drive much more than a small amount of what´s out there.

    I retract my view of the Flex. It looks like a rotten compromise between an SUV and an estate car. It does look too much like a van for the dead.

    1. There is a reason why the Mercedes S Class is built a unique platform , not a stretched E Class. The S80’s underpinnings weren’t intended for such a large vehicle.

      from the second link Bill has posted :
      “Making matters worse, all that weight…creaking and groaning around the rear doors”.

      Focus groups can go wrong when people actually drive it.

      Every great design is polarizing, Range Rover, MINI, DS19, all of the great ones (except for Miura). The CX Break is a hearse too, also an ambulance. No, I don’t buy that excuse.

  7. If sales were being lost as a result of the possible similarity to a hearse, could Ford have remedied this by making some or all of the pillars coloured? The Ford Ka, and I’m sure others, had the opposite as an accessory – as black trim to apply to painted pillars:

    Could they have made coloured ones for Flex? Not even that, necessarily – they could have offered white, to match the roof, or silver, to match the inserts at each end of the car.

  8. The Flex and the Clubman are the only modern cars i can imagine to be built in a Woodie version.
    And if someone is not convinced about the quality of the Flex-design, take a quick look at his brother from Lincoln. Then you will love the Flex, even in the current ugly version.

  9. Stylistically, I always thought the Flex was Ford’s homage to the Range Rover (having already flattered another brand in its stable, Aston Martin, by copying the grille and pasting it on its cars).

    It seems the Flex is much loved by owners in the USA but is not a stellar sales success. Not SUV enough. A shame.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.