BOULDER, Colorado - Stuffing a more powerful engine into an existing model is hardly a new idea. In this era of concern about fuel-efficiency, it's not necessarily a wise one, either. Yet, by taking full advantage of its latest engine technology, Ford has made the shift properly for its Flex crossover utility vehicle.
That technology is called EcoBoost, and it's gotten the most attention for its use in the redesigned Taurus: specifically, in the performance-packed, revived SHO edition of that full-size sedan. Now, EcoBoost - which makes use of turbocharging and direct fuel injection - is giving the Flex an extra dose of available power, too.
Though the Flex garnered considerable praise when it debuted for 2009 with a 262-horsepower engine, quite a few reviewers gave it demerits for lack of power. Tirekicking Today was less critical, asserting that the original Flex performed appropriately for a vehicle of its type, and even qualified as assertive when pushing on the gas pedal.
This Flex's turbocharged, direct-injected EcoBoost 3.5-liter V-6 engine generates 355 horsepower at 5700 rpm, and 350 pound-feet of torque all the way from 1500 to 5250 rpm. That compares to 262 hp and 248 pound-feet from a regular Flex engine. Race-inspired paddle shifters permit manual gear selection with the six-speed Selectshift automatic transmission. In EcoBoost form, the Flex can tow up to 4,500 pounds, versus 3,300 pounds for some rivals.
Gas mileage is the big news for EcoBoost. Despite the hefty power increase, the Flex with an EcoBoost engine gets an EPA fuel-economy estimate of 16 mpg in city driving and 22 mpg on the highway. That's precisely the same estimate earned by a regular Flex, with the 262-horsepower engine. As Ford's promotional material proclaims, Eco Boost delivers "V-8 performance with V-6 fuel efficiency." A front-drive regular Flex gets an EPA estimate of 17-mpg city/24-mpg highway.
Gentle driving with the EcoBoost can produce even greater gas mileage than the EPA figures suggest. In a test of high-mileage driving, one participant averaged 30.4 miles per gallon on a highway stretch. Another managed 28.2 mpg on that toll-road run.
All Flex EcoBoost models have all-wheel drive. A telescopic steering wheel now is standard.Ford engineers have lowered the ride height by 10 millimeters and stiffened the front and rear suspension "without increasing harshness," a spokesperson advised. For 2010, the Flex suspension's damping rate has increased by 20 percent. Spring rates were stiffened 12 percent. Electric power steering in the EcoBoost model promises markedly better response than the assist system in a regular Flex or its competitors.
Each Flex gets standard 20-inch aluminum wheels. Chrome-tip dual exhausts show that a Flex has the EcoBoost engine. A telescopic steering wheel now is standard. Flex wagons can seat up to seven occupants.
Undeniably pleasing all around in its regular form, the Flex now delivers performance to match its other qualities. At Denver/Boulder's mile-high altitude, competitors have lost 15 percent of their available power, according to advanced engine manager Brett Hinds.
Smooth responses are the rule, along with quiet running. Automatic-transmission shifts are barely noticeable. Exceptionally easy to drive, the Flex has moderately light steering, which is nicely controlled all the way. Ride comfort is another bonus: lovely on good roads, with no nastiness developing on moderately rough stretches, either.
Up to seven occupants get loads of space inside, especially in terms of second-row leg/headroom. Green-lit gauges are ordinary but effective. Rather long seat bottoms are softly cushioned at the base and back. Ample glass means the Flex suffers no visibility issues.
Brett Hinds notes that direct injection yields fuel economy, and turbocharging cuts down on carbon-dioxide emissions. By boosting efficiency, Ford could downsize the engine without losing performance. Twin water-cooler turbochargers are installed, which can operate at speeds up to 170,000 rpm, and at temperatures up up 1740 degrees (F). Turbos are designed to last the life of the vehicle: at least 150,000 mles or 10 years. Ford claims its engine has survived 1,500 10-minute "maximum boost and bake" torture tests without changing the oil.
EcoBoost is available on the Flex SEL and Limited, priced at $39,995 and $43,635, respectively. In 2010, EcoBoost engines will be offered in 23 percent of Ford nameplates. By 2013, some 90 percent will have EcoBoost (1.3 million units).
Flex customers have been shopping for such vehicles as the GMC Acadia, Chevrolet Traverse, Toyota Highlander, Chrysler Town & Country minivan, and Buick Enclave. Additional competitors include the Dodge Durango and Chevrolet Suburban. Nearly half of Flex buyers are new to Ford, and 21 percent of Flex sales have been coming from imports.
Attention Editors: This complete 2010 Ford Flex EcoBoost review is available now for your publication. Please contact us at JF@tirekick.com for details. (August 8, 2009)