Good news in the American auto industry is tricky to come by right now. Having spent over half of the last month in the US, the mood – among media and public alike, seems to be that the industry doesn’t deserve the bailout it now looks likely to get, and that the auto companies only have themselves to blame, because they build products no-one wants.
Think of the Chrysler Sebring and it’s tempting to agree. However, America has recently started to kick out some products that even us (occasionally) snooty Europeans, quite like. The Dodge Challenger looks superb, the Corvette ZR1 out Ferrari’s Ferrari at half the price, and the number of self-imported Ford Mustangs on the road in the UK, suggests Ford was wrong not to import it here. To this small group, and for a marker that the industry is on the right track, we could now add Ford’s Flex.
Flex features several 'premium' design features such as nighttime puddle lighting around the door, downcast from under the wing mirror
The Flex is all about design, something that a lot of recent American cars seem to have been built without any thought for. How Ford arrived at a modern interpretation of the ‘Woodie' station wagon, and successfully managed to mash-up wagon, SUV and minivan into a single vehicle requires some historical background.
A Plymouth 'Woodie Wagon' from the 50s...
... reinterpreted as grooves in the door panels on the Flex
Long before the days of the (firstly) feted and (now) hated SUV, the standard issue family car in America was a large Station Wagon. At the beginning of the type’s definition, these wagons were coachbuilt out of wood – and up until the era of the 1953 Buick Roadmaster estate (which single-handedly encapsulates the concept of ‘woodie wagons’), the vehicles featured real wood on their exteriors – a look which lived on throughout the 70s and 80s in the form of fake wooden ‘paneling’.
The 70s oil crisis, and stricter emissions laws saw a serious decline in the popularity of these (often massive) wagons, and for families wanting space aplenty, the birth of the minivan (MPV) in the early 80s made wagons a minority interest. Yet minivans were to have their day too. SUVs were cooler, had greater towing ability and much more visual attitude – and shot to popularity in the late 90s. The minivan’s image became synonymous with stuffy, uncool ‘hockey’ mum drivers.
Yet with many SUVs based on heavy truck platforms, they ultimately lack the refinement and dynamic ability of cars, and with fuel economy and emissions shooting up buyers’ lists of priorities in the past few years, many argue the SUV’s days are numbered too. But, despite calls for America’s car makers to build small, efficient cars, one senses a latent demand - and need for - bigger vehicles capable of hauling bodies and loads alike…
By no means is the Flex small, but here, seen next to a Toyota Sienna minivan, and Cadillac Escalade SUV, you can clearly see how the Flex, contextually, isn't so huge - and how Ford is plowing a different furrow
So, with what appears to be rather neat timing, enter the Flex. As capacious as a minivan, but without the van-with-windows vibe; as at home in a Rapper video as an SUV, but without the “screw the planet” image, and with the visual charm of a woodie wagon, but without resorting to retro styling – the Flex is like little else on America’s roads.
I’ve never before driven a car which caused so many people to do a double take as I went past – nor have I ever been so frequently approached and asked what I thought of it upon pulling up – whether I was at the beach, the mall parking lot, or the fuel station.
The test car’s ‘cinnamon red’ paintwork with contrasting white roof and brushed metal tailgate finish certainly contributed here – the white roof leading to many comparisons with the new Mini, which I’ve come to realise ‘owns’ the contrasting white roof as a brand motif.
To most casual observers, the contrasting white roof is a Mini design hallmark
2005 Ford Fairlane concept
But I think Ford should be applauded for their bravery here. The Flex takes its visual cues from 2005’s Fairlane concept – Fairlane being the name of Henry Ford’s country estate, marked out for classiness, good taste and attention to detail. The Fairlane concept embodied these principals, in its calm surfacing, elegant proportions, innovative use of materials and ‘surprise and delight’ features – such as the suicide door. What’s impressive about the production Flex’s exterior is that it appears to have made the translation from concept car to production without dilution or unnecessary augmentation – and that’s a rare trait these days.
Sadly, the Fairlane’s cool minimalist interior didn’t make the translation. Although the Flex is ok inside, with a pleasing amount of soft-touch plastic, it’s way behind anything offered by the likes of Audi – and looks somewhat cheap when you first step inside. One interesting European perspective surrounds the engine choice and economy of this car. The 3.5l V6 struggles a little with the weight of the car and got an average of 19 US mpg (23 mpg UK) - which is horrifying for a Brit used to $8/gallon fuel pricing. Its a shame American’s don’t ‘get’ Diesel, because resting within its stable, Ford has an amazing 2.7 twin-turbo diesel they donate to Jag and Land Rover, which would be perfect for the Flex [yes TopGear fans, I am talking about the engine from the Jag XJ Jeremy Clarkson recently drove from Basel to Blackpool on a single tank].
Viewed from this perspective, Flex could easily double as a Range Rover
Ultimately though, the Flex convinces not only because it works on a functional level of being as happy with one, or six, on board – in a way that minivans don’t - but on an emotional, visceral level. Some will doubtless make quips about ‘hearses’ (tip, don’t buy one in black) – but I kept catching myself staring back at it out of windows, or looking for interesting architecture and locations to juxtapose it against in photos. In the end, if the world is looking for a signpost that an American auto maker is capable of designing and producing not only a good car, but an interesting one – this is it.
Perhaps the biggest compliment one can pay it is to say that far from feeling like a larger, upscaled Mini, after a week of driving this car, we came to the conclusion that what it actually feels like is an affordable, downscaled Range Rover – the fact that from the front they share a deal of resemblance is surely no coincidence. It’s certainly not the answer to all of the industry’s problems, but it might just be what suburban America wants right now.
Full flickr photo set here - thumbnails below:
Posted on 9th December 2008 by Joseph Simpson.
All photos Joseph Simpson (thetrickytree on Flickr.com) except:
- Fairlane concept image - Ford Motor Company
- Range Rover griller - Land Rover
- Plymouth Woodie - Gem66 on Flickr
- Minis by Nick Simpson (Iwoaf) on Flickr
- all under creative commons license.
Thanks to Maggie and Zoe at SocialMediaGroup for sorting out the loan of the Flex, and to the guys at Prestige Auto in Miami for making everything run so smoothly. Disclosure: The Movement Design Bureau has been commissioned to follow Ford's sustainable design work. We aim to snap things with an independent take. Tell us if you think we don't.