One of the quirkiest trends in the auto industry is Ford's success at selling the massive Flex in California.
This is an odd vehicle – kind of a 1950s' Woody meets a 1970s Ford Country Squire station wagon.
The Flex, however, is the third-best-selling full-size sport-utility vehicle in California through September, according to a report from AutoCount, the car data division of Experian Co., and the California New Car Dealers Assn. The Flex, which starts at about $30,000, is counted in that category but really is an SUV-styled station wagon.
With sales of 3,091 for the first nine months of this year it barely trails the No. 2 GMC Arcadia, which has sold 3,202 vehicles, according to AutoCount. Among big SUVS, the Ford Explorer is tops in California at 6,974.
Some people are confused by the name, thinking the car offers flexible fuel choices or is a hybrid, but the Flex is a conventional gas vehicle. The basic, front-wheel-drive version has an Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy rating of 20 mpg for combined city and highway driving.
"It has this retro style. We have had more inquires on this car than any car we have ever owned," said Joyce Solodovnikov, a part-time interior designer from Santa Barbara who finds the seven-seat Flex useful for size, comfort and hauling her six grandchildren around.
"Ours has a red body with a white top and people have opinions about it. It is like driving a classic car around," said Solodovnikov, who should know -- she also drives a 1957 Ford Fairlane convertible. The 2011 model replaced an aging Windstar minivan.
The Flex leads all vehicles offered by Ford, General Motors and Chrysler as the model with the highest share of its registrations nationally in California, according to R.L. Polk & Co. Ford's tiny Fiesta is second and the Dodge Challenger is third.
Put another way, the Ford's Flex sales in California account for 13.5% of all Flex sales in the U.S. through the end of September. But California accounts for just 8.2% of Ford's sales nationally.
"The Flex has two characteristics that I believe help explain why it does well in California. It does not look like any other vehicle on the road -- it stands out. Second, its styling cues have a retro tinge," said Thomas Libby, a Polk analyst. "Both these characteristics appeal to Californians."
Ford executives, who have struggled to capture buyers in import brand happy California, are pleased with the Flex’s performance in the state.
"The Flex reminds people of the old Woody wagons and the beach lifestyle that went with them, which is very closely linked to the California lifestyle," said Alan Mulally, Ford's chief executive. The Flex's versatility, or 'flexibility' in terms of space for family, friends, equipment and more, is very appealing for buyers who want that capability but do not want a minivan."
It's not uncommon to see the vehicle parked near Southern California's beaches with people pulling surfboards, kayaks and other equipment from the roof or its yawning interior.
But the vehicle doesn't sell well nationally. Ford has sold less than 23,000 through the first nine months of this year. That compares to the Explorer, which is nearing sales of 120,000 during the same period.
What makes this even more curious is that Californians aren't big truck and SUV buyers compared to the national sales rates. Almost 63% of the new vehicle registrations in California this year are for passenger cars. Passenger cars account for 53% of sales nationally.
Other vehicles that do unusually well in California compared to their sales elsewhere include the Ford Fiesta and Mustang and the Dodge Challenger, according to Polk. Each has distinctive styling and is not a high-sales-volume, core product.
"I think this speaks to the fact that the [Asian car companies] do very well in California with their core cars and the domestics do not do well in those segments," Libby said.
That leaves the domestic nameplates to performance cars, such as the Mustang, or to distinctive, or almost "fringe" vehicles such as the Flex and Fiesta, Libby said.