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Ford Flex crossover: A square deal

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In absolute terms, the Ford Flex is squarely brilliant. Here is a six- or seven-passenger spawn hauler with none of the minivan stigma that so evidently traumatizes suburbanites and their delicate eros. Actually, with its blacked-out roof pillars and "floating" white or silver roof, the Flex looks like the star of Roger Corman's "Attack of the 50-Foot Mini Traveller." How could this not be a Nobel-winning idea?

In terms of packaging -- the art of putting the most usable space over the smallest footprint, carbon and otherwise -- the Flex mops the garage floor with your typical full-size SUV, such as Ford's own Lincoln Navigator. The Flex offers about 83 cubic feet of cargo space -- it's a pity children aren't cube-shaped -- compared with about 103 for the Navi-slayer. Meanwhile, the Flex weighs about 1,500 pounds less and gets 30% better fuel economy (17/24 miles per gallon, city and highway). For anyone with a big family who wants to downsize from their gawdamighty SUV -- all those in favor, raise your empty wallets -- the Flex compromise is pretty attractive.

Based on the Ford Taurus X platform -- a large crossover, in other words -- the Flex is, essentially, a super-sized wagon, powered by a 3.5-liter, 262-hp V6 channeled through a six-speed automatic, with optional all-wheel drive. OK, it's not nuclear-powered or anything, but it's adequate for a breeder limousine. The Flex has fair to good acceleration, steady and predictable handling, civil and servile brakes, and the whole dynamic of the thing is served up with deep-piled serenity and a cottony ambience, thanks to a soundproofing program that includes extensive use of acoustic glass.

In up-level trim, it's got glassy roof panels over each seat position. It's got an honest-to-Häagen-Dazs refrigerator between the vast second-row bucket seats. It's got a voice-recognition multimedia system that will keep you updated on sports scores and schedules, weather, traffic, and will even direct you to the stations in the area selling the best-priced gasoline (that's the Ford- Microsoft Sync system with Sirius Travel Link service -- see our Web video at latimes.com). Good Lord, the Flex does everything but diaper the dog and write your kid's term papers.

And yet, right about now, nobody cares. Such is the wholesale misery of $5-per-gallon gas. Such is the dysphoria that pervades the car market. Ford's June sales, for example, were down 28%. If you're an earnest product-development engineer in Dearborn, you must just want to eat a bullet.

Bear in mind that it takes anywhere from 20 to 36 months for a typical vehicle to get to market. Once the product development trajectory is set, it's virtually impossible to alter it if the target moves.

In the last year, unfortunately, the entire automotive world has been knocked off its axis, making almost every new car seem dumb, clueless and irrelevant. But they aren't, or at least they weren't. When it debuted as a concept car in 2005 (then called the Fairlane), the Flex seemed conspicuously clever. A vivid bit of hyper-design, with postmodern insouciance combined with a kind of raw primitivism -- the squared-off profile is what you'd expect a 4-year-old to draw with a fat crayon -- the Flex brought the station wagon into the sardonic age. Compared to the dire brainlessness of something like the Nissan Armada, the Flex was practically avant-garde.

Oh, but now.

Maybe it's because I too work in a beleaguered industry, but my heart goes out to Ford on this one. The Flex brims with insightful details. For instance, the door bottoms are chamfered, cut into the body in such a way to greatly reduce the step-in distance. The sight lines are tremendous. The interior is so spacious, so utterly airy that about the only people who won't like it are agoraphobics. And it actually does get pretty good mileage, considering that it's a virtual auditorium on wheels. If you don't think so, go out and shop for a more space-capable vehicle that gets better gas mileage. There just aren't many choices.

Here's my prognosis for the Flex. It's too good a vehicle to be ignored entirely. It will scavenge minivan sales away from league leaders like the Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna (the redesigned Chrysler Town & Country never really achieved escape velocity). It will garner the attention of buyers with big families, and only those with big families. In the space of six months, the Flex has gone from mass-market vehicle to niche product, though I predict huge sales in Utah.

I further predict the Flex will be a hit in service fleets, converted into limousines, taxis and hotel courtesy vehicles. The thing has more legroom than an old Checker cab.

And I predict the Flex, as good as it is, as on-point as it is, won't help Ford uncircle the drain. Things are tough all over.

dan.neil@latimes.com

2009 Ford Flex Base price: $28,995Price, as tested: $45,000 (est.)Powertrain: 3.5-liter DOHC V6 with variable-valve timing; six-speed automatic transmission; front-wheel drive (optional all-wheel drive)Horsepower: 262 at 6,250 rpmTorque: 248 pound-feet at 4,500 rpmCurb weight: 4,498 pounds (FWD), 4,661 (AWD)0-60 mph: 9 secondsWheelbase: 117.9 inchesOverall length: 201.8 inchesTowing capacity: 4,500 poundsEPA fuel economy: 17 mpg city, 24 mpg highway (regular)Final thoughts: Ford's UnHappy Meal

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