Photos and specs for the 2013 Ford Flex have now been released ahead of the vehicle’s L.A. Auto Show debut, and it seems the Blue Oval is making a serious effort to reboot one of the slower sellers in its lineup. The changes aren’t coming a moment too soon, either, since sales of the big three-row crossover have been pretty small this year. Sales were down 6.2 percent in October, and that represents a notable improvement compared to the Flex’s YTD sales—deliveries are down nearly 22 percent on the year, and the Flex will likely finish up with about 27,000 units out the door for 2011.
Needless to say, that puts the Flex well behind its competition: GM’s trio of three-row crossovers—the Chevy Traverse, GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave—finished October having managed a combined 206,621 sales for the year to date, representing a 10.8 percent increase that’s a few ticks ahead of the industry’s performance. The all-new Dodge Durango isn’t quite seeing that kind of volume, but riding on a wave of demand for all things Chrysler Group, the three-row “SUV with a soul” moved 3,864 units in October, pushing up its running tally to just shy of 43,000 sales so far this year.
And then there’s the Ford Explorer. The automaker’s other choice in the three-row crossover segment. Thanks to its recent reinvention, the Explorer has moved right to the top of the class, racking up another 11,987 sales in October to break the 100,000-unit mark for the year. Its year-to-date total of 108,944 sales tops its next closest competitor, the Traverse, by about 18,000 units.
In fact, the only real problem with the Explorer is that it doesn’t leave much reason for Ford customers to choose the Flex. (Well, MyFord Touch and SYNC are problems as well, but they’re not unique to the Explorer.)
Flex v. Explorer: The Tale of the Tape
Running down the two vehicles’ spec sheets provides some interesting comparisons. The Flex seems like a significantly bigger vehicle by the eyeball test, but that’s certainly not the case looking at the numbers. The Flex is only about 4.5 inches longer on the outside, and the interior dimensions are, generally speaking, even closer. The Flex has a strong advantage in second-row leg-room, offering 4.5 inches more than the Explorer, but looking at head-, shoulder-, hip- and leg-room across all three rows shows the former “winning” just five more categories, but none by more than an inch (and some a few by just a tenth or two). The Explorer is bigger than the Flex in terms of first- and second-row hip-room as well as first- and second-row shoulder room, and offers the same marks in second-row headroom and third-row shoulder room.
And significantly, the Explorer’s second-row advantages are by 1.7 inches (hip-room) and 2.9 inches (shoulder-room). For a family shopping in this segment, which would likely be putting kids in the middle row, I’m betting those extra side-to-side inches are going to be more welcome than the Flex’s bonus leg-room.
All told, the Flex delivers 3.9 extra feet of passenger volume—topping the Explorer by 2.6 percent—and 2.5 more feet of cargo room behind the front row; on the other hand, the Explorer offers a little more cargo space behind the second and third rows.
Also important: The Explorer has a non-negligible advantage over the Flex in fuel economy, which is a direct result of Ford’s divergent powertrain strategy for the two. The Flex adds twin independent variable camshaft timing to its base 3.5-liter V6 for the new model year, catching up with the tech on the Explorer, as well as its EPA line of 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway/20 mpg combined. But while both vehicles offer EcoBoost powerplants as options, the Flex leverages the “boost” part of the equation with a V6 that returns 355 hp and 350 lb.-ft. of torque—and an EPA line of 16/23/18—the Explorer works the “eco” angle with an I4 that rings up EPA marks of 20/28/23—albeit while producing 240 hp/270 lb.-ft. of torque.
The Explorer also has a tow-rating advantage of 500 lbs. on the Flex, with the former able to pull 5,000 lbs. and the latter 4,500 lbs.
The Style Factor
Of course, the core advantage for the Explorer is the fact that it’s the Explorer—The flagship of Ford’s SUV/crossover lineup and an industry icon. That being the case, Ford simply can’t allow the Flex to offer many mainstream-style benefits lacking in the Explorer. Increased power is okay, since the kind of on-the-road performance offered in the Flex, with paddle-shifters and whatnot, isn’t a main selling point to the crossover hoi polloi—especially when the Explorer retains a capability advantage (see that max tow rating). But when it comes to that other critical Ford differentiator, tech content, I can’t see the Blue Oval offering any other significant extra content on the Flex that it won’t offer on the Explorer.
However, that does leave plenty of room for differences in design. The Explorer breaks no new ground in terms of exterior style and could easily be mistaken for some kind of Acadia variant from certain angles. That’s hardly the case with the Flex, though. Its angular, boxy design originally gave it the appearance of having descended from the likes of the Jeep Wagoneer—creating quite a mismatch between the Flex’s looks and its capabilities.
But Ford’s designers certainly earned their pay—and then some—with the 2013 refresh. Due to some subtle adjustments, most notably to the vehicle’s front fascia and grille, those same sharp angles now seem to give the Flex a futuristic, “technical” appearance that is surprisingly fresh and modern.
Ford’s Cost Flex-ibility
Because the Flex is built on the same platform as the Explorer—and therefore lets Ford defray some of its development costs—it doesn’t have to work quite as hard to justify its existence as it otherwise would to provide a positive return on investment. It’s even possible that this year’s low sales numbers would be enough for the Flex to earn its keep. And with this new refresh, I’m sure the 2013 model will.
You may also be interested in...
Four Wheeler: Jeep Wrangler, Ram Power Wagon Are 2012’s Best
2012 Dodge Durango: Video Road test and Review
Toyota Highlander Used SUV Buyer’s Guide
2012 Jeep Wrangler Road Test and Review
2011 LA Auto Show: The 2013 Infiniti JX35 7-Passenger Luxury SUV is Priced and Engineered to Win
Hyundai Santa Fe Used SUV Buyer's Guide