2011 Ford Flex Review

Front 3/4 view of two-tone 2011 Ford Flex

Nearly three years since TireKicker's first review of a Ford Flex, I'm left with many of the same emotions and questions. Actually, only one question: Why am I not seeing a lot more of them on the road?

First of all, I like the Flex...a lot. Enough to buy one with my own money, were I in the market. And this is one of the few 125 or so vehicles that pass through my hands in the course of a year where wife and kids agree. The Flex is a great big happy-maker. Room, comfort, utility and (especially when equipped with EcoBoost as the one provided to us for a week by Bell Ford in Phoenix was) power.

I also see the same things when I look at it that I did in the summer of '08...a bit of Range Rover here, a hint of Country Squire there. I also see a much more sensible approach to a car I owned and loved nearly 20 years ago.

We're a road-trip family. And when the kids were little, that meant a week or two on the road with strollers, Pak-N-Plays, and assorted other little people supplies. Back at home, it meant kids and their friends wanting to ride together to the movies, Build-A-Bear and other fun places. At the time, there was one sensible choice...so we bought a brand-new 1993 GMC Suburban. I called it the "Swiss Army Knife of cars". Keep the seats upright, and haul 8 people. Fold 'em down (well, actually, the third row had to be removed, was heavy and where do you stash the backseat of an SUV when you're not using it?), haul the big tables and chairs for the backyard birthday parties yourself and save yourself the anxiety of wondering whether the delivery guys would get there on time.

But the  'Burban had big drawbacks, too. It wouldn't fit in a standard-sized garage. It had the handling characteristics of an aircraft carrier. It weighed darn near three tons and it got 12 miles per gallon in the city and 16 on the highway. And every part except the door locks (there may be a bit of artistic license in that, but not much) needed to be replaced within the first five years.

If only there'd been a Ford Flex. Let's start with utility, shall we?

View from tailgate through interior with seats folded of 2011 Ford Flex

That, my friends, is the view from the tailgate of a Flex with the rear seats, the middle seats and the front passenger seat folded down. Game 7 (if needed) of the NBA Finals could be played in here. Meantime, here's your view:

Instrument panel, display screen and navigation system in 2011 Ford Flex

Yes, that is the Limited model we drove, but there's actually a level above that, Titanium. And even without the wood and MyFord Touch system, you still get that clean design in the SE and SEL models.

Pop for the Limited, though, and you get SYNC, dual-zone automatic temperature control, leather-trimmed first and second row seats, a premium Sony audio system and a whole host of other goodies for $37, 865.  Choose all-wheel drive and it's $39,715 and go full-boat like ours, with EcoBoost and all-wheel drive and the base price is $44,000.  A base Yukon XL (what GMC calls their Suburban these days) is $42,415. Load one up so it's competitive with the Flex Limited and you'll be deep into $50,000 plus territory.

And let's talk about EcoBoost for a moment. 355 horsepower from a 3.5 liter V6. Without EcoBoost, it's 262 horsepower. That's right...a 97 hp improvement. That's boost, so where's the "Eco"? Well, an AWD Flex with the standard 262-horsepower V6 gets an EPA estimated 16 city/22 highway.  Check the EcoBoost option box, get that extra 97 horsepower and it's 16 city/21 highway.

That's right...the same city MPG. You're trading one mile per gallon on the highway for 97 additional horsepower. Useful in a vehicle that can hold this many people and that much stuff, especially when passing.

Side view of two-tone 2011 Ford Flex

This is definitely my new Swiss Army Knife. And if the price point of the Limited version is beyond the budget, the SE starts at $29,220 and the SEL at $31,850. You can't get EcoBoost with either of those, but you'll still have a brilliantly capable machine with the utility of a big SUV and none of its drawbacks.


2011 BMW 528i Review

Side view of white 2011 BMW 528i

A white four-door sedan...the entry-level model of its series.

Doesn't sound exciting...but it all depends on what that sedan is. If you haven't recognized the photo yet, I'll let you in on the secret. It's the BMW 528i.

And it just may be the most perfect car on the road.

I've always enjoyed BMWs, but I've had three outright revelations while holding a steering wheel with a blue-and-white roundel in the center:

The first, at the tender age of 17, entrusted on a winding road in the Eastern High Sierra of California with a friend's older brother's 2002tii. 38 years later, that still stands as one of the best cars I've ever driven.

The second, in the early 80s, stepping into a 635csi coupe with a price tag of $40,000 (astronomical at the time) and thinking "no car is worth this", only to be convinced after 5 minutes in the foothills west of Reno that it was not only worth it, but that it was, in itself, a reason to go make that kind of money.

And the third, most recently,  a week in the Z4 sDrive35i, which has raised the bar for sporting two-seaters to a level I wouldn't have imagined.

And now, the fourth revelation. The new 5-Series.

Front view of white 2011 BMW 528i
It is, quite simply, the best sedan you can buy, regardless of price. However much more money you spend on something else, you'll be buying power or features, not excellence and value. Cars simply don't come more solidly built, more thoughtfully designed, more perfectly balanced than the 528 i.

The one we drove for a week, courtesy Chapman BMW in Chandler, Arizona , came box-stock...zero options. But on the 528i, standard includes a list of features that are extra-cost with most other cars, that is if you can find an 8-speed automatic transmission in another car. Electronic limited slip differential? Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS? Dynamic Brake Control? Dynamic Stability Control? Dynamic Traction Control? 17-inch alloy wheels with run-flat tires? Rain-sensing wipers? Fog lights? Power-adjustable, heated and folding outside mirrors?  All standard.

Interior shot of 2011 BMW 528i

Not done. 10-way power adjustable driver's and front passenger's seat with four-way lumbar support and memory for the driver's seat, steering wheel and outside mirrors? Leatherette upholstery and dark wood (yes, real wood) trim? An AM/FM/CD/mp3 12-speaker (including 2 subwoofers) audio system with 205 watts of power, including HD radio (makes AM sound like FM and FM like CDs), prepped for satellite radio installation if you choose? Vehicle and key memory? Power moonroof?  Automatic climate control? Power tilt and telescoping steering wheel? Leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio and cruise control functions? Bluetooth? iDrive? Tire pressure monitor? All part of the package.

Rear view of 2011 BMW 528i

And now the best part...you get to drive it, too. BMW has forever made the sweetest six-cylinder engines in the world, and the 3.0 liter DOHC inline 6 under the hood of the 528i is no exception. Velvety smooth and pulls like a freight train. Its 240 horsepower is more than adequate for brisk acceleration (as in 6.6 seconds zero to 60).  That's 10 horsepower more than last year's model, and it packs and extra 30 pounds per foot of torque, too (see "pulls like a freight train", above).

Handling is direct and intuitive. Within minutes on the road, the car becomes a direct extension of your hands and your brain. There's immediate, controlled response. Chapman BMW asked me to keep the miles on this one below 200, so I didn't have a chance to take a nice drive on a winding road like Northern Arizona's Oak Creek Canyon (linking the town of Sedona with I-17), but I have no doubt the 528i would have aced it and had me even more impressed.

Icing on the cake: Pairing the 3.0 liter 6 with an 8-speed automatic transmission pays off big in the EPA mileage ratings: 22 city/32 highway.

Yes, 22 city/32 highway. And it's a bigger deal than you think. It means the 528i gets better gas mileage than many small economy cars. Really. Here are a couple of examples from upcoming TireKicker reviews:

Scion xB: 22 city/28 highway.

Kia Sportage: 22 city/31 highway.

So what's it cost?

Base price: $45,050. For the one we drove, add delivery charges, tax and license and you're done. No $45,000 isn't dirt cheap. But go back and look at that list of standard features. Add those to your typical $30,000 sedan and you're at or past $45K in a heartbeat. And is that car as well-built, quick, superbly balanced and does it get 22 in the city and 32 on the highway?

This one's a winner. And it proves BMW is about more than status. There's major-league substance here. Every other automaker should be taking notes.