2009 Ford Flex in Pennsylvanian Amish country
2009 Ford Flex in Pennsylvanian Amish country. Click image to enlarge

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Ford Motor Company of Canada

Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

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2009 Ford Flex road trip

Hershey, Pennsylvania – Mention the name “Hershey” to most people, and they immediately think of chocolate. But talk to an old-car fan, and you’ll quickly discover that it’s also the short form for what’s believed to be the world’s largest antique car flea market, held each October in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

It’s been going on since 1955, part of the Antique Automobile Club of America’s giant Fall Meet car show. But back in the beginning, seven members brought some extra car parts, lined up alongside the stadium on the grounds of the candy factory, and offered them for sale. The stadium’s still there, but the flea market has grown around it to some 9,000 vendor spots, along with room for over 1,000 cars for sale, and of course, the Saturday morning car show.

Our chariot was the SEL AWD model
Our chariot was the SEL AWD model. Click image to enlarge

I’ve been going for 15 years now, and this year was no exception. It’s officially a three-day event; some vendors show up earlier in the week, especially since it follows another huge market in nearby Carlisle, but we drive down on Wednesday, spend Thursday through Saturday at the swap meet, and then drive home Sunday.

I’ve taken all sorts of vehicles to the event, but I do have some requirements. I take along my husband, a friend of ours, and all our luggage; we have a modified Radio Flyer wagon that we use for hauling our purchases; and of course we need room for everything we buy. A compact car just isn’t enough. So this time around, I asked Ford if I could use the Flex.

All-new for 2009, and built exclusively in Canada, my Flex was an all-wheel drive SEL model. To its base price of $36,999, Ford had added a Convenience Package of 110-volt outlet, power-adjustable pedals, power liftgate, driver’s memory and security approach lamps for $1,300; rubber floor mats for $100; a block heater for $80; a panoramic roof (which includes three skylights over the second and third rows) for $1,700; a second-row console for $100, with an added refrigerator for $650; Class III trailer tow for $650; Sync, for $500; a white two-tone roof at $500, which seemed rather costly; a Sony audio system at $500; and a rear-seat DVD for $1,200. When added up, our ride came to $44,229 before freight and taxes. Other prices include the SEL in front-wheel only, at $34,999; and the Limited, in FWD at $40,999 and in all-wheel at $42,999. The U.S. market gets an entry-level trim line also, but Ford says that bare-bones models wither away on car lots here in Canada, and so it’s gone with the two higher levels.

I got to know this view quite well
Theres almost 10 feet with all seats folded
Everything packed to come home
The third-row seats
I got to know this view quite well (top); There’s almost 10 feet with all seats folded; Everything packed to come home; The third-row seats. Click image to enlarge

It’s not often I get to take a vehicle on a 2,300-km test drive, but that’s certainly the way to discover what’s good and bad about it. And while I did have a couple of minor quibbles about the Flex, it has enough going for it that I would put it on my rather short “yes, I’d buy it” list. I really like this vehicle, and I think it’s currently underrated among car shoppers.

So we packed our essentials, and at 4 a.m. it was “wagons ho”; the guys insist on the early start to the nine-hour-plus drive, although they generally start dozing off about the third hour. From home base in Oshawa, Ontario, it’s due east to Gananoque, over the border, and then down I-81 through New York and into Pennsylvania, before heading into serious farm country. Although the event is in Hershey, we stay in Lancaster, about 50 km away; not only are hotel rooms more plentiful and less expensive, but the guys are Hot Wheels collectors, and so they want to visit every Wal-Mart, Big K, Toys-R-Us and Target store available, and this gives them even more opportunity. It does, however, mean that whatever vehicle we take has to be able to pack some serious stuff.

The Flex offers the legroom of a minivan but without the “soccer-mom” stigma; its doors are hinged, instead of the sliding variety (and while their large size makes it easy to get in and out, they can be tricky in tight parking lots). The relatively low height makes for less headroom, although I find it’s a good compromise between a sedan and a bigger SUV. There are three rows of seats, but unlike many SUVs, the third row is fairly comfortable for adults on shorter trips. It’s accessed by hitting a button to electrically fold and tumble the second-row chairs. The seats aren’t removable, but the third row dives into the floor and the second row folds in half, so it’s all pretty flat, save for a slight bump at the optional second-row console. The front passenger seat folds flat as well, taking cargo space from a length of 48 cm with all seats up, to 120 cm with the third-row folded, to 210 when the second row seats are down, and to a final 297 cm – just shy of ten feet – when everything is in the down position.

For all its size, though, the Flex is deceiving. First of all, it looks far more compact than it is; I’m always surprised, when I get up close, to see that it really is a big vehicle, a comment that I heard from a number of people. It also doesn’t “drive big”, which I appreciate; I may need the size, but I don’t like to feel that I’m docking the Queen Mary. Its appearance falls into the love-or-hate-it category – a friend derided it as a “Mini on steroids”, while others love its slab-sided looks – but I think it’s pretty cool, and more importantly, I think a polarizing design is vastly better than a bland one. Ford has often fallen into the trap of trying to please everyone with its styling, and I’m glad to see it take a bolder course with a vehicle that isn’t riding the middle of the road.

The editor asked me to use all of the Flex’s features on the trip, and so while I’m not a fan of rear-seat DVD players – I think children get more than enough television outside the car as it is – in went a car-chase movie. And it did keep my husband silent for a couple of hours, which is no mean feat. The headphones and the remote are wireless, so you’ll have to keep tabs on them. He also complained that the disc wouldn’t play unless it was loaded, ejected, and then loaded again; to be fair, I’m not sure if it was a problem with the system (which I doubt), or his stubbornness at not reading the owner’s manual to see if he was operating it correctly (far more likely, I’d say).

The Vista roof (and optional DVD player)
The refrigerator loaded for the trip
The Vista roof (and optional DVD player, top); The refrigerator loaded for the trip. Click image to enlarge

I’m also a fuddy-duddy when it comes to Sync, as I don’t think telephone calls or text messages belong in a car, whether hand-held or hands-free. Sync will indeed synchronize your calls, but since I don’t have a Bluetooth-enabled telephone, I wasn’t able to see for myself. However, it does integrate a music player, and it’s almost uncanny in its ability to immediately find a tune on an iPod once you tell it the voice-activated system the name of the song or the artist you want to hear. I had to use a music player with my tester, since I didn’t have the optional navigation system; you need that if you want to store songs or photos in the system’s memory.

I did like the refrigerator, though, and while it might be too pricey an option for most people to add if they’re just using the vehicle for around-town trips, it was great to have on this longer journey. It’s similar to the plug-in units that you can buy from the aftermarket, but since it’s built in, it doesn’t require extra space or the need to run a cord. It’s not the first refrigerator in a vehicle; a few years ago I drove a BMW 760 that had one between the rear seatbacks, but it only held a couple of wine bottles. But it differs from units like Dodge’s “Chill Zone”, which routes an a/c vent into the cubby to keep already-chilled drinks cool when the air conditioning is on. Ford’s is a true refrigerator, capable of refrigerating to 5C or freezing to -5C when the engine is running (it’ll work on auxiliary power when the vehicle is stopped, but will wear down the battery), and it’s so well insulated that even though we left the vehicle in the sun for seven hours at 25C, our cans of soda were still cold enough to be refreshing when we returned. It will also chill or freeze even if the heater is on. It has its limits, of course; it’s sized to fit seven cans, and far fewer bottles, but will also work fine getting a couple of pints of ice cream home on scorching days.

In any case, our soda was chilling, the stereo was set to Bluesville on Sirius satellite radio, and the guys were alternating between talking about what car parts they needed and dozing off as we made our way down Ontario’s Highway 401. The Flex rides quite well and handles better than its size would suggest, with relatively little body roll and a ride that’s compliant enough for comfort, but never wallowy or marshmallowy.

The last stop in Hershey, Pennsylvania
Spectators and shoppers park on a nearby farm field
The last stop in Hershey, Pennsylvania (top); Spectators and shoppers park on a nearby farm field. Click image to enlarge

If there’s a fuel crisis in America, you’d never know it; not only were we just another full-size vehicle in a sea of SUVs and pickup trucks, but almost all of them were going at a minimum 75 mph (120 km/h), and if you stayed at that speed you were frequently passed like you were standing still. When in Rome, I always say, and away we went at the prevailing speed. (Unlike in Ontario, where everyone migrates to the left-hand side apparently thinking they’re in England, most American drivers on this interstate know the rule about driving right and passing left. It’s refreshingly pleasant to be able to pilot a highway as it’s meant to be done.) The final result, when gallons were converted to litres, was an average 12.3 L/100 km, which I thought was more than acceptable for a vehicle this size, fully loaded, and maintaining speed through the substantial grades of the Appalachian Mountain range through which I-81 travels. The official published figures for the all-wheel drive – a system that runs exclusively in front-wheel until it detects slippage and redistributes torque to the rear – is 13.5 for the city and 9.2 on the highway, so I think we were just about right for the conditions.

Speaking of gasoline, it was the first time I’d used Ford’s new capless “Easy Fuel” system, and I now wonder why it took so long for someone to come up with such a fantastic system. Open the fuel door and you’re looking at a regular filler tube, but with a flapper valve in it. Pushing the nozzle in opens the valve; pump your fuel (anywhere from US$3.69 to $2.99 a gallon on our trip), remove the nozzle, and you’re done. No more grimy caps, fuel-stained hands, broken cap tethers, hard-to-thread caps, or turning until it clicks, and no “check engine” light if you don’t. It doesn’t sound like a big deal until you’ve gassed up six times in seven days and realize just how nice and easy it is.

It was also the first time I’d really appreciated Ford’s “SecuriCode” system, a keypad that lets you get into the vehicle by punching in a code. The company has used it for decades, but I always thought it was pointless on a car with a keyless entry fob. But I programmed in a code anyway, and discovered its usefulness when I was still upstairs in the hotel room with the key, and the guys were downstairs opening the Flex with the code and loading it up. The Flex also uses a new infrared system, first seen on the Lincoln MKS, that uses hidden numbers on the window frame instead of keys, and only “comes to life” once you tap it.

Our first stop is a small rival to the Hershey giant
The Flex has even made it to the toy world
Our first stop is a small rival to the Hershey giant (top); The Flex has even made it to the toy world. Click image to enlarge

We drove straight to our hotel the first day, with a couple of stops; the first was for breakfast, close to the southern end of New York State, while the second was in Lititz, Pennsylvania, at the Wilbur Chocolate Company, which has been making candy for over 100 years. It claims to have invented its “Wilbur’s Buds” long before rival Hershey came up with the “Kiss”, but either way, the chocolate is made right in the old building – you can hear the ancient conveyors clanking upstairs from the first-floor shop – and it’s among the best I’ve eaten. We were glad of the chance to stretch, too, since the Flex’s otherwise comfortable seats got hard after about five hours.

In fact, we didn’t even go to the auto market the first day. Instead, we scoured a few Lancaster stores for Hot Wheels (we did see a toy model of the Flex, complete with big blingy wheels and some pretty awful music), and then leave the vehicle at the hotel and catch a cab to the Lancaster Brewing Company. It’s been a tradition for the last five years to head over to this brewpub and restaurant, and since I’m not driving, I generally order a “tasting platter” of half-glasses of whatever beers are currently being brewed. This year it was nine on tap, which made me grateful that the Flex’s keys were safely on top of my dresser back at the Holiday Inn.

After so many years, we have the routine figured out: up and out at 6 a.m., breakfast at Bob Evans restaurant near the event, and then it’s onto the field. Parking is on a mowed farmer’s field, and all of the events take place across the road on the grounds of Hersheypark, a huge area that includes the original stadium, a sports arena and an amusement park.

The flea market used to be entirely on grass – well, it was grass during dry years. But October’s weather is tenuous at best, and frequently the rain turned the fields into the infamous “Hershey mud”, a heavy gumbo that would trap trucks and motor homes, and one year once pulled me right out of my boots. Gradually, as the arena was built and the fields were paved over for parking, more and more vendors moved onto asphalt, and now only the Saturday show cars are on turf. It does make it easier for walking, but on hot, dry years – as this one was – it can also get plenty warm out on “the field”.

The vendors set up on the fields at Hershey Park
No matter what it is, someone has restored one, like this 1957 Crown school bus
The vendors set up on the fields at Hershey Park (top); No matter what it is, someone has restored one, like this 1957 Crown school bus. Click image to enlarge

The line about Hershey used to be that “if you can’t find it here, it doesn’t exist”, and hobbyists would come from around the world to find rare parts to complete equally rare cars. The Internet has changed that; it certainly makes more sense to search for that elusive part for your Pope-Hartford or Scripps-Booth via some keystrokes, than to search for three days in the hopes that someone has one. But even so, there are a number of older hobbyists who don’t use the Internet; there are many, many parts that are simply unidentifiable save by the person who knows what he’s looking for; and there’s something about the thrill of the chase that’s the real reason behind so many of us meandering up and down the aisles. You want to see impulse buys at work, come to Hershey.

Generally, parts and memorabilia were intelligently priced, but a great many of those selling cars must have figured they’d get through the U.S. economic crisis by paying off their mortgages, children’s college tuition and retirement on a single sale. Other than possibly some crack cocaine in the water, that’s the only explanation I can figure for a 1930 Austin Bantam priced at $37,900, a 1972 BMW 3.0 at $39,900, or a 1968 Riviera at a staggering $42,000 (all prices U.S.). It’s common for the windshield prices to drop by a few hundred dollars on Saturday, the last day of the event, but this year I saw some come down by as much as $5,000, which I’ve never seen in all my years of attending. I guess the vendors finally figured out that buyers weren’t as dumb as they figured.

The Saturday car show is the highlight of the weekend, made even more special by the fact that cars must drive onto the field, as trailers aren’t permitted due to the huge number of vehicles involved. Enthusiasts line the long driveway into the park to watch the parade. I love it because, when it comes to many models, it’s the only chance I’ll ever get to hear them run. This year the rare and unusual included a 1929 Duesenberg, 1957 Crown school bus, two-cylinder 1909 Chase, a 1936 Thorne electric-drive delivery wagon that was a demonstrator model and the only one made, a 1911 Stearns, 1909 Austin seven-passenger touring car, a 1906 Maxwell and a 1922 Auto Red Bug – not really the menu at the local cruise night.

Some assembly required
Stopping for some fruit at a farmer's market in Lititz, Pennsylvania
Some assembly required (top); Stopping for some fruit at a farmer’s market in Lititz, Pennsylvania. Click image to enlarge

This year I made the majority of purchases, adding some items to my sizeable collection of taxicab memorabilia – some license plates, a cap badge, a city director and a few toys. That went along with some specialized tools for my husband, a pair of carburetors for our friend, and various “gotta-have” mementos.

Most of their buys were at the local stores, and so one afternoon I had to make a detour for the local mall. That involved a cloverleaf on the freeway, a rather confusing spot where three highways meet. On this particular day, two cars had also met, and while the fender-bender was off to the side, everyone had to look – including a fellow who stopped right in a driving lane in front of me. That’s when I found that the Flex’s 3.5-litre V6, while just fine for everyday driving, is sluggish when it’s asked to quickly haul the trucklet’s fairly substantial 2,104 kg (4,640 lb) curb weight. Acceleration lag may be momentary, but it’s an eternity when you’re looking at a truck bearing down on your back bumper, and I only managed to squeeze into an empty space in the next lane at the last moment, before said truck went into the stopped rubbernecker. Ford says that the upcoming EcoBoost engine will solve that problem, but until then, be aware of the Flex’s get-up-and-go limitations.

That was the closest we came to any problems, though, and the rest of the trip was smooth sailing: a stop at Hershey’s Chocolate World to get souvenirs for the folks back home, an overnight stay in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (and a whole new round of department and toy stores to check out), and finally, home again on Thanksgiving Sunday, to an invite to the neighbour’s for a turkey dinner. Through it all, the Flex performed admirably, garnered a considerable amount of interest wherever we parked, and proved itself to be a great vehicle to haul people and cargo for long distances. It’s not all that well known to the public right now, and it deserves much better than that; this is a well-done, well-built vehicle that’s a viable option for anyone considering a minivan, an SUV or a crossover, even if you’re not going all the way to Pennsylvania just to do some shopping.

Pricing: 2009 Ford Flex SEL AWD

Base price: $36,999
Options: $7,130 (Convenience Package, $1,300; rubber floor mats, $100; engine block heater, $80; panoramic roof, $1,700; second-row console, $100; class III trailer tow package, $500; rear console refrigerator, $650; Sync, $500; white two-tone roof, $500; DVD entertainment system, $1,200; Sony Audio, $500)

A/C tax: $100

Freight: $1,300
Price as tested: $45,529
Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

  • Specifications: 2009 Ford Flex

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