SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- The curb along palm-studded Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica is lined with an unusual collection of long and squatty square-corner wagons dressed in two-tone colors for body and roof.
Each of the identical vehicles seems like a retro-style shoebox on wheels with a fat-lipped prow scored by flat bars of chrome, slabs of sheetmetal draping the flanks, that long and flat roof floating over a narrow band of windows, and a blunt butt housing a top-hinged tailgate.
All of those square lines and vertical slabs when cast on a long two-box body at first glance bring to mind those mid-century forerunners of the minivan -- the big and long five-door station wagon that hauled a generation of Boomers like Beaver Cleaver and his big brother Wally.
But aim a closer eye on these vehicles, each quite fluid in form despite overall squareness due to curves on all corners, and you'll discover a design that's clean and fresh and scores major marks for style and substance.
When parked tip-to-tail at the curb, however, this collection of charcoal-and-white wagons striped in chrome incites a neck-craning traffic jam among California commuters along Ocean Avenue.
What's going on with multiple iterations of a slab-sided wagon lining the streets of Santa Monica?
It's the onset of driving tests for automotive media to inspect the latest vehicle to wear the blue oval badge of Ford Motor Company.
Essentially, the Flex amounts to a rather long mid-size crossover utility vehicle (CUV) which rides on the stretched platform of a sport-tuned sedan.
The CUV has a monocoque structure which unites chassis and body into one cohesive unit that remains extremely rigid when steered along a curve-lined course.
A torquey V6 engine mounts up front and directs all power to the front wheels which also steer -- or to all of the wheels through an optional electronically controlled all-wheel-drive (AWD) system.
As a result, Flex the squared-off CUV seems as precisely mannered and easy to drive as a tautly-tuned touring car.
But it looks so retro-chic in that boxy package that the Flex instantly becomes one way-cool set of wheels.
Flex has an impressively long wheelbase of 117.9 inches. The package stretches for 201.8 inches when measured from nose to tail, and it's quite wide at 75.9 inches with the roof rising 68 inches high from the pavement.
The body format consists of a brief prow and extra long flat-topped cabin with a high beltline and big wheels and tires as emphasized by flared wheel arches.
Doors run deep to make cabin entry and exit easy and seats are elevated so all riders sit erect and in a high-hiked position for comfort and keen visibility.
In the cabin there's ample space for three rows of seats to haul as many as seven passengers. And chairs inside will flip and fold to make room for lots of cargo.
The layout shows a pair of bucket seats up front divided by a multi-function console and followed by two captain's chairs, then a back bench for two more riders.
Second-row seats fold on the seatbacks and tumble forward via a one-tap mechanism (or optional power controls) to make access easy to the third bench.
The third-row seats, split into separate sections, fold and form a flat floor for the cargo bay, which has 43 cubic feet of room with rear seats down or 83 cubic feet with second-row and third-row seats folded.
Flex becomes the first CUV to put a compressor-driven refrigerator aboard.
The optional chill box, which mounts between second-row captain's chairs, holds seven 12-ounce cans, four half-liter bottles or two 20-ounce bottles.
You can program the cabin lights in Flex to reflect your mood. There are seven different colors available on LED (light-emitting diode) lamps in the front console, footwells and front cupholders.
And you can bring even more light into Flex's cabin by selecting the optional multi-panel Vista Roof.
It consists of four glass panels on the long roof to draw lots of natural light to all three rows of seats. The front panel opens like a conventional moonroof.
Issues of personal safety in Flex are addressed with strong structural elements and energy-absorbing crush zones front and rear plus a variety of active and passive safety systems aboard.
All trim versions contain dual-stage frontal air bags for front riders with smart sensors in place to track the severity of a frontal crash along with the driver's seat position in proximity to the steering wheel and whether seat belts are being used.
Curtain-style air bags mount in headliners above side windows for outboard seats on all rows.
Equipment promoting active safety includes rack and pinion steering and four-wheel disc brakes tied to an anti-lock brake system (ABS) and traction control system (TCS).
The AWD device is a sophisticated electronically controlled system developed by Haldex, a Swedish pioneer in AWD mechanisms. It's always engaged and operates in FWD mode unless on-board wheel sensors detect slippage of the front wheels. The smart device then can quickly divert all the engine's power to turn the rear wheels and keep tires sticking on pavement, wet or dry.
For power, Flex scores Ford's fuel-efficient Duratec 35, a dual-cam 3.5-liter V6 linking to a six-speed electronic automatic transaxle.
The V6 delivers 262 hp at 6250 rpm with torque rising to 248 lb-ft at 4500 rpm.
EPA estimates for the engine tally to 17 mpg city and 24 mpg highway for Flex FWD and 16/22 mpg city/highway for the AWD version.
Flex trims to a well-equipped SE edition, the upgraded SEL and top-model Limited.
The option sheet lists Sirius Travel Link and a voice-activated navigation system, a 700-watt Sony audio system, and Ford Sync for voice-activated control over phones, media players and USB storage devices.
Ford stretches the MSRP range for Flex from $28,295 for the SE FWD base trim to $36,555 for the AWD Limited.