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Flex Appeal

In a domestic marketplace dominated by vehicles with profiles that look like other vehicles, Ford is offering the Flex. No, it isn't the first vehicle based on Euclidian geometry, but it may be the freshest.

No Guts . . .

Several years ago-way back in the early 1990s-Chrysler (or Bob Lutz, to be more specific, as he was the product guy there at the time) decided that it was going to make its mark in the light truck segment, where it was a lagging third of the Big Three, it couldn't keep producing pickups with a look that can be charitably described as "anonymous." The designers went to work and created the polarizing "Big Rig" look for the Dodge Ram. And Chrysler truck sales actually skyrocketed despite the fact that there were truck buyers who found what Chrysler had done to be too...exotic.

No guts. No glory. (Which goes to the point of the title of a book that Bob Lutz released in 1998, Guts: The Seven Laws of Business That Made Chrysler the World's Hottest Car Company. Chrysler did the LH cars back in that era, too. And Lutz proved himself to be a senior automotive wunderkind.)

Fast forward to today. And travel across town from Auburn Hills to Dearborn. From Chrysler to Ford. Ford once had the enviable position of having remarkably best-selling vehicles like the pre-Five Hundred

Taurus, Mustang, and the Explorer. But now it finds itself with declining numbers. Looking at the company's reported sales for May 2008, while the Taurus sales were up compared to May 2007 sales by a whopping 66.9%, the number of vehicles moved isn't all that great: 6,700. Mustang sales were down 44.9%. And the Explorer had dropped 41.2%. Not to state the obvious, but it is fairly clear that Ford is in need of a vehicle that has some, well, sass.

Enter the Flex. 

 

Cue Huey Lewis

Yes, there is the Scion xB. Particularly the first generation. The Honda Element. Yes there is the Mini Cooper and, more recently, the Clubman. These are all the sorts of vehicles that seemingly any of us could have sketched with, well, a popular two-knobbed toy. Which brings us to the exterior designer of the Flex, Richard Gresens, who jokes that during his development of the design he'd had his Etch-a-Sketch shaken up (http://www.world-of-toys.com/SearchResults.asp?Cat=10) more than once by Peter Horbury, Ford's executive director of Design, North America.

Gresens thinks they have all of the angles right, even in the context of all of the other similarly shaped vehicles, as he describes the Flex as the "purest interpretation of a box on the road."

Yes, it's hip to be. . . .

 

World's Fastest Fridge (Almost)

When someone thinks of something that's essentially large and rectangular, objects like major home appliances come to mind (it is interesting to note that that range of products is known as "white goods," and among the available Flex colors are White Suede and White Platinum). Large, blocky things aren't particularly visually fleet.

When Gresens designed the Flex, he was sensitive to the fact that there is, in his words, a "static base shape." So as one means of providing "a sense of motion," he added what he calls "character groove lines" along the body side panels. There are four lines that run horizontally from just below the door handles to above the sill.

Which brings us to Buffalo, NY, to the Ford Buffalo Stamping Plant, which is responsible for producing 37 parts for the Flex, structural underbody pieces and exterior panels including the roof and hood. And yes, the doors with the "character groove lines." About the doors, Buffalo Stamping plant manager Dave Buzo observes, "The grooves, or character lines, made it critical for every door panel to be dimensionally perfect because the customer's eyes will detect an inconsistency."

Although Ford has had major cutbacks in facilities of late, it is worth noting that in 2006 it made a $214-million investment in the plant, including the installation of a 4,000-ton Schuler stamping press, 120 dies, and 10 sub-assembly lines.

The panels are shipped from Buffalo north to Oakville, Ontario, Canada, where the Flex is built at the Ford Oakville Assembly Complex. There it joins two other crossover vehicles, the Lincoln MKX and the Ford Edge. The Oakville plant had been where the Ford Windstar and the Mercury Monterey minivans, which are no longer in the product portfolio, had been produced. But in 2005, Ford initiated a $1-billion conversion for flexible manufacturing capability. And the addition of the Flex to the other two is representative of what the company had accomplished, in that the Flex is on an entirely different platform than the Edge and MKX. The Flex, explains Gary Boes, chief nameplate engineer for the vehicle, is actually a variant of the underpinning of the Taurus (D-platform), albeit one that has been stretched by five inches.

A word about the development of the Flex. It is the first vehicle that was fully developed using the digital Ford Global Product Development Process, which not only dealt with engineering design, but also simulating the product build. But there is something equally important, which is that the Flex uses, according to Boes, about 50% common parts with other Ford products, D-platform vehicles, in particular. The advantage of this approach can be readily understood by considering the seeming magic of Toyota: by reuse of components, not only has the company been able to save money, but it also enhances quality because by using existing parts, there is a greater assurance that the parts do what they're supposed to. So Ford is taking advantage of this, too. "We are much more focused on commonality," Boes says, acknowledging the importance of both investment and quality.

At this point you may be wondering about the "Fastest Fridge."

The Flex is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 manufactured at the Ford Lima, Ohio, Engine Plant. The aluminum engine (block and head) produces 262 hp @ 6,250 rpm and 248 lb-ft of torque @ 4,500 rpm. Importantly, the engine, which is mated to a six-speed automatic, provides good fuel economy-estimated 16/24 mpg for the front-drive (FWD) version and 16/22 for the all-wheel-drive (AWD) version-for a vehicle that has a curb weight of 4,468 lb FWD or 4,640 lb AWD. All of which is to say that it can move out smartly.

One of the options for the Flex is a storage bin between the two second-row seats. It is a five-quart storage bin. What's signifi-cant about this is that it is a refrigerated storage bin. Not something that blows cool air conditioned air in the container. Rather, there are evaporator coils that wrap around three sides of the bin that make it capable of keeping things at 41°F or 5°C. Yes, it can even keep ice cream cold. Boes suggests that the only other car that he's aware of that has something like it is the Maybach. The Maybach starts at $335,500. It has a V12 engine. Its fridge can probably travel faster. But the Flex has more seating positions (six or seven).

 

Back to the Beginning

So, does Ford have on its hands a vehicle that will help it increase its sales numbers, help it get out of the seemingly shrinking box? Here's one bit of evidence as to why this may be the case: The company is actually adding 500 jobs in Oakville to build the Flex. That's right: Adding.