Although the crossover is a new automotive segment, automakers churned out enough boring designs to make it as homogeneous as the economy car segment. Smartly, Ford spun its own crossover with retro elements to give it a unique look, making it stand out yet retain practicality. The latest iteration of Ford's crossover, the 2010 Ford Flex SEL with EcoBoost, adds a new high-tech power train to the car, giving it power it doesn't necessarily need.
Ford's current cabin tech offerings are the best you can get, with a hard drive-based navigation system nicely integrated with traffic, weather, and gas price information. Unfortunately, our review model didn't come with that option, instead just having a six-CD player and radio interface in the dashboard, but that doesn't mean it didn't have navigation. The latest generation of Ford Sync, standard on the Flex SEL, offers a set of off-board services called Traffic, Directions, and Information. By connecting to cell phone, the system calls the 800 number for a telematics server that can send turn-by-turn directions to the car.
We took the 2010 Ford Flex SEL on a journey through the Pacific Northwest, with stops in Seattle and Portland. Previously having tested Ford's in-dash navigation system in the 2009 Ford Flex Limited, we missed this option in the SEL, as having a map up on a big LCD makes navigation so much easier. Lacking the LCD, the Ford Flex relies on its monochrome radio display to show information from Sync, which includes music, phone, and route guidance information.
Sync navigation sinks
To compensate for the lack of a touch screen, Ford fits the Flex with four-way directional buttons to help navigate menus for the car's electronics. However, as the enter button is integrated with the tuning dial on the right, we found it easier to use the dial to scroll through phone book entries or an iPod music library. To make browsing music easier, Sync breaks up artist, album, and song listings into four chunks, letting the user drill down, for example, into a section with artists ranging from HAP to SEP, in alphabetical order. As our MP3 player contained 60 gigabytes of music, this organizational theme proved very useful.
And as a feature of Sync, we could also just ask the system to play artists by name, a function of its voice command so far not replicated by any other automaker. Although we've used Sync's voice command in other cars over the last couple of years, it is still phenomenal how well it recognizes even the most difficult artist names. Similarly, Sync let us dial people in our paired phone's contact list just by saying their names. The Kia Soul now incorporates similar technology.
Although we used the MP3 player and cell phone aspects of Sync previously, the 2010 Ford Flex SEL presented our first opportunity to use the new Traffic, Directions, and Information service. We used only the system's navigation feature, and found it frustrating--just a trifle worse than GM's OnStar. Connecting through our paired phone to a voice recognition server, the off-board system had no problem understanding which city we named, but stumbled repeatedly on road names.
In our first attempt to use it for navigation, after a few tries we got it to find Dash Park Road, south of Seattle. It downloaded the route to the car, and the next turn showed up on the radio display, using a GPS chip in the car to determine the distance to that turn. As we followed the guidance, it took us on a completely unnecessary series of right turns that could have been avoided with one easy left turn. Further along, we intentionally went off the route to see what would happen. Similar to the way OnStar works, which we most recently tested in the Chevrolet Camaro, a voice notification told us we were no longer on the programmed route, and offered to download a new set of directions based on our current location.
Our second attempt to use the system proved more frustrating, mainly from trying to enter our destination. This time, the street we wanted was South 176th Street, but we could not get the voice recognition system to understand that street name, and eventually had to give it the nearest cross street. The Seattle area may be a problematic area for Sync's navigation system, as streets and avenues go up to very high numbers, and are often prefaced with North or South.
One last note on the car's cabin tech: Ford's recent partnership with Sony for premium audio systems makes for a relatively inexpensive option that adds considerable value. With 12 speakers, including subwoofer and center channel, it does a good job of covering the capacious space inside the car. The amp is powerful enough to put the sound through the speakers without overwhelming. Most importantly, the system neatly stages the sound for all seating positions. We like the quality of this sound better than that produced by other premium systems in much more expensive cars.