DEARBORN, MI – Nearly a year and a half into the development of the Flex cross/utility vehicle, Ford Motor Co. engineers temporarily halted the program after driving test mules.

The reason was a soft ride with vague handling, both attributes that Derrick Kuzak, group vice president-global product development, vowed to eliminate from Ford products.

Kuzak, who spent five years in Europe as vice president-product development, is using lessons learned from his stint overseas and applying them to Ford’s North American lineup.

“During my time in Europe, we moved our vehicles from being 'rational’ vehicles to those that were exciting,” Kuzak tells reporters during a recent event here. “Our vehicles (in North America) didn’t have a good point of view; (they) were all over the place. Our view is to (have vehicles) that are responsive, precise and engaging.”

While the early Flex prototypes captured the essence of the concept vehicle, they weren’t “great to drive,” Kuzak concedes.

“When I first drove the Flex, I thought (it) could (be) better in roll control and stability,” he says. “It’s all about confidence, and in a family vehicle, there’s nothing more important.”

To rectify the problem, Kuzak called on the Flex engineering team to further tune the CUV’s suspension.

“What that gets into is shock tuning, springs, final tire tuning and the use of the anti-roll bars vs. the spring rates,” Carl Widmann, Flex vehicle engineer manager, tells Ward’s. “During the review, we made the decision to really move the Flex to have a much tighter feel.”

After the suspension was fine-tuned, the Flex’s driving characteristics were more in line with those of vehicles found in Ford’s European lineup.

Widmann says the adjustments didn’t add cost to the program or affect the development timetable. “It was really about putting the soul into the car. Our programs are all established around having that timeframe to decide exactly what the character of the car is going to be.”

A key enabler to honing the Flex’s driving characteristics was the lengthened D3 architecture on which the CUV is based. The platform, originally developed by Ford’s Volvo Cars subsidiary, underpins a number of vehicles, including the recently launched ’09 Lincoln MKS flagship sedan.

The D3 has “a lot of breadth and capability,” Widmann says. “We build Lincolns off of this (platform), so we have a lot of latitude in ride and for the load capability of the car.”

Ford has set a goal of giving all its vehicles precise steering and roll control, including the Fiesta B-car, which already has launched in Europe and other global markets and will bow in North America in 2010.

The Fiesta is garnering praise for its ride and handling attributes and will maintain those characteristics when it comes to the U.S., Widmann says.

“You’ll get an easy familiarity with (the Fiesta) as you drive it around town,” he says. “You won’t have that disconnected feel. The car will become, as you react to it, something you are comfortable with.”

As Ford’s renewed focus on driving characteristics makes its way through the auto maker’s lineup, the Blue Oval will become “homogenous” on both sides of the Atlantic, Widmann says.

“That will institutionalize the brand, and I think you’ll see that transition quite rapidly as we (launch) new products.”

bpope@wardsauto.com