NEW YORK – Timing is everything, and Ford Motor Co. has a poor track record when it comes to launching a vehicle that is aligned with market conditions.

But the auto maker got it right this time, launching the 7-seat Flex cross/utility vehicle just as consumers are looking for utility but not from thirsty SUVs and pickups.

During a test drive here, the funky-looking Flex turned the heads of normally jaded New Yorkers with its unusual styling that looks to be a cross between a Land Rover and Mini.

Our Flex’s optional 2-tone paint scheme is especially Mini-like. Available in two colors, White Suede or Brilliant Silver, the roof contrasts with the exterior shade. While this is a cool look for the Mini, it takes some getting used to on the much-larger Flex.

Actually, everything about the Flex is polarizing. You either love it or hate it, which is fine with Ford. “(The) Flex is provocative, no doubt about it,” says Jim Farley, group vice president, marketing and communications. “It defies categories.”

Ward’s places the Flex in the large cross/utility vehicle segment, where it competes with the Honda Pilot, Buick Enclave and Mazda CX-9.

While Ford takes risks with the Flex exterior design, the interior styling is well thought out and extremely comfortable. The seats are especially nice, having been crafted in-house to ensure quality and comfort.

The goal was to allow vehicle occupants to feel a minimum of vibration and just the right amount of road input. “We took real-world, road-surface data and programmed it into our engineering model,” says Qin Pan, project leader for seat development.

Ford dubs the new seats “F-Family” and says variations will appear in future vehicles, including the upcoming ’09 F-150 fullsize pickup truck.

Although the seats are “La-Z-Boy” comfortable, they provide little to no lateral support, which is quite noticeable during hard cornering. In Ford’s defense, the Flex is not meant to be driven aggressively.

Unlike most CUVs that boast seating for seven, the Flex actually delivers with a third row that can accommodate a 6-ft. (2-m) tall passenger comfortably.

The interior is chocked full of nifty gadgets, including a refrigerator with a freezer option and a large sunroof up front, plus four skylights – two each over the second and third rows – providing an open, airy feeling.

The Flex boasts one of Ford’s most attractive interiors and is proves the auto maker is paying attention to the details that customers notice, including plenty of cupholders and storage bins.

The auto maker says its new CUV has one of the quietest rides in the sector, besting the Acura MDX, Toyota Highlander and GMC Acadia.

While driving here with the windows up, sounds from the outside world are nearly imperceptible. Ford says it spent months using an “Aachen Head” microphone-quipped mannequin to check for random noises.

’09 Ford Flex
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-drive, 7-passenger cross/utility vehicle
Engine 3.5L DOHC V-6
Power (SAE net) 262 hp @ 6,250 rpm
Torque 248 lb.-ft (336 Nm) @ 4,500 rpm
Compression ratio 10.3:1
Transmission 6-speed auto with overdrive
Wheelbase 117.9 ins. (300 cm)
Overall length 201.8 ins. (513 cm)
Overall width 88.8 ins. (226 cm)
Overall height 68.0 ins. (173 cm)
Curb weight 4,468 lbs./2,027 kg (FWD);
4,640 lbs./2,105 kg (AWD)
Base price $28,995-$37,255
Fuel economy 17/24 mpg (14-10 L/100 km) FWD;
16/22 mpg (15-11 L/100 km) AWD
Competition Acura MDX, Toyota Highlander, GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot, Mazda CX-9
Pros Cons
Decent fuel economy Underpowered
Quiet ride Too heavy
Nicely appointed interior Exterior not for everyone

The suspension setup, gas-charged MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link independent layout in the rear, complements the quiet cabin as it gobbles up bumps in the road and keeps most vibrations from reaching occupants.

While there’s a lot to like about the Flex, it does have its down side, most notably under the hood, where a competent but underpowered 3.5L V-6 resides.

Ford uses the same Duratec V-6 in many of its vehicles, but most are lighter than the Flex, which weighs in at a hefty 4,468 lbs. (2,027 kg) for the front-wheel-drive model and 4,640 lbs. (2,105 kg) for the all-wheel-drive version. Both are mated to a smooth-shifting 6-speed automatic transmission.

On paper, the 262 hp and 248 lb.-ft. (336 Nm) of torque seems adequate, but in the Flex, it’s not enough, especially when climbing steep inclines in Upstate New York.

Our Flex test car carried only four people, yet the vehicle huffed and puffed while ascending mild grades, causing us to question its performance when fully loaded with passengers and gear.

The engine provides a respectable Environmental Protection Agency combined city/highway fuel rating of 16/22 mpg (15-11 L/100 km) with AWD and 17/24 mpg (14-10 L/100 km) with FWD versions. But this comes at a sacrifice of power.

Ford next year will offer the Flex with its new turbocharged, direct-injection EcoBoost engine. Why the more powerful mill wasn’t aligned with the CUV’s launch is an unfortunate result of poor timing.