The Ford Flex fullsize cross/utility vehicle faced fierce rivals in the 2009 Interior of the Year competition.

But Ward's editors agree the Flex stands out in the Premium Truck category, which includes heavy-hitters such as the BMW X6 and Mercedes GLK350.

Judges rave about the Flex's well-conceived interior, especially the ample space in the third row. While many auto makers tout 7-passenger seating in their CUVs and SUVs, most third rows are practically unusable, except for a small child. That's not the case with the Flex.

“Best third-row seat ever,” says one Ward's editor. “OK for two average adults, and the power second-row seats seal the deal by improving access.”

Others are impressed by the aesthetics of the Flex's well-crafted cabin, which represents a giant step forward for Ford.

“This interior will age gracefully,” Associate Editor James Amend writes on his Flex score sheet. “It has a level of luxury that recalls a loaded SUV, but without the guilt.”

The spaciousness is enhanced by a massive multi-panel vista roof that bathes the cabin in natural light. The Flex also boasts some nifty gadgets, including a small refrigerator in the middle-row console.

The seats are comfortable and attractive, featuring soft leather surfaces perforated in a distinctive plaid pattern. From the wood trim framing the instrument cluster to the chrome accents on the door panels and the brushed-aluminum center stack, the Flex exudes craftsmanship.

Sure, some judges quibbled over inconsistencies in gloss levels, and the whopping $43,875 price tag for a vehicle ostensibly playing in the minivan segment caused pause for a few judges.

But in many ways, the functionality, spaciousness and clever flexibility are worth the money and should put the Flex on shopping lists with more expensive luxury vehicles.