Detroit Automakers Still Don't Get It

or, My Fabulous Ford Flex P.O.S. Experience

On 13 January 2017, I was stopped at a red light on Rochdale Avenue in Regina, Saskatchewan, when I was rear-ended by a red Pontiac Vibe driven by local Regina bimbo Victoria Oppenlander. She was so clueless that when I put on my 4-way flashers and got out to inspect the damage and exchange information, she got out, looked at the two vehicles still touching each other, and asked querulously, "Did I hit you?" I swear this is the absolute truth.

(Victoria went on to cement her image as an idiot by (a) not reporting the collision to the provincial auto insurer as required by law, (b) failing to respond to the subsequent demand letter from that insurer, and (c) turning out to have been driving on expired plates/insurance. This made my paperwork more of a pain, and delayed me getting approval to repair my vehicle for 30 days, so thanks for that, Victoria Oppenlander. I'm sure you brighten someone's day, but it sure as hell isn't mine.)

It wasn't a major collision - the damage ended up being almost exactly $1000, which in autobody-work terms barely counts as more than a scratch - but it was noticeable, and not my fault, so I had it repaired. Because the collision was 100% Victoria Oppenlander's fault, my insurance paid for a rental car for the days my vehicle was in the shop.

The rental agency gave me a near-new Ford Flex, with less than 10,000km on the odometer.

And what a piece of shit the Ford Flex is!

An interlude: my experience with American cars

Before anyone dismisses my complaints as simply elitism and refusal to consider an American-made vehicle, let me state that while my current vehicle is a Kia Rondo, the one I had previous to that was a Saturn SL2, one of the original Saturns, which I bought used with 140,000km on it. I drove that car for something like 14 years, and put just about 200,000km additional on it - it had almost 336,000km when I sold the car, still running, with everything working except the driver's side electric seat belt motor, which had failed through normal use and was uneconomical to replace.

I loved that car. I drove it all over North America, including at least 4 road trips of 6,000km or more, and many shorter ones. I was an enthusiastic supporter of Saturn, its designs, and its principles. If you're not familiar with the backstory, Saturn was founded by GM as an independently-run division, to try to compete with the quality and usability of the Asian automakers, and to escape the bureaucracy and brutally slow management of the rest of GM. GM eventually folded it into GM as just another regular division because it never made money, but it had succeeded at making fun, desirable cars, in an era when GM had nothing of the kind. The rest of GM's output from this period is usually referred to as GM (and more broadly, Detroit)'s malaise era.

Before that, I had an ancient and well-used Mazda GLC hatchback. Before that, I learned to drive in a Buick and a Chevrolet. I also drove a lot of friends' cars, some extensively, like a Pontiac Grand Am. So I've had significant experience with American cars, and also with their Asian competition.

Back to the Ford Flex

This car/crossover is awful. My current vehicle, the Kia Rondo, is also a crossover, but even at 8 years old, it is a far nicer vehicle to drive, operate, and own.

First off, the Flex feels extremely heavy. I can't find the actual curb weight in Ford's online specs, so they appear to be hiding it deliberately, but this vehicle accelerates and handles very poorly - ungainly even. The base model engine produces 287 horsepower, and it still accelerates anemically. Frankly, from behind the wheel, it feels heavier than a ¾ ton pickup truck. Update: Edmunds lists different versions of it in the 4500-4700 pound range (2¼ tons!), which is actually 100-200 pounds heavier than the 1700-pound-cargo-rated F-150, so it's not my imagination - it is actually heavier than a ¾ ton pickup. It gets brutally bad gas mileage as a result, too.

The ride is atrocious. You feel every little bump and surface feature of the road. I've felt cars that rode this hard before, but mostly in sports cars, and particularly those with "performance" or track-focused suspension packages. I don't think I've ever ridden in a general-purpose vehicle with a ride as harsh as the Flex.

The hoodline is so high that you could drive over a child or a person in a wheelchair and never even see your victim(s).

The power steering is, I believe, electric rather than hydraulic-assist, like many modern cars. However, the steering is terrible. At a stop or when performing parking maneuvers, there is almost zero resistance to turning the wheel. It feels like the awful over-assisted power steering from a 1980s Chrysler "luxury" sedan. And yet, when you get up to moderate city speeds, the power assist drops so low that it feels like you don't have power steering at all. When driving at city speeds, it felt like real work to navigate around vehicles and other obstacles - worse than my Mazda, which didn't have power steering at all. Feedback through the wheel remains abysmal, practically non-existent, at any speed.

But by far, the Flex's worst sins are those of usability. Asian automakers have long had a reputation for thoughtful control layout, with very good ergonomics. Controls exactly where they should be, all immediately to hand, easy to operate, clearly and obviously labelled. My Kia is like this. My Saturn was like this. My ancient Mazda was like this. My wife's modern Mazda is like this. The Ford Flex is nothing like this.

To me, it shows that Detroit automakers still don't have a strong customer focus, and don't pay nearly enough attention to ergonomics and usability testing. It is no wonder that in the last economic downturn, 2 of Detroit's "big three" went through bankruptcy.

The Ford Flex doesn't have many physical controls on the dash. Far too many functions are locked up behind menus in the infernal touchscreen system that modern cars have been sprouting like tumours. Even something as simple as turning on the seat heaters - fairly important, in a cold climate like mine - requires diving into the menus. But even after you do that, the Flex shows how its designers failed to consider usability - the seat heaters reset to off every time the vehicle is stopped/started, so if you're running errands, you're going to diving into that menu many, many times that day.

My Rondo has simple push-buttons for the seat heaters. They stay pushed if you leave them pushed when you turn the car off, so the heaters come back on automatically the next time you start the car. When it's -35C out, this is a huge convenience.

That touchscreen, by the way, barely responds to touch input at all. It feels like a cheap, nasty resistive touch overlay from an ancient appliance with cheap electronics. With less than 10,000km on it, this Flex's touchscreen seemed to me to be ready to give out completely at any time. I can only imagine how quickly it truly will break down, necessitating a very expensive replacement.

The gauge cluster is mainly an electronic display. Only the speedometer is an actual physical gauge. This makes things harder to read, and means they have an inferior design, as they were probably designed by a software committee rather than the designers of well-thought-out dashboards of the past. The steering wheel has two four-way-plus-OK controllers, plus a host of other switches for the cruise control system and various other things, none of them very useful.

You need to operate those four-way controllers to get into any of the extra data that would normally be displayed in a gauge cluster. Want to see the tachometer and the trip-meter? Can't be done. You need to flip back and forth with one of the four-way controllers. Do that at speed and you're likely to drive into the back of someone - it's easily as distracting as trying to operate a cell phone.

Physical controls? Check. Well, wait a minute …

The few physical controls it has are poorly labelled, awkwardly placed, difficult to operate, and most of them have a bonus feature I'll get to later.

There's a rocker switch on the bottom-side of the steering column to move the control pedals forward and back. It's impossible to see when seated behind the wheel, difficult to reach without contorting your hand, has no visible labelling that I could see, and is difficult to operate.

There's another rocker switch on the driver's door, forward of the map pocket. Its located at an angle so again, it's impossible to see when seated, has icons which are difficult to decipher - I'm guessing from its operation that it moves the seat rearwards in one direction, and restores a memorized seat position in the other, but that is only a guess, and you shouldn't have to guess at what your car's controls do. It's difficult to reach, and similarly difficult to operate.

The steering column raise/lower lock is on the bottom of the column, just behind the wheel itself, so it's difficult to reach and damned near impossible to operate while seated.

The dashboard controls are an ergonomic disaster. Entire textbooks should be written about this console, and automotive designers should be forced to memorize it as an example of What Not To Do.

As I said, there are few physical controls. There's a button to activate the four-way flashers. There's a physical start/stop button for the engine, though this is also hidden by the steering wheel and difficult to locate, particularly in the dark.

The radio has a physical volume knob, and seek buttons on one side - I don't remember what was on the passenger's side of the radio. The climate control system has a physical fan-speed knob, with temperature up/down buttons for the driver and passenger, plus an "Auto" button to put the system back into single-control mode. There's a rear-defrost button. Every other feature of the radio and climate control system requires diving into the menus.

The kicker - the bonus feature I referred to earlier - is that all these buttons appear to be capacitive-touch sensors. For the non-electronics-hobbyists out there, this means none of the buttons work if you have gloves on.

So in the winter through much of Canada and northern Europe, when the car is -30C from sitting outdoors for an hour, you get in and you cannot adjust the heat/climate settings without taking your gloves off and getting even colder hands. The touchscreen, even though it's apparently a resistive overlay and should work with gloves, was miserably unresponsive for me. It barely worked with bare fingers, and almost not at all with gloves. So again, freeze your fingers to go through the menus to turn the seat heaters on, or to activate the rear defrost so you can see to back out of that parking spot.

Detroit has not learned its lesson about design

It is clear from driving this Ford Flex for three days that no one from a cold climate was involved in any of the design or approval sessions for the climate controls. It clearly received no usability testing in cold climates, real or simulated. No one involved (at least none with decision-making authority) saw the obvious, foreseeable problems involved in making all of the dashboard controls capacitive touch switches. I immediately saw the consequences of this design from the first moment I touched a temperature button and realized it had no physical travel, and must be a capacitive touch switch.

This car screams committee-designed and -approved. That is NOT a good thing. GM's malaise-era awfulness is widely accepted as being the result of too many layers of middle management unwilling to take a risk in making a decision, and delegating all decisions to committees so no individual manager could be blamed for awful decisions.

The rear gate appears to have a power-closing feature for the last bit of travel, but it makes it almost impossible to tell if you've actually closed the gate properly or not. You have to wait and watch to see if the motor will pull it fully closed. Again, this was not fun in a cold climate.

There are many other driver-antagonizing misfeatures in the controls and operation of the Ford Flex, but I'm not going to give an exhaustive list. To sum up, my 8-year-old Kia Rondo, which cost me less than half as much as this Ford Flex is listed at, is an absolute dream to own and operate in comparison to the Ford Flex.

The Flex did have a few minor good points: other than the noise of every bump transmitted through the suspension, it was a relatively quiet interior. The turn signal stalk is positioned fairly well, and operates easily. That's about it. Faint praise, indeed.

The Ford Flex is so awful, I won't drive it

The Flex is an absolute, unmitigated, disastrous piece of shit. I will refuse to accept the Flex from any rental agency in future. I will strongly advise anyone and everyone I meet who is in the market for a new car to avoid the Flex like the plague that it is.

The Flex is not meeting the sales goals that were originally set for it in its conceptual years. Given how awful the design is, and how terribly the implementation has actually given physical form to that design, this is utterly unsurprising. In fact, its sales have been so underwhelming that it is apparently being axed from production in 2020. Good riddance!

Don't buy the Flex. Go test-drive an Asian equivalent - any Asian equivalent, I'm sure you'll be much happier with absolutely any of them - instead. The Asian automakers starting eating Detroit's lunch in the 1980s, and it seems that Detroit - even after the bankruptcy of GM and Chrysler, and even after the disastrous market-share slide of the big three - has not figured out why.

Ford: I thought that perhaps since you were the one of the big three not to go bankrupt, it might mean that you were doing reasonably good design and manufacturing these days. I was wrong. If you want to avoid bankruptcy in the next downturn, I strongly advise you to start taking design and ergonomics seriously.