Friday, September 25, 2009

An Exercise in Flexibility

So in the midst of my training a few months back I did in fact find my way to a new car. And after a year of fretting over the decision, I chose...

...a Ford.

I surprised even myself with this decision, and certainly it's the riskiest choice of the few to which I had narrowed down. My finalists were a couple different trucks and two or three mid-sized SUV-type things; and true to my history I was leaning toward a truck (I've never really needed a truck--apart from a couple years when I was building a house--but I've just always preferred them: I like the room and the ruggedness and the versatility.) But my dad convinced me that a truck was less-well-suited to how I'm using my transport nowadays--namely, cruising on the freeway about 75% of the time between WI and KY. And I couldn't argue with this assessment. So, eliminating the trucks from consideration (the Honda Ridgeline and the Toyota Tacoma) left me a trio of mid-sized wagons / crossovers / SUV-thingies from which to choose: the Honda Pilot, the Toyota Highlander and the Ford Flex.

From just a style and equipment point of view, the Flex came out on the top of my list, and the deep discounts available on American machinery just now made the decision easier. Perhaps I may come to see my process as flawed (certainly I railed against the marginal quality of my last American car, a '97 Buick Riviera), but I felt that when I could not identify a clear winner I should go with an American car. I realize that the Japanese vehicles I was looking at are built here with American workers, but I still think the consequences of our indigenous auto industry going belly-up would be far-reaching and potentially catastrophic. To the extent the industry is badly-managed, they should sink or swim accordingly. But where they are solidly on base it seems they should be rewarded. Anyway, as I say, I may come to wonder at my own decision-making process. But for now, this is what's sitting in my driveway.

We began our tenure together with three rapid-succession round trips to KY, amassing a cool six thousand miles in the first two months. And after about six months now we're up to 11,000 miles on the clock. That's enough to begin to have a picture of what works and what doesn't. So here's the initial report card.

The first issue--I might as well get it off my chest right away--involves fit and finish, one item specifically. The passenger-side doors, and the front one particularly, are not hung very plumb. The panel gaps all around the door are notably inconsistent (if you look for these kind of things), and the character lines are misaligned. The aft top of the window frame is raised a fat eighth of an inch relative to the front of the door behind, not enough to affect how the door functions but enough that a detail person will notice (I did not notice, naturally, until I got home). As my neighbor succinctly put it as soon as he saw it, "You'd NEVER see this on a Japanese car." And he's right.

(From this angle it's quite noticeable. In the wider shots above it's harder to see.)

After a week or so wondering whether I cared enough to do anything about it, I took it to the dealer to see if there were an adjustment. Alas, no; they would have to take the door off and re-hang it, and I still can't decide whether I like that idea or not. Given that the door closes properly and makes no wind noise nor leaks any water makes me disinclined to wake the sleeping dog. And my confidence in a positive outcome was not boosted by my interaction with the dealership's body shop. The guy clearly had trouble grasping the validity of my complaint as an aesthetic concern; he looked it over and asked me whether the door did not work right or did it make noise, etc. etc. He said they'd be willing to attempt to rehang it, but he wouldn't recommend it. There was no guarantee, he said, that they wouldn't make it worse. I had hoped he'd take a quick look and say "well THAT'S bullshit; we'll fix that straight away!" But instead, when I said that I was surprised it would come from the factory this way, he said "Oh you wouldn't believe what comes out of the factory!"

Dude, this is SO not the right answer.

(The top of the window frame probably shows the misalignment most clearly.)

The rear passenger door is also slightly misaligned, though not nearly so much as the front door (if the front door were OK, I think I'd never have noticed the back door).

Anyway (with that off my chest) it's the only substantive thing I can find to complain about so far. The fit and finish for the rest of the car seems first-rate, inside and out. The quality of the interior materials seems very near the Hondas with which I'm familiar--the plastic work is perhaps not quite there, but it's awfully close, and everything seems assembled with some care. The switchgear--window switches, radio and HVAC switches, turn signal / wiper stalk--all seems a goodly step up from the Fords I've looked at in the past. The car has triple doorseals and laminated glass, which make it considerably quieter than anything else I test-drove. With a great 300W surround-sound Sony audio system in this hushed environment, it's a really nice place to pass the long hours.

And the audio system merits a special mention. Fitted with Microsoft's Sync system (a Ford exclusive), the radio features one AM, two FM and three Sirius Satellite memory bands (for a total of 60 station presets), plus USB and Line In inputs, and bluetooth connectivity to boot. The USB and bluetooth connections--the phone specifically--are controllable with voice commands, including the artists / albums / playlists on my iPod and my iPhone's contact list. I don't understand the technology that allows it to "understand" what I'm saying--and it's clearly a voice recognition and synthesis thing, as I have never needed to train it to understand me--but it works pretty damn slick. (When you give a command, it repeats it back to you, giving a sense of how it "wants" to pronounce names. Susan is in my phone book as "Sweet Pea," which the Sync insists on pronouncing "Sweet Puh.") And it's quite seamless: if a phone call comes in while I'm listening to a playlist on my USB-connected iPod (these being separate devices), the iPod fades out and the phone ring fades in along with a display on the Sync screen of the incoming call number (or, if the caller is in my phone book, the caller's name). When the call is done, the iPod fades back in right where it left off. Because the iPod is connected through a USB cable, all the iPod functions are available at the radio's control panel. Most functions, as I say, are available through voice commands, which is actually a useful feature as scrolling through the iPod's menus while driving feels like a bad idea.

The sound itself is pretty awesome, aided by the very quiet interior.

The motor is Ford's tried-and-true 3.5 liter Duratec V-6, good for 262 horses and 248 ft/lbs of torque. It actually feels quite snappy, and seems pretty quiet and buttoned-down most of the time. If you really step on it, the sound is a bit frantic (in a distant, muffled way), but it moves a pretty heavy vehicle with greater urgency than I expected.

I've obviously not driven in snow yet, but I expect the AWD system to function effectively (Susan's Honda Element always amazes me at how quickly the back tires kick in, and how eagerly it will grind through even very deep snow). Ford is now using this same drivetrain, with slight variants, on several car models, so things should be properly sorted out. We'll see about that, of course. It delivers the mileage advertised--16 city, 23 highway--and has a very spacious interior. The legroom front and rear is like a limousine, and there is shoulder and headroom to spare. Even the third row, which I will rarely use, has adult-sized seats and pretty easy access (though if the third row is used the space for luggage is more limited). I've had four people in it already several times, and one could very happily take a cross-country trip this way.

The Flex feels like a safe place to be, with a full complement of airbags and the usual electronic nannies--ABS and stability control. The doors feel heavy and substantial, and the steering and brakes, while not sporty, are smooth and linear. As I mentioned above, it goes down the road with a minimum of road or wind noise, and the ride is firm and controlled, neither pillowy nor harsh. (I have noticed that the body aerodynamics are such that it doesn't like the windows rolled down at speed, for whatever that's worth; and the moonroof must not be laminated, as it admits wind noise unless the sunshade is closed.)

I guess I do have one other little gripe: I really hate the American fetish for fake wood in cars. I don't grasp the connection between cars and wood in any circumstances, but FAKE wood just seems the nadir of cheese, the cheapest implementation of what was never a sensible idea in the first place. My old Cadillac had acres of the creaky, stupid-looking stuff, and I'm shocked that we just can't learn this lesson in corporate shame. My Flex has a black interior, so--fair enough--the strips of subdued brown make for a nice color contrast, but that's a color thing; the patterning and finish make it patently obvious that the wood is fake, and I can't imagine a modern design house signing off on this as a good idea. And even if I decided I could remove the panels and, say, paint them so that they were not desperately trying to be what they patently were not, the glossy stuff continues across the dash and into the sealed instrument cluster, where it joins up with the gauges' whorehouse chrome accents (another move from the playbook of your great-grandfather's Oldsmobile--"Look how rich and opulent this is; don't let anyone tell you you just paid an arm and leg for a piece of shit!"). So one has to live with it. While I think the American car companies have never gotten a handle on instrument and display design like the Japanese did three decades ago--and the Flex's gauges are as plain as a 2X4--at least they are functional and reasonably precise and easy to look at. Certainly, I'll happily take basic-and-functional over all the ways they could have gotten this wrong. The rest of the interior seems tasteful and fairly understated and well-implemented (I read one review that said the check-pattern perforated leather seats looked like garbage bags, but they seem nicely done to me).

(I stole these from the web. Mine does not have the navigation screen. The "wood" strip on the steering wheel is kind of odd and not particularly pleasing to the touch.)

So that's it so far. I probably won't keep the car for much beyond the duration of its warranty coverage, but even so I don't expect much in the way of mechanical trouble. But because the rest of the world doesn't have much confidence in how a Ford will age, I imagine I'll be horrified at how much the trade-in value plummets over these three years.

But that's a post for another day.


BrianAlt said...

Thanks! I'll continue to not buy American cars.

Don't they get it? The proof is in the fine details.

Dzesika said...

This is totally a mobster-mobile! Where is the photo of you standing next to it in a suit and dark glasses? :)

wunelle said...

BrianAlt! How's it going, man? Haven't seen you around these parts for a while.

I certainly can't argue with your rationale. I'm trying to see this all (hoping) as a continuum, with all the manufacturers floating along the line in the middle somewhere. I was about to spring on a Honda Pilot--as I love Hondas--but I think their finishing on that vehicle wasn't up to their usual standards.

Then there's the question of mechanical integrity, which I fear Honda will win handily. I think I fear transmission issues in this Flex most of all. We'll see if I come to hate myself for my thought process in all this.

Dzesika: my father-in-law says he wants to lay down and put coins over his eyes and cross his arms across his chest every time he sees it!

I didn't specifically want black--it was one of my lowest color choices--but I was much more focused on equipment than color. When it's clean, it looks nice; but it gets dirty instantly.

Malaise Inc said...

I recently became a Ford man, too. I had rented a Ford Fusion while travelling on business and liked it real well. Also, when my Dodge got totalled in an accident earlier in the summer, I ended up replacing it with a lightly used 2006 F350. I like it alot better than the Ram. The 6.0L diesel has great acceleration, pulls great, and gets 17-18 MPG highway.

Plus, it looks pretty bad-ass, too.