Great expectations accompanied the Ford (F) Flex at its birth in 2008. The seven-passenger Flex, with its radical flat-roofed design, was going to redefine the role of people-carrier and fill the hole in Ford’s lineup left by the discontinued Freestar minivan. Then-marketing chief Jim Farley confidently predicted that Ford would be able to sell 100,000 a year.
He wasn’t even close. Sales of the Flex peaked during its first full year on the market at 38,717, and they have been sliding ever since. One critic said the flat roof makes the Flex look like “a port-a-potty tipped on its side.”
Before long, bloggers began predicting the van’s demise. “The Flex could expire after the 2014 model year unless it sees a major spike in buyer interest,” went a posting in 2010. A significant facelift for 2013 that included removing Ford’s Blue Oval from the hood and replacing it with the Flex name in boxy letters didn’t help. Sales fell the following year to 23,822.
But the Flex has some unusual attributes that could grant it a stay of execution. It is one of only two Ford models recommended by Consumer Reports (the other is the Fusion), which praised Flex for “SUV-like versatility combined with carlike driving dynamics.”
Flex is also popular with another important constituency: Californians, normally no friends of domestic brands. That’s a big deal. American cars are poison on the West Coast, and the Detroit automakers have tried for years to find an antidote. In 2014, 21% of Flex sales were in California, a remarkable percentage.
Part of the Flex appeal in the Golden State is nostalgia. The Los Angeles Times described the Flex as “kind of a 1950s woody meets a 1970s Ford Country Squire station wagon.” But practicality plays a role, too. Its long cargo bay and even longer flat roof are perfectly suited to carrying surfboards – or at least giving the capability to do so. “The Flex seems to fit the bill for both space and distinctive looks that has (at least at times) proven to be a winning formula in California,” says Edmunds.com analyst Jeremy Acevedo.
But unfortunately, a winning formula in few other places. This year Ford is selling a little more than 1,000 a month and industry gossip has Ford pulling the plug on Flex in 2017. Analysts figure customers will then move over to the higher-margin Explorer, which outsells Flex ten to one. “It would net Ford better margins and extend the longevity of the Explorer brand even further,” wrote Sean Williams on Motley Fool.
So Ford faces a dilemma. Business-wise, Flex is a disaster. But strategically, Ford couldn’t ask for anything better. The betting here is that as Ford shrinks its number of global platforms, marginal vehicles like the Flex will get squeezed out.