BMW 128i or Ford Flex: What does $40,000 buy?

July 18, 2008, 10:18 PM UTC

2008 BMW 128i Coupe
BMW 128i

Sometimes the obvious needs to be re-examined. That became clear to me the other day when I looked at the sticker prices of two vehicles I was driving. The two were radically different in size, function, performance, and status. Yet their as-tested prices came within $1,000 of each other.

For the enthusiast, the price similarity is irrelevant. He buys cars that turn him on, and the monetary value they represent is secondary. Not so the average consumer. Image and performance are important buying considerations, but function and cost are probably top his concerns.

So warning: I’m comparing apples and oranges here, but the analysis may be informative –- and entertaining.

2009 Ford Flex
2009 Ford Flex

In this corner is the 2008 BMW 128i Coupe, BMW’s new “entry level” model that sneaks into the lineup below the 3 series. Except for Mercedes (DAI), probably no other manufacturer in the world would consider the 128 entry level. The coupe seats two adults comfortably, four in a pinch, and is styled to resemble its larger BMW cousins. It is powered by the same dual overhead cam, 24-valve, 6-cylinder engine as the 3 series, and is available with a load of exotic equipment — iPod adapter, HD radio, rain sensor. The standard features contributed to a base price of $28,600 and the additional goodies push the as-tested price to $42,396.

In the other corner is the 2009 Ford Flex which, depending on your viewpoint, reinterprets the station wagon, minivan or sport utility vehicle. Some two-and-a-half feet longer than the 1-series, it seats seven people in three rows of seats. Its most notable styling feature is a flat roof, available in a contrasting color that makes the Flex look even longer than it is. Although a Ford, the base price on the all-wheel-drive Flex is a not-insubstantial $36,555 and adding some gotta-have extras -– rear back-up camera, dual-aperture sun roof -– jacked the sticker on my test vehicle up to $43,250.

The Flex is more maneuverable than it looks. Its 3.5L DuratecV-6, introduced in 2006, puts out 265 horsepower; the steering is responsive; and maneuverability is adequate.  But this is still a big vehicle that nobody is going to take joyriding. I got nearly 21 miles per gallon in highway driving with a couple of passengers on board, but more aggressive drivers report in at a less-admirable 15 mpg.

Not surprisingly, the BMW was the favorite for short, single-driver trips. Quick and agile, it was highly entertaining and encouraged recreational driving. The EPA estimates fuel economy at 19 mpg city, 28 highway. But its size limits its utility and its stiff price may make you wish you had popped for the larger 3 series instead. (The four-door 328i’s start at $32,700).  Quite visibly, the Flex offered more car for the money, and I liked its bright, well-tailored interior –- one of the nicest I’ve seen. Still, the Flex is too much car most of the time, except for big families or those with heavy car-pooling duties. I’d find a five-seat Flex easier to live with.

So what does my analysis prove? One, there is a big universe of vehicles out there. Two, they don’t come priced by the yard –- or by the pound. And three, they probably cost more than you think. Luckily, with sales in a recession, it is a buyer’s market for whatever size you are shopping for.