First drive: 2009 Ford Flex, Mariner and Fusion
A couple of weeks ago, Ford Middle East invited us to a two-night all-expenses-paid stay at the Fujairah Rotana resort for the Ford “Ride & Drive” event. The event was designed to give the press some wheel-time with new models such as Ford’s Flex, Fusion and Focus as well as the Mercury Mariner.
It was interesting getting to stay at a resort for the first time, although we chose to only stay one night. We didn’t miss any part of the actual day-long event though. Starting off with a Flex in a huge convoy consisting only of Flexes and Mariners, we set off in the morning for the “off-road” portion of the drive from Fujairah to the Umm Al Quwain Motorplex.
“We” consisted of me and my buddy, as well as Doug, a Ford executive who joined us all the way from America. I occasionally grilled him over bail-out plans, bankruptcy and new models, but he didn’t really reveal any company secrets. It was cool talking to him.
The Ford Flex may look unique on the outside, but the cabin is very generic. Playing it safe on the inside, soft-touch materials were of high quality and everything worked as it should. Anyone trying out this car will not think of it as lesser than any Japanese or German brand in terms of initial build quality. Also notable were the panoramic sunroof, the enormous legroom, the fair space for adults in the third row, the car-like ground clearance, the compressor-driven fridge in the second row, and the SYNC multimedia system with integrated Bluetooth and iPod controls, although our version didn’t have a navigation touchscreen to play with.
The on-road ride was very smooth and quiet, with soft steering and wide seats. We didn’t really get to try out performance or handling limits in a public convoy, but we suspect it retains a certain minivan demeanour. We then hit some gravel trails which violently shook up the extra-long Flex. While the exercise was designed to show off the all-wheel-drive Flex’s minor off-road abilities, we wouldn’t recommend using it as a soft-roader. It is a big road-going car at heart.
We then switched over to the Mercury Mariner during this “off-road” portion. The Mariner is essentially a mildly-upscale version of the Ford Escape, with slightly different styling inside and out. However, the cabin still retains the hard-plastic cabin of the Escape, and is definitely a big step down from the Flex. But considering its biggest Japanese competitors all have the same cheap cabins nowadays, the Mercury isn’t missing out on anything. Features only include the usual power accessories, with no SYNC and no fancy glass roof. The soft-roader doesn’t come with low-range gearing, but it handled the heavily-graveled tracks much better than the Flex, even if some discomforting judders got through. The rear seat was slightly cramped for 6-foot-something Doug.
Getting back to the road, the Mariner was fairly smooth and managed fine in terms of power. The route planned out for the convoy was a bit dangerous, as it was a two-way road with a single lane going each way, and huge dump trucks crowded these lanes. The trucks were all moving over to the hard shoulder, and everyone in the convoy had to charge past them, partially sticking out onto the wrong lane, while watching out for regular oncoming traffic. We managed it safely, but we were surprised that Ford trusted journalists, some from other countries, with such situations.
After reaching the Motorplex a couple of hours later, we had lunch under a tent and divided into groups to try out an autocross exercise with the Ford Focus 1.6. It was to demonstrate the manouevrebility of the hatchback, with an estimated 30-second course made up of full-lock turns and tight slaloms. Everyone got one practice lap and one timed lap. There were maybe four groups, with roughly 10 people in each group. I only managed to get the best time in my own group. A dude from Autocar won the overall event, bettering me by 3 seconds, but considering I’d never done an autocross before, I wasn’t expecting to win anyway.
The other event at the Motorplex was with the Ford Fusion, involving some sort of weird team event where people had to run around putting a bucket of water on the roof, drive through cones, do a three-point turn and come back. While the game was intended to demonstrate the all-round visibility, we were too busy with water levels to notice.
After the Motorplex, we started heading back to Fujairah in a new convoy, and we got the Ford Focus 1.6 Ghia. Ford-man Doug was uncomfortably crammed into the back seat, and we set off. The car handles extremely well, but that day, its relatively-harsh ride quality was exposed on crappy outer-city roads, with moderate road noise from the tyres. It is possible we felt that way after quietly cruising in a Flex for so long, as we don’t remember a Focus being this harsh.
We again had to dodge trucks on that skinny road, but this time with a severely-underpowered car loaded with three people. It seemed like ages as we had to go full-throttle, while overtaking trucks all overspeeding at 100 kph.
The ordeal was soon over as we switched over to a Ford Fusion 2.3, which was actually a pretty good car. With competitive power, good handling, lots of space and solid soft-touch cabin materials, it is every bit as good as the competition, if a tad boring. Ford teamster Doug could finally breath in the back seat again.
As most of the cars had separated, we drove on in a mini-convoy, consisting of Focii and Fusions, posing for moving photos as a stunt-cameraman hung out of a Focus driven by a Dubai Autodrome instructor. As evening started setting in, the overzealous instructor really started gunning his puny Focus, speeding in thin streets, changing lanes frequently and not using indicators. Interestingly, another Focus and we in our Fusion chased him down all the way to the hotel. The rest of the pack fell far behind.
After we reached the hotel, we cleaned up and went for a dinner hosted by Ford, where they revealed the new Ford Fiesta and the Ford F-150. We spotted a Lincoln MKS parked outside, but it was apparently the boss’s car, and wasn’t launched right then. We could’ve spent another night at the resort, but chose to leave for home soon after the dinner and said farewell to Doug and his groupies. While we didn’t learn enough to write a full review for any of the cars, we still got a good look at how far Ford’s American products have come in a few short years, and had some all-expenses-paid fun along the way.