The Ford Flex doesn’t sell well nationally but is popular in California. (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)
The Ford Flex is an odd vehicle — kind of a 1950s woody meets a 1970s Ford Country Squire station wagon — and seemingly out of place in a state where the 50-mile-per-gallon Toyota Prius hybrid is the top seller.
Yet, in one of the quirkiest trends in the auto industry, the massive Flex is one of the bestselling full-size sport utility vehicles in California this year. It is selling well even though gas prices are at record levels. The Flex gets about 20 miles per gallon and costs about $75 to fill up.
"It has this retro style," said Joyce Solodovnikov, a part-time interior designer from Santa Barbara who finds the seven-seat Flex useful for size, comfort and hauling her six grandchildren around. "We have had more inquires on this car than any car we have ever owned."
Solodovnikov's Flex has a red body with a white top, and people have lots of opinions about it, she said. "It is like driving a classic car around," said Solodovnikov, who should know — she also drives a 1957 Ford Fairlane convertible. The 2011 Flex replaced an aging Windstar minivan.
Some people are confused by the name, thinking the car offers flexible fuel choices or is a hybrid, but the Flex is a conventional gas vehicle. The starting price for the Flex is about $30,000.
"The Flex has two characteristics that I believe help explain why it does well in California. It does not look like any other vehicle on the road — it stands out. Second, its styling cues have a retro tinge," said Thomas Libby, an R.L. Polk & Co. analyst. "Both these characteristics appeal to Californians."
Ford executives, who have struggled to capture buyers in import-brand-happy California, are pleased with the Flex's performance in the state.
"The Flex reminds people of the old woody wagons and the beach lifestyle that went with them, which is very closely linked to the California lifestyle," said Alan Mulally, Ford's chief executive. The Flex's versatility, or 'flexibility' in terms of space for family, friends, equipment and more, is very appealing for buyers who want that capability but do not want a minivan."
It's not uncommon to see the vehicle parked near Southern California's beaches with people pulling surfboards, kayaks and other equipment from the roof or its yawning interior.
It leads all vehicles offered by Ford, General Motors and Chrysler as the model with the highest share of its registrations nationally in California, according to Polk. California accounts for 13.5% of all Flex sales in the U.S. through the end of September but for just 8.2% of Ford's sales nationally.
The vehicle doesn't sell well nationally. Ford sold fewer than 23,000 through the first nine months of this year. In contrast, the Explorer sold almost 120,000 during the same period.
What makes the trend even more curious is that Californians aren't big truck and SUV buyers compared with the national sales rates. Almost 63% of the new vehicle registrations in California this year are for passenger cars, according to the California New Car Dealers Assn. Passenger cars account for 53% of sales nationally.
Other vehicles that do unusually well in California compared with their sales elsewhere include Ford's tiny Fiesta and Mustang and the Dodge Challenger, according to Polk. Each has distinctive styling and is not a high-sales-volume, core product.
"I think this speaks to the fact that the [Asian car companies] do very well in California with their core cars and the domestics do not do well in those segments," Libby said.
That leaves the domestic nameplates with performance cars, such as the Mustang, or with distinctive or almost "fringe" vehicles such as the Flex and Fiesta, Libby said.