Even in a crowded parking lot, it's hard to miss the Ford Flex. Just look for the long rectangle on wheels.

Whether pulling into mall parking lots or ferrying kids to soccer games, the boxy vehicle has been attracting attention since its introduction in 2009, when it was hailed as a smart alternative to traditional SUVs.

Like a sport utility vehicle, the three-row Flex offers plenty of room for up to seven passengers, available all-wheel-drive and even towing capacity of up to 4,500 pounds. But the Ford Flex is decidedly un-SUV-like in ride comfort and fuel economy, making it one of our top picks as a family hauler.

The 2013 Flex is set to arrive this spring, and with it come new features aimed at making it more appealing to buyers, a majority of whom have found their way to the vehicle from other brands.

Ford hailed the differences of the new Flex during a media preview in Portland, but its exterior identity is still unmistakable. "It's a new old design," Ford executive Frank Davis quipped in introducing the vehicle.

The Flex's outer freshening includes a new front end that does away with Ford's blue oval and instead spells out FLEX in large letters, just in case you're still not sure which vehicle this is. In back, dual chrome exhaust tips are standard for 2013, and new factory wheel options go up to 20-inchers for those wishing to roll in a big way.

But it's under the hood and the rest of the sheetmetal where the 2013 Ford Flex is most different, changes that were evident during our test drive over miles of rugged Oregon coastline and through all manner of winter weather conditions through mountain passes.

Even though we didn't have the misfortune of using them, we're nevertheless impressed by the Flex's new inflatable rear seatbelts. These debuted in the recently revamped Explorer, and Flex is the second vehicle to get them as an option. When deployed in a crash, the belts expand to protect sensitive parts of the body and reduce trauma.

Up front, the innovative yet often frustrating MyFord Touch control system has been revised for easier use. The touch-based information and control system features a clearer display and larger words for easier readability - a must when you're traveling at freeway speeds and have little time to squint at a screen. The system still isn't perfect, but it's better than before and still impressively robust.

Also new are twin LCD screens in the dash, replacing the dowdy analog gauges of past Flex models. The 2013 Ford Flex also gets bolstering under the hood, where the standard 3.5-liter V6's output has increased by 25 ponies to reach 287 horsepower yet betters its fuel economy by 1 mpg in both city and highway to reach 18/25 mpg. Meanwhile, the optional EcoBoost version of the engine makes 365 hp, 10 more than last year.
We appreciated the power increase while behind the wheel of a 2013 Flex with the base engine and all-wheel-drive. The vehicle felt strong and confident on both twisty, snow-covered roads and open highways. Flex was quick to shift up and down through its six gears, and the AWD system was undaunted by snowy, slippery conditions.

Soft interior materials give the Flex a quality feel, though the steering wheel is a tad large for those with smaller hands. Seating capacity in this big box is relatively generous even for those in the third row, but cargo space is minimal with the last row raised. Visibility could still use improving, and we definitely recommend the rearview camera. At nearly 17 feet, this is one long vehicle.

Set to hit showrooms this spring, the updated 2013 Ford Flex offers plenty of appeal for those who need a spacious vehicle but don't want an SUV's rough ride and mediocre fuel economy. Starting under $32,000 and continuing past $50,000 when loaded with features like a refrigerated rear console and turbocharged engine, the Flex continues to stand out as much for its looks as its versatility. 

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