Skiing at Mammoth on July 30? Thank you, Mother Nature, although some of that gratitude is owed to Ford, whose all-wheel-drive 2017 Flex Limited got me to the winter wonderland in summertime with style, comfort and more power than I needed. Ford, it turns out, is the official car of the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, which is amazingly open to skiers and snowboarders through this Sunday (yes, as in Aug. 6), and resort operators were already boasting, "See you in 100 days" (yes, as in Nov. 9).
During the last two hours of my drive from Orange County, I could not fathom how skiing at Mammoth on July 30 could be, as the Flex's outdoor thermometer while passing through high desert spots topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the early evening. But ski I could, although the conditions were not ideal on the two open, slush-filled intermediate slopes. I came home with a bruise near my right elbow to prove it, the result of catching an edge on a steep incline. The snow was much better on the higher-elevation, black diamond/double-black diamond Climax run, the top of which is accessible from a gondola at the ski resort's base or mid-way point and by a lone chair lift at the bottom of the slope, back in Slushville.
I'd wager that more than half of those getting onto the gondola were mountain bikers on this late July day, with the rest being skiers, snowboarders and sightseers. After I threw my skis into the back of the Flex, I went back up the hill for sightseeing in gondolas filled with wedding parties and guests; it turned out there were two receptions being held on the hill, one in the McCoy Building at the midway point and the other in the Eleven53 Interpretive Center, the numbers referring to its location at Mammoth's 11,053-foot summit. The top-of-the-world views were stunning.
It was mystifying to this Orange County flatlander that there were so many people at the resort, which I'd only visited before in the winter. Besides catering to sightseers and bike and snow riders, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area hosts "adventurers" at the base area with a zip line, bungee ride, BMX course, rock-climbing wall and oversized versions of games such as tic tac toe and Connect 4. Especially geared toward youths and young families, the place was hopping, as was the Mammoth village, which was filled with tourists, hikers, joggers, golfers and mountain bikers as I passed through in the Flex. A long line for food was only outdone by the longer line for beer at Mammoth Brewing Co., whose IPAs won me over two winter ski trips ago. Just about every weekend during the summer there is some kind of festival going on. We hit the free Mammoth Villagefest in the main plaza with booze, food booths and Orange County Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band Lyvyn Skynyrd. Across from the brewing company, the Mammoth Festival of Beers & Bluesapalooza this Friday through Sunday features more than 200 craft brewers from around the country and several renowned musical artists including headliners Mavis Staples, Vintage Trouble and, on Saturday night, Sonny Landreth and Huntington Beach's own Walter Trout.
Summer funnin' was not confined to the resort and village. Vehicles filled the marina parking lots of the lakes at the top end of Lake Mary Road as fishermen, boaters and paddle boarders shared icy waters. It is so goddamn beautiful up there. When I remarked to three separate townies on this trip that I had no idea the Mammoth Lakes area bustled so much in the hot-weather months, each repeated the same motto: "You come to Mammoth for the winter, you stay for the summer."
My "Blue Jean" colored 2017 Ford Flex Limited would be the perfect mountain commuter for either season up there. It's considered a crossover, crossing over one supposes from an SUV like an Explorer to my long gone Ford LTD station wagon. In fact, to me the Flex resembles the modern version of a station wagon, or perhaps a boxy Scion elongated backward enough to fit an extra row of seating. When the Flex arrived at my front door, all the seats were up, so there was room for seven passengers. As only two of us departed for Mammoth, I pushed the button on the remote to open the back power lift gate and then pushed another on the inside frame to automatically make the back row of seats disappear (like magic!) and lie flat. With a push of a different button on the frame—and two warning beeps to get out of the way—the lift gate then closed (double magic!).
I then opened the back door, behind the front passenger seat, pushed a button on that frame and watched the seat on that side fold down forward, gently pushing it to lock into place and create a long, flat surface on one side of the cabin to accommodate my skis and poles, with enough room left on the floor for my boots, helmet and small backpack. If both rows of back seats are flattened out, it creates just shy of 85 cubic feet of cargo space. One can imagine how this would also come in handy for all those toting bikes, fishing gear or the massive amount of baby store merchandise that goes with hauling infants on vacation. Here's what is really wild: You can also push a button to make the third row of seats whip around backwards, facing the tailgate, so riders can more easily exit that way or you can have a nice padded leather seat for tailgating. Someone at Ford's design studio was thinking.
The on-board navigation system came in quite handy on the journey. We rode in comfort in the roomy Limited's charcoal black leather-trimmed seats, with the driver side featuring 10-way powered adjustments with lumbar support and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. I was able to one-hand it up to Sierra Nevadas thanks to the adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning, which is basically a short step or three away from driverless technology. It was a quiet ride, too, which made me wonder if other versions of the Flex that, unlike my test ride, have sunroofs carved out of the ceiling are noisier.
Mammoth was enjoying beach weather (warm air with a refreshing breeze), so there was never a situation where I would have appreciated the all-wheel drive, although you'd certainly want it before the fall and winter storms move in. Going around slow pokes on the freeways or up the mountain road to the lakes, power was never an issue thanks to the Flex Limited's 3.5-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost V6 engine that can get you up to 365 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque, which translates to zero to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds. You do pay for that at the pump, however, as the Flex only gets 15 miles per gallon in the city and 21 on the highway for a combined 17 mpg. Meanwhile, it’s EPA Fuel Economy and Greenhouse Gas Rating is a not-so respectable 3 on a 1-10 scale (10 being best), although it rebounds with a 6 on the EPA smog scale. Another knock I have is the, for lack of a better word, “switch” style of buttons on the steering wheel. I mean, it’s better than no buttons at all, especially for safety's sake as the driver could otherwise be fiddling with dashboard controls when s/he should be looking at the road. However, I have been spoiled by test cars from other automakers and my own Prius having the more responsive “touch” style of buttons, so much so that the mere sight of the “switch” version makes me sad.
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What did not disappoint me was the capless fuel filler, the comfy center console armrest, the push-button ignition, rearview camera and especially the reverse sensing system that warned me as I backed out blindly from the ski resort parking space of cars whizzing by on the lane I was targeting. Did I mention this place is hella busy in the summer? Other safety features include upgraded HID headlights, LED taillights, a blind spot monitoring system, illuminated entry and one you hope you'll never need but is there if you do: an SOS post crash alert system. More creature comforts include rain-sensing wipers, ambient lighting, dual zone electronic climate control, two smart charging USB ports, a 110V outlet, remote start and an AM/FM/Sirius XM radio and 390-watt Sony audio system with 12 speakers. Other times of the year in Mammoth, you'd want to deploy the front seats’ heating feature, which I never needed on this trip, and the cabin temperatures were so pleasant all weekend that I also never used the front seat cooling feature, even as the exterior roasted through Mohave. By the way, is that where meth was invented? Just sayin'.
The base price for the Limited—which comes with a 3-year/36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, 5 years/60,000 miles on the powertrain and roadside assistance—is $43,030. My test ride included extras such as active parking assistance, adaptive cruise/collision warning, heated and power tilt steering wheel, the aforementioned power-fold third row seats and 10-way heated/cooled front seats and other goodies that pumped that price up to $48,510.
Start saving those pennies; 100 days will be here sooner than you think.