Flexible-fuel vehicles are seen as a way to cut our use of gasoline because they can run on a fuel that is mostly grain-based ethanol distilled in the USA from corn. USA TODAY reporter James R. Healey answers some common questions about flex-fuel vehicles.
Q: What is a flex-fuel vehicle?
A: It's an ordinary car, truck or van that's been equipped with a special fuel system and engine-computer programming that allow it to burn straight gasoline, E85 or any mix of gasoline and ethanol in between. E85 is 85% ethanol -- grain alcohol -- and 15% gasoline.
Ordinary vehicles can safely burn a mix up to 10% alcohol -- often called gasohol and sold widely. But you risk ruining a conventional vehicle if you burn E85 or any mix that's more than 10% ethanol. You need a flex-fuel vehicle to use E85.
Q: Why would I want one?
A: You might not. The point of flexible-fuel vehicles -- FFVs -- is to use E85 as a way to reduce dependence on oil and to redirect the money that we spend on fuel to American agriculture interests and away from often-hostile foreign fuel suppliers.
Though the number is growing, E85 is available at only 600 or so of the 170,000 service stations in the USA. Most are in the Midwest states that grow the corn from which most U.S. fuel ethanol is made.
Q: So I should avoid an FFV?
A: You might not have a choice. The FFV capability is standard on a number of vehicles. If you buy one of those, it's an FFV. Period. But you never need to use the flex-fuel capability. You can burn conventional gasoline, and it will run the same as any gasoline-fuel vehicle.
Q: Will it cost more to maintain an FFV?
A: Not if you burn gasoline. If you use E85, it might. Check the owner's manual carefully to see if it calls for different oil or different service intervals. It's unlikely there will be big differences.
Q: Should I be worried about the reliability of this newfangled technology?
A: Probably not; it's not newfangled. The U.S. government credits Ford Motor with creating FFV technology in the mid-1980s.
Automakers have put roughly 5 million FFVs on the road since then. In many cases, their owners have no idea they are driving FFVs because they look the same as any other vehicle and drive the same as conventional vehicles when using gasoline as fuel.
The government lists 21 different 2006-model FFVs -- more if you consider the two-wheel-drive version of a truck different than the four-wheel-drive version. Most are midsize or big cars and trucks. You can find the list, and the fuel economy of each model, at www.fueleconomy.gov.
Additional FFV models are being introduced this year, some as 2007 models, and those aren't yet on the government's list.
Q: I don't want to pay extra for the FFV feature if I won't use it.
A: You won't pay more, at least not overtly. Automakers include the FFV capability as a standard feature on the vehicles that have it, or offer it as a no-cost option. There's not a separate line on the window sticker that says, "FFV capability $300," although it can cost a car company that much for the special fuel tank and fuel lines and the bigger fuel injectors necessary to cope with alcohol's corrosive nature and lower energy content.
Of course, the base price of the vehicle might have been boosted to recover the costs.
Q: How does the lower energy content affect the vehicle?
A: It reduces fuel economy, so you'll have to fill up your tank more often. The U.S. Department of Energy says it takes 1.4 gallons of E85 to go as far as you can on one gallon of straight gasoline. That means that E85 has only 72% as much energy as gasoline does.
For E85 to be a financial wash with gasoline, you have to be able to buy it for only 72% as much as you would pay for gasoline.
Government fuel-economy ratings show the mileage hit clearly. A Chevrolet Impala equipped with the 3.5-liter V-6 engine is rated 21 miles per gallon in town on gasoline and 31 mpg on the highway. On E85, it's rated just 16 in town, 23 on the highway.
The blessing, of course, is that if you can't make it to the next E85 pump before you run dry, you can simply fill up with conventional gasoline. With a full tank of conventional gasoline, your FFV goes back to delivering its maximum mileage.
The engine-control computer helps compensate for some of the power drop-off you'd expect from fuel that has a lower energy content. But the engine computer usually can't completely make up the difference.
Pro-ethanol websites often minimize the power and fuel-economy differences. If you're surfing the Web to learn about FFVs, check a number of sites to make sure you're getting a variety of voices.
Saab sells a model in other countries that retunes itself to take full advantage of E85's higher octane -- 100 to 105, vs. 87 to 93 octane for gasoline. Called the Saab 9-5 BioPower, its turbocharged engine develops 150 horsepower on gasoline, 180 hp on E85. But it still gets worse fuel economy, Saab says.
General Motors, which owns Saab, is considering a U.S.-market version, but "It could be a couple of years," says Saab spokesman Tom Beaman. A prototype, displayed at recent auto shows, is rated 260 hp on gasoline, 310 hp on E85.
Beaman says it probably would get 20% worse fuel economy on E85 than on gasoline.
Flex Fuel Vehicles
Chevrolet 5.3L Avalanche (2005-2006)
Chevrolet 3.5L Impala (2006)
Chevrolet 3.5L Monte Carlo (2006)
Chevrolet 2.2L S-10 (2000-2002)
Chevrolet 5.3L Silverado (2002-2006)
Chevrolet 5.3L Suburban (2002-2006)
Chevrolet 5.3L Tahoe (2006)
Chrysler 2.7L Sebring Sedan (2003-2006)
Chrysler Town & Country (1998-2003)
Chrysler/Plymouth 3.3L Voyager (1998-2003)
Dodge 3.3L Caravan (1998-2000; 2004-2006)
Dodge 3.3L Cargo (2003)
Dodge 4.7L Durango (2006)
Dodge 3.3L Grand Caravan (2004-2006)
Dodge 2.7L Stratus (2003-2006)
Dodge 4.7L Ram 1500 (2004-2006)
GMC 4.3L Sierra (2002-2006)
GMC 2.2L Sonoma (2000-2002)
GMC 5.3L Yukon and Yukon XL (2002-2006)
Ford 4.6L Crown Victoria (2006)
Ford 4.0L Explorer (2002-2005)
Ford 4.0L Explorer Sport Trac (2004-2005)
Ford 5.4L F-150 (2006)
Ford 3.0L Ranger (1999-2000)
Ford 3.0L Ranger SuperCab (2001-2003)
Ford 3.0L Taurus (1995-2006)
Isuzu 2.2L Hombre (2000-2001)
Lincoln 4.6L Town Car (2006)
Mazda 3.0L B3000 (1999, 2001-2003)
Mercedes-Benz 2.6L C240 (2005)
Mercedes-Benz 3.2L C320 (2003-2005)
Mercury 4.6L Grand Marquis (2006)
Mercury 4.0L Mountaineer (2002-2005)
Mercury 3.0L Sable (2002-2004)
Nissan 5.6L Titan (2005-2006)