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Cars On Alcohol, Part 1: M85 Methanol Emerges
M85 Methanol Paves the Way
In the 1990s, Green Car Journal reported extensively on the emergence of methanol as an alternative motor fuel. It was an interesting time with a dynamic not unlike that of E85 ethanol today, with major automakers selling flexible-fuel vehicles capable of running on this alcohol fuel, gasoline, or any mix of the two in the same tank. A fueling infrastructure was being nurtured by the California Energy Commission (CEC) through its Methanol Demonstration Program. There was talk of great inroads being made by this fuel, and these vehicles, over time…then methanol disappeared as a contender in the alternative fuel arena. What happened? It’s all documented in the Green Car Journal archives, a resource unique in the automotive field that’s being shared for the very first time through Green Car Journal Online. In this multi-part series, “Cars on Alcohol,” we share verbatim the Green Car Journal reports that were published at the time this fuel was at play.
CHRYSLER'S ALTERNATIVE VISION
The mid-size 1993 Eagle Vision, Chrysler Concorde, and Dodge Intrepid will be offered as flexible-fuel vehicles (FFV) capable of operating on any mix of gasoline or M85 methanol (85% methanol/15% gasoline) in the same tank. Built on the automaker's new LH platform, top-line versions will be powered by a DOHC 3.5-liter V-6. A larger gas tank and corrosion resistant fuel system components are integrated to accommodate methanol and ethanol fuels. A Chrysler-designed capacitive sensor detects the type and mix of fuels being fed to the cylinders. The engine computer then adjusts ignition and injection programs to optimize combustion.
According to Chrysler spokesman Jason Vines, fleet sales are the automaker's first choice. "But we think it's a perfect alternative fuel vehicle for regular consumers as well, because if they can't find methanol, they can use gasoline," Vines points out. Operating convenience is an important consideration for personal use.
The automaker's platform team system allowed integrating FFV capability readily into the new vehicle models. Another Chrysler alternative fuel program involves gasoline/methanol Dodge Spirits and Plymouth Acclaims. This summer, the automaker will be equipping 100 early build 1993 A-bodies as FFVs for sale to municipalities and the General Services Administration (GSA). Chrysler will then build an additional 2,000 Spirit/Acclaim FFVs beginning in July. These will be available for sale to both fleet and retail buyers in California.
Flexible fuel Chryslers will be no more costly than conventional gasoline variants. “We've talked about the transparency of our FFVs...how you can use M85, M55, or regular unleaded gasoline at any time and not affect performance," shares Vines. "By not charging a premium, we're also making the price transparent for consumers."
Chrysler had initially cited an overall build capability of 50,000 each of the A-body and LH flexible-fuel vehicles. But in recent conversations with Green Car Journal, no specific numbers beyond the 2,100 A-body were discussed. Manufacturing and marketing plans for the new LH platform FFVs will certainly be influenced by the success met by the initial A-body FFV program.
OTHER M85 ACTIVITIES
Rebates on the purchase of 1992 Chevrolet Lumina VFV – variable fuel vehicle – models are being offered by the CEC. An integral part of its “Drive Clean California” campaign, the CEC provides an incentive of $500 each for the purchase of one to four of these flexible-fuel cars, $1,000 for five to nine cars, and $1500 for 20 or more cars. A VFV-optioned Lumina prices out at $2,000 more than a gasoline model. Additional rebates of $1,000 each are also offered for private fleets operating in the Sacramento Metropolitan Air District in California. Chevrolet is making 2,000 methanol/gasoline Lumina VFVs available exclusively to the Golden State in 1992. An additional 2,000 models are on tap for sale nationwide.
An initial offering of 200 flexible-fuel Econoline Van and Club Wagon models is being made available by Ford Motor Co. and the CEC. The first all-new van offered by any automaker within the past 15 years, the Econoline/Club Wagon is a revolutionary product. Ford spent in excess of $1 billion in design and production of the new model, and it shows. Among its many highlights are the first driver’s side airbag and rear wheel anti-lock brakes in its class. The FFV Econoline cargo variant is offered in E-150 and E-250 configurations. Club Wagon models come in seven and eight-passenger versions. A 4.9-liter inline six cylinder engine and automatic transmission are standard, as is a larger 34 gallon fuel tank.
Audi sources have confirmed that a pair of 1992 Audi 100 flexible-fuel vehicles are “on the water” and en route to the U.S. for fleet testing, with current plans calling for a total of 12 Audi 100 FFVs to be built during 1992. The all-new Audi 100 is a mid-size automobile equipped with a 2.8-liter SOHC V-6 engine. Prices have not been disclosed for the gasoline/methanol variant. Conventional Audi 100 gasoline model base prices start at $27,700.
Volkswagen has sold 60 multi-fuel Jettas to fleets and businesses during the past year and expects to sell an additional 100 in 1992. But these Jetta FFVs have remained unavailable for private sales. Green Car Journal has learned that Volkswagen will now lease a limited number of multi-fuel Jettas to individuals. “This program is being handled on a one-on-one basis at this time,” advises Larry Brown of Volkswagen of America. Volkswagen FFVs have been priced approximately $700 above standard gasoline models. Certain municipal rebates are available.
California’s effort to promote alternative transportation fuels is paying off. Consumption of methanol increased from about one million gallons in 1990 to two million gallons in 1991. The CEC estimates that usage will again double to four million gallons in 1992 and reach 10 million gallons in 1993. The entry of readily-available flexible-fuel cars from major automakers is cited as driving the increase.
Beginning with the 1993 model year, automakers will be able to earn extra credits for alternative fuel vehicles under the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program. Dual-fuel vehicles must be capable of a minimum driving range using alternative fuels to qualify – 200 miles for methanol/ethanol fuels or 100 miles for natural gas. In calculating CAFE, the government will consider a gallon of alcohol-based fuel as 0.15 gallons of gasoline and 100 cubic feet of natural gas as 0.1235 gallons. Manufacturers are limited to increasing their fleet CAFE by no more than 1.2 mpg using these credits.
California has just allocated an additional $1.126 million in PVEA (Petroleum Violation Escrow Account) funds from the state’s 1992-93 fiscal year budget to “establish partnerships with Ford and Chrysler to produce methanol fuel-flexible vehicles.” This usually translates to CEC cash incentives for FFV buyers. Since Dodge Spirit/Plymouth Acclaim FFVs are being sold without a differential cost for their methanol options, these Chryslers will enjoy a substantial price advantage over their competitors if a standard rebate tier is established under the “Drive Clean California” campaign. CEC sources indicate that Chrysler incentive funding is under discussion and a decision should be forthcoming soon.
The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has awarded contracts to Chrysler Corporation for $21.7 million to purchase 2500 methanol flexible-fuel Plymouth Acclaim sedans. Ford Motor Company has negotiated a deal with Pacific Bell to place 85 Econoline flexible-fuel vans in the Pac-Bell fleet. Sources report that 110 of the 200 Econoline and Club Wagon FFVs scheduled to be built under the current Ford program are committed.
Notable Chevrolet Lumina VFV sales to date: Xerox Corp. (100); California Dept. of General Services (80); Bay Area Air Quality Management Dist., Calif. (30); California Dept. of Transportation (29); Avis (20); and Riverside County, Calif. (20). GM of Canada has also ordered 100 VFVs for its own fleet use. An additional 48 Lumina VFVs modified to run on ethanol have been ordered for public fleets by Illinois (12) and Wisconsin (12), and by the Dept. of Energy in Washington, D.C. (24). Engine management software changes are made on ethanol variants, which have not yet received certification like their methanol counterparts.
HONDA SHOWS ACCORD FFV
American Honda has revealed its interest in alternative fuel vehicles with both compressed natural gas (CNG) and gasoline/methanol powered Accords. Unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show, the four-door Accord CNG and FFV sedan generated keen interest. The Accord is distinguished as the best selling automobile in North America.
Is Honda seriously exploring the market? Green Car Journal asked American Honda spokesman Bob Butoric. “They’re being used right now as research prototypes,” advises Butoric, “and we haven’t announced any plans to produce either for commercial application.”
Still, with the array of alternative fuel vehicles being fleet tested or introduced for general sale, Green Car Journal editors believe the automaker must be taking a hard look at the potential impact these two Accord models could have. The FFV model in particular may well make it to showrooms in the near future.
Clean burning enables the Accord NGV to attain low emission vehicle (LEV) standards, while its flexible-fuel counterpart reaches transitional low emission vehicle (TLEV) specs. Honda rates the natural gas variant at 113 hp, a mere six horsepower shy of the standard gasoline Accord’s 119 hp rating. The methanol-powered version ups the ante to 133 hp, an increase of almost 12% over the gasoline model. Range ratings are not offered, but will certainly fall far short of that enjoyed by the gasoline Accord.
Modifications on the FFV variant include tin and nickel plating of fuel lines, installation of methanol-resistant rubber and plastics, the use of steel alloys for valves and seats, and installation of high-volume injectors. Special methanol-compatible motor oil is also used.
The flexible-fuel Accord operates like most other FFVs with the choice of running on M85, gasoline, or any combination of both. An electronic sensor determines the ratio of fuels being used, then sends data to the electronic control unit (ECU) so it can adjust fuel injection and timing for optimum combustion.
NEXT IN THE SERIES: Driving the Saab 9000 on methanol, and more
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