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Cars On Alcohol, Part 13: GM Supports FlexFuel
The transition from a methanol focus to renewable ethanol fuel began in earnest in 1995, although methanol was still at play. Government research and incentives for ethanol were in place, and it was becoming apparent that significant effort would be devoted on many levels to making ethanol fuel a more affordable motor fuel option. Automakers also started getting on-board this trend. General Motors surprised many with its announcement that all of its 1997 four-cylinder Chevy S-10 and GMC Sonoma pickups sold in the U.S. and Canada would be flexible-fuel models capable of running on E85 ethanol or gasoline as a matter of course. The reports below, reprinted just as they ran in early Green Car issues, illustrate how this shift to ethanol was taking place.
CHEVY/GMC PICKUPS TO RUN ON E85 ETHANOL
After a several-year hiatus from the alternative fuel vehicle market, General Motors plans to reenter this field in a big way next year. The automaker will produce all of its 1997 four-cylinder light-duty pickups in a flexible-fuel format, allowing them to run on any combination of gasoline and alcohol fuels.
Said to be the largest single-model AFV program of any automaker, it will affect all four-cylinder Chevrolet S-Series and GMC Sonoma pickups sold in the U.S. and Canada. The four-cylinder variant will be equipped with a corrosive-resistant fuel system, engine management software changes, and other hardware upgrades as a matter of course to run on ethanol. Pickups equipped with the automaker’s 4.3-liter Vortec V-6 will continue to run on gasoline fuel only.
According to GM vice-president Dennis R. Minano, these vehicles were chosen because they meet the diverse needs of fleet and retail buyers. Minano added that GM was announcing the program far in advance to allow time for the ethanol infrastructure to develop. The ethanol trucks, which meet U.S. Clean Air Act and Energy Policy Act requirements, will be produced in Shreveport, Louisiana and Linden, New Jersey beginning in the summer of 1996. GM has not yet determined whether a price premium will be added.
Ethanol was chosen primarily because of its range advantage. GM representative Marcia McGee told Green Car. But she added that the program “may be expanded in the long run to include other alternative fuels.” Green Car notes that the GM announcement was made at a major ethanol gathering, thus its emphasis on that specific fuel. However, Green Car editors fully expect the flexible-fuel pickups to be offered as methanol variants as well since this primarily involves engine management software changes.
3,000 MILES IN AN E85 CHEVY LUMINA VFV
Green Car has extensive highway experience with flexible-fuel vehicles running on both methanol and ethanol fuels, including more than 25,000 miles in Chevrolet Lumina VFV, Ford Taurus FFV, and Dodge Intrepid FFV models running on M85 fuel methanol. Editors have also been behind the wheel of Saab, Volvo, Volkswagen, Mercedes, Honda, and other flexible-fuel vehicles over the past few years.
Editors previously performed a three month, 3,000 mile test on an ethanol-fueled 1993 Chevrolet Lumina VFV secured from the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s Alternative Fuel Fleet Demonstration Program. No longer produced as a flexible-fuel vehicle by Chevrolet, the Lumina VFV (variable fuel vehicle) sedan qualified in 1992 as the first vehicle certified to run on ethanol in the U.S.
Experience with the vehicle was generally very good. Its performance was nearly identical to that of its gasoline-powered counterpart, although starting the 3.1-liter engine in cold weather (mid- to low-30s) when running on nearly-neat ethanol did take more effort. The vehicle was run on both gasoline and ethanol during the test, but averaged an ethanol concentration of 94 percent, with a high ethanol percentage of 98 percent. Running on the less-energy-dense fuel netted a city fuel economy average of 12.5 mpg and highway average of 18.0 mpg.
The dearth of methanol fueling stations provides enough of a challenge for FFVs. Since ethanol fueling facilities in Green Car’s California test area are virtually non-existent, testers fueled up at Parallel Products in Rancho Cucamonga, California, a resource recovery company that’s specialized in converting agricultural residues to fuel grade ethyl alcohol. Testers drove an average of 170 miles between fill-ups since refueling had to be well-planned, with 250 miles between fill-ups representing the top of the range.
Ethanol, the most high-profile renewable transportation fuel, has a strong lobby in corn-growing states. But it also has significant detractors since the fuel is expensive to produce, enjoys a hefty federal subsidy, and offers controversial net emissions benefits.
In an interesting aside, American voters of all persuasions overwhelming seem to want the U.S. Department of Energy to make renewable resource technologies and energy efficiency America’s two highest priorities for continued energy research and development. They also want to make these two groups of technologies last in line for any budget cuts, according to a survey previously conducted by leading Republican poll-taker Research/Strategy/Management Inc. (RSM) for the Sustainable Energy Budget Coalition. So it seems that ethanol may well be a player in alternative fuel transportation scenarios in the future.
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