We’ve already told you about ethanol-based E85 fuel-85% synthetic gasoline, made essentially from fermented corn. Certain vehicles available now can run on either this new E85 or the usual 87-octane gas we’re used to; so-called ‘Flex-Fuel Vehicles’ (FFVs) have been on the road for a while-and the Big Three are leading in the field.
With public interest growing, we requested a Flex-Fuel Dodge Caravan SE from the press fleet to see what living with one of these corn-burners would be like. Our first surprise came when we realized how little difference there is between the FFV Caravan and the normal minivans we’ve reviewed. There’s not even a badge or logo anywhere on the thing to advertise that this people-mover can run on fuel made from harvested crops. Even the owner’s manual doesn’t mention alternative fuels-other than an inconspicuous green sticker that reads E85 under the fuel-filler door, you’d never know, from a visual inspection, that this is a Flex-Fuel Vehicle.
And you wouldn’t be able to tell from driving it, either. Ethanol-based fuel actually produces higher octane, which could translate into more horsepower-but only if the engine is optimized for E85 only. Building an FFV that can run on either gas or E85 is only slightly more expensive than a standard fuel-burning vehicle, but you lose a few percentage points in both power and efficiency. Still, the Caravan we lived with drove just like a normal minivan, with plenty of punch from its 3.3-liter V6 and no extra weight slowing it down.
The 3.3-liter V6 is the mid-level engine option in the Dodge Caravan lineup, between a 150-horse 2.4L four and a 240-hp 3.8L six. The 3.3L is the only engine with FFV capability. Rated at 180 horsepower and 210 lb./ft. of torque, it’s good for acceleration we clocked at about 9 seconds to 60 m.p.h. More importantly, it feels strong in almost any situation-keeping up with traffic is no problem in this hauler. Also assisting in acceleration is the four-speed automatic transmission; for a minivan’s slushbox, it’s remarkably willing to downshift-and it’s plenty smooth, even while revving the engine to red-line.
In fact, the driving experience in our FFV Caravan was little different from the normal Caravan Limited we like so much. Although a fleet-spec vehicle (meant to be purchased in bulk by large corporations or government agencies), it was well-equipped with fold-in-floor “Stow-N-Go” seating for the middle and rear seats, and power-opening doors on both sides. It’s a lot of minivan for $28,600.
It’s interesting to note the differences between a fleet vehicle, though, and one built for the public. Although the days of AM radios, rubber floormats, and roll-up windows are largely gone from the fleet market, corners are still cut to keep prices down. For instance, our Caravan, while equipped with power locks and windows, still sported the most basic door panel design you can imagine. Nothing like the gussied-up consumer models, it’s all hard plastic and functional shapes. Niceties like fake wood, lighted switches on doors and the steering wheel, and alloy rims don’t make the cut, either. Dodge must’ve cut corners on the sound deadening, too-the noise from the motors that open and close the sliding doorsis jarringly loud; much more so than we’re used to. Still, an eight-speaker CD stereo was installed, as well as an overhead console with trip computer, thermometer and compass. It’s an interesting mix of basic functionality and creature comforts.
None of that relates to the Caravan’s being an FFV. In fact, the flex-fuel capability demands awful little alteration from your average internal combustion-powered vehicle. Alterations to the fuel lines, tank, pump and so on are the major requirements-nothing that takes up space or adds weight. Not only did our tester FFV Caravan perform like any other, it actually weighs several hundred pounds less than the Grand Caravan with the bigger motor, and thus felt just as quick. Even better, Dodge doesn’t charge an extra dime for the flex-fuel-capable 3.3-liter.
It is worth noting, however, that although they’ve been selling FFVs for eight years, Dodge and Chrysler is mainly offering the flex-fuel option on only fleet vehicles for the 2006 model year-thus our tester’s fleet model status. That’s a new phenomenon, and fortunately other automakers have not regressed in the same manner. Ford offers flex-fuel capability in the Crown Victoria, Town Car, and F-150 lines this year, while GM makes the technology available in most of its large SUVs and trucks. Even DCX’s own Mercedes brand offers an FFV C-Class, and Nissan has been selling an FFV Titan since 2005.
Besides the limited models available with the technology, one factor stunting the popularity of FFVs has generally been the availability of the fuel itself; since Flex-Fuel Vehicles can run on normal gasoline, owners mostly fill ‘em up with regular. We got nearly 19 miles per gallon in our tester Caravan-enough so that we didn’t need to refuel it during our assigned week-but visited an E85 gas station just the same. We found that mixing E85 with regular gas, in the same tank, did not alter the character of our Caravan at all.
In fact, driving a FFV is probably the easiest “green” thing we’ve ever done. It required no sacrifice in performance or usability, and not much extra cost. Hugging the trees even tighter, the FFV Caravan is rated as a Low Emissions Vehicle. And yet for a whole week, we cut our consumption of non-renewable fuel by 75%! (Remember E85 still contains 15% petroleum-based gasoline, and factor in the fact that most gas sold in America already contains 10% ethanol.)
Using an E85 pump is familiar as well, although there are no octane choices. E85 is currently selling for around $2.86-about 12% more than regular gas-but otherwise filling up was no different than ever.
Well, no different aside from the fact that the station we visited-near the Pentagon in Arlington, VA-is technically a military installation although it looks just like a normal CITGO. Most stations nearby-there are about 14 in the Washington, DC metro area; lots more in the Midwest-are attached to some government facility, but they keep the E85 pumps open to the public. Still, buying gas surrounded by government operatives does take a little getting used to.
In fact, we were told it was illegal to take photographs in the area-thus the surreptitious shots accompanying this piece. There was even a sign on the station door prohibiting members of the general public from purchasing anything but alternative fuel-we suppose the rarity of local E85 vendors is responsible for the exception, but we doubt they’re doing much to encourage civilians to drop by.
Still, the federal government’s Energy Policy is pro-ethanol, and tax benefits for growers and station owners hint that we’ll see more both E85-carrying stations and FFVs in dealer lots. Eventually, it may make a real dent in our reliance on foreign oil sources.
That seems especially likely now, given new developments in making E85 from crops other than the usual corn. Switchgrass, a weed that grows all over the continent, yields 500-1,000 gallons of ethanol per acre-which, at current prices, makes it the most profitable crop available to farmers.
Further fuel-saving technologies can be combined with flex-fuel technology-note Ford’s recent development of a FFV version of the Escape Hybrid, fitted to run on gas or E85; since flex-fuel engines are still standard internal combustion engines, they lend themselves to hybrid power rather easily. However, hybrids add a lot more expense to each vehicle’s bottom line, flex-fuel capability does not. If more new cars and SUVs were built as FFVs-GM has put 1.5 million on the road-and more gas stations carried the fuel, perhaps we wouldn’t need hybrids at all. Synthesizing the basis of our fuel source from a renewable, agricultural crop would itself allay concerns about declining oil production and dependence on the Middle East. Additionally, depressed agricultural communities would get a boost, the government could cut farm subsidies, and the overall trade deficit would improve.
The problem of what to do when the oil runs out-or when our enemies use it to hold us hostage-is a complex one. There are economic issues to consider regarding both the cost of vehicles and the money it’d take to be sure they can be conveniently refueled. There are environmental issues, especially as some technologies require using more energy than they generate. And for some of us, there are emotional issues as well; many Americans demand powerful engines, good acceleration, and/or plenty of room in their vehicles, no matter what they run on. Electric cars were one possible solution, but it turned out that the costs in energy and money of making and fueling them were untenable-plus, they’re heavy and slow. Vehicles running on hydrogen, or natural gas (compressed or liquefied), are slightly cleaner but require a hefty infrastructure investment-and still didn’t promise much fun. But with America’s new-car emissions as low as they now are, and FFV technology being just as clean, we’d venture to say that a widespread adoption of ethanol production and use represents the ultimate economic and environmental solution to the transportation problem. Fortunately, we can now also say, from first-hand experience, that the ethanol solution isn’t going to eradicate driving enjoyment. If Dodge can make a minivan that runs on E85 with no compromises, there’s no reason all of our favorite models can’t be engineered as FFVs without sacrificing power, handling, or space.