As we all know by now, there’s a move on to find alternative sources of fuel for America’s car and truck crazed culture. Hybrid? Maybe. Full electric? Been there, done that. Not going to happen any time soon in the U.S. Hydrogen power? Stay tuned. As more manufacturers develop hydrogen-based platforms, the technology will lower in cost and it may have a future powering U.S. vehicles. Alcohol based fuels? Absolutely, but what I found after a week of testing Chevy’s excellent Suburban that has the capacity to burn E85 is that the technology is here, but the costs associated with refining a gallon of E85 are still high. Call it a “Corn Conundrum.”
So what is E85? It’s an alcohol mixture of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, designed to run in “flex fuel” vehicles (vehicles that can run on other sources besides gasoline). E85 is widely used in Sweden (GM’s Sweden-based subsidiary Saab is a leader in E85 technology) and is becoming popular in the Midwest where corn is the major crop used for ethanol production. E85 also has a higher octane rating than “coventional” gas (105 versus typical ratings of 87-94 for pump gas.
Ethanol can be brewed from any crop that contains sugar or starch. Rice, wheat, barley, potatoes, sugar beets, and sugar cane are good examples. Ethanol derived from sugar cane has given Brazil near total independence from foreign oil.
It should also be pointed out that flex-fuel vehicles like the E85 Suburban are specially modified. All cars can safely run on a mixture of 10% ethanol (frequently called “Gasohol” or E10), but any concentration over that requires a number of special components in the fuel delivery system, as E85 can be quite corrosive to rubber and metal parts.
At first glance, I saw no outward signs that my test Suburban was a special vehicle. Only special E85 badging, and a corn colored yellow gas cap are tipoffs. All else is pure Chevy truck, and what a truck it is.
Outside, long, bold lines highlight the redesigned Suburban. GM has done quite a number on its full-size offerings from Chevy, Cadillac and GMC, and they are among the best in the world. My tester was finished in brilliant black paint, with black leather interior. Optional high-polished 20″ wheels (part of a nearly eight grand option package) gave the Suburban a finished, sporty look, without all of the pretentiousness that comes with chrome wheels.
This is quite a large Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV), but is almost as easy to manuever in city traffic as a mid-sized sedan. Why? Because Chevy has made standard or available a number of features that minimize the effort required to pilot this nearly 19 foot long, 6300 pound behemoth.
One such feature is the “Rear View Camera System.” While not new technology, this bargain ($195 option) should be standard on all vehicles. Yes, you should still turn that creaky neck to ensure that all is safe and well, but the rear view cam is invaluable in aiding urban parking. An ultrasonic parking system is also available, and provides audio and visual warnings. Even with the parking aids, outward vision is quite good front and rear.
A “cornucopia” of technology is what sets the Suburban apart from other large SUV makers. No idiot lights here, as Suburban features standard oil pressure, temperature, tachometer and voltmeter gauges, and a speedometer of course! Standard high tech goodies include “Stabilitrak” electronic stability control (ESC) – an absolute safety must in an SUV, as ESC can be the difference between control and rollover in an emergency situation; a tire pressure monitor; mirror-mounted compass; and my favorite, the “Driver Information Center” (DIC). The DIC provides a wealth of information, constantly monitoring various performance, comfort and engine efficiency parameters. The DIC monitor can be set to: automatically lock/unlock doors; remotely lock/unlock doors; set exit lighting between 30 seconds-two minutes; view remaining oil life; set parking assist; monitor tire pressure; set approach lighting; adjust seat controls; switch from miles per hour to kilometers per hour (handy for trips to Mexico or Canada); and monitor vehicle range (miles to empty), outside temperature, average fuel economy, instant fuel economy, and average speed.
Inside, GM has finally given its big trucks the full luxury treatment. While there is still extensive use of plastics to keep weight down, the Suburban is far ahead of previous models in fit, finish and refinement. A multi function steering wheel controls audio and cruise control functions. The center console houses the optional ($2,145) navigation/audio system which incorporates the rear view camera. Seven passenger seating is made easier with power folding second row seating (part of an option package) that makes third row adventures a snap.
On the safety front, all is good with one exception – side mounted curtain airbags are not standard equipment, and on my tester were part of the mega “LTZ Equipment Group” that came in at a whopping $7,915. Included in the LTZ package are front and second row leather appointed buckets seats; driver and passenger 12-way power sears with heat and memory functions; power adjustable pedals; remote vehicle starter; Bose audio; XM Satellite Radio with three months free service; power liftgate with separate liftglass; locking rear differential; “Autoride” suspension; heated washer fluid system; rain sensing wipers; universal home remote; tri-zone automatic air conditioning (manual tri-zone standard); power folding mirrors with auto dimming and built in turn signals; and the aforementioned side curtain bags and polished 20″ wheels. Other, less expensive option packages are available.
Power and ride quality are exceptional for such a large vehicle. Handling is also a plus. Though the size of a small boat, it handles very well. Never did I feel the vehicle’s mass affecting the road dynamics of the vehicle. This has a lot to do with recognizing that you are driving a large vehicle though. Drive it like a Porsche and you’re bound to get in trouble.
Fuel economy was also decent. During a highway test loop between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland I averaged nearly 25 mpg at about 65 mph. Not bad at all. I also visited a gas station near Annapolis, Maryland that had an E85 pump, a rarity on the east coast. I pulled up, ready to fill the tank with some high octane juice, and realized that a gallon of E85 was selling there for $4.25 per gallon, while a gallon of regular (all GM full-sized SUVs can burn regular-another plus) was $2.19. Yes, I did grudgingly buy a couple of gallons just to see what effect the juiced-up corn fuel had on performance. You can feel the difference in power and torque. So after a few performance runs, my $14.00 purchase was nearly gone, and it was time to be sensible again and refuel with regular.
E85 is cheaper in America’s “Corn Belt,” but it will take some time for the infrastructure to support E85 stations nationwide. According to data found on the Renewable Fuels Association Web site (ethanolrfa.org), there are about 650 retail stations selling E85. Surely, more will join the fray. Until that happens, prices will remain much higher than gasoline. And yes, there are many Web sites out there that will show you how to brew your own E85, but you may be mistaken for a “moonshiner” when your neighbors see a big old still in the backyard!
The 2007 Suburban 4WD LT is quite a truck on its own accord. Add the flex fuel E85 capability, and Chevy is on track to help right a sinking, oil dependent ship. Yes, there are many issues and obstacles ahead, but someone has to move out of port to help with America’s oil dependency. The Suburban is a step in the right direction.
My tester’s base price was $39,665. With options, $51,155. Suburban in other trim packages start at $37,560.