Corn Juice – An Experiential Update

Regular gasoline just reached $3.29 a gallon range throughout the Upper Midwest today. There are plenty of explanations for this. In some cases, I call them "excuses." We learned our lesson from 2008 when the price of petrol soared to its highest levels in history just before the election of Barack Obama as our President.

Even three years ago, we talked about finding alternatives to standard petroleum products to power our automobiles. Hybrids were starting to gain traction back then with the introduction of the third generation of the Toyota Prius, the latest Honda Insight and the Ford Fusion Hybrid just around the corner. Yet, the automotive industry was feeling the backlash of high fuel prices when they saw market share of trucks, SUVs and crossovers dwindle and the demand for smaller automobiles scaling. Larger vehicles did come back after petrol bottomed out below $2.00 a gallon – yet fuel prices slowly climbed enough for many to climb back into large conveyances again.

The talk also expanded to electric-drive automobiles, such as the Tesla Roadster. While other try to dismiss electric cars, it foresaw a growth now with the Nissan Leaf.

Beyond that were two fuel options: Diesel or Ethanol. Many argue that we would still import the elements to make diesel fuel, despite the fact that diesel engines have an edge on overall maintenance and repair costs than a hybrid. Diesel offers have grown slightly since then, but in larger vehicles rather than smaller ones.

There has been growth on the use of Ethanol fuel, as well as the vehicles offering the option to fuel up with corn juice. To my glee, I’ve found that more than the usual vehicles that had come across my hands were FlexFuel vehicles – and, for most of my fuel-ups, E85 was used to fill up the tank over regular petrol.

Why do I call E85 “corn juice?” In this country – let alone the region I live in – most ethanol blends use either soy beans or excess corn crops to blend with petroleum fuels with an maximum blend of 85% bio-extract components and 15% petroleum.

Also, why have I been fueling up with E85 on FlexFuel vehicles instead of regular ol’ petrol? Check the pump prices carefully – E85 is consistently less expensive than regular 87-Octane petrol. This was true in the two states I pumped E85 into the vehicles I drove – Minnesota and Wisconsin. Currently at retailers in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, the average pump price gap between E85 and 87-Octane Regular petrol is 50 cents per gallon. The actual pump prices between the two states are actually the same – an average of $2.79 a gallon for E85.

E85 had been used on two vehicles so far in 2011: A 2010 Mercury Milan Premier with a 3.0-liter V6 and a 2010 Chevrolet Impala LT with a 3.5-liter V6. In both vehicles, I noticed that neither automobile had any significant change in performance after fueling up with E85. I also noticed that the there had not been any significant change in fuel consumption, despite earlier findings of a loss of an average of 2MPG. In fact, a year-and-a-half ago, I noticed an increase in consumption on a 2010 Ford Escape even as I drove it between Minneapolis and Duluth. Though one may discount 1.5MPG on average based on previous runs in an Escape, but for a SUV/crossover – that’s pretty good.

I have driven other FlexFuel vehicles and have forgotten to feed them some corn juice. For example, there were a few Chevrolet Malibus in the past couple of years that would love a vegetarian diet. Then, there was the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee with the new Pentastar 3.6litre V6 that also takes E85. I’m kicking myself for new feeding it the good stuff.

The number of new vehicles available to take E85 as well as regular petrol is increasing. Perhaps the reasoning is based on proven fuel system allowing both fuels to be mixed while operating the vehicle. Rumors regarding additional wear and corrosion on any component on the vehicle – especially fuel tanks – have been proven false compared to petrol-fueled vehicles. Though the fuel has a higher octane than most motor fuels, the components made to take E85 have been designed to handle the bio-compounded fuel.

Another benefit of using E85 is lower emissions. I know everyone has heard it before and would love to refute that benefit. The emissions difference does not come from the vehicle itself, as EPA regulations designate FlexFuel vehicles to meet the same standards as their regular petrol counterparts. However, it is the fuel itself that causes the lower emissions. Once the fuel is pumped into the engine, the output is a lower level of carbon emitted from the tailpipe compared to regular 87-octane petrol.

Yet, after several years of sales of FlexFuel vehicles to the general public, there are still too few retailers selling E85. I am a bit lucky that I live in the state with the most retailers with E85 pumps in the USA – Minnesota. However, I can tell you the frustration of finding a retailer that is convenient for fueling up with corn juice sometimes. On my last trip to Madison, I was able to look up a station listing through my smart phone’s browser – and found one when I needed it. I even found one near Dane County Airport where I was to drop off my last FlexFuel vehicle – the aforementioned 2010 Chevrolet Impala.

In all, it doesn’t hurt to fuel up on E85 in a vehicle designed to take both it and regular petrol. It is a design that Bentley will incorporate on all of its new vehicles for 2012. You can also get a Mercedes-Benz C300 Luxury or Sport that can run on E85 as well as Premium petrol – that is if it is labeled as such, according to Mercedes-Benz of USA. You can also fuel up on E85 on select models of all the large pickups available in the USA (including the Toyota Tundra, Nissan Titan and RAM Dakota), the Cadillac Escalade, Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Terrain, Chevrolet Tahoe/Avalanche/Suburban, GMC Yukon, Chevrolet HHR, Lincoln Navigator, Mazda Tribute, Nissan Armada, Toyota Sequoia, Ford Fusion V6, along with the aforementioned Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Escape and Chevrolet Impala.

Sure, you have plenty of choices to find ways to sustain domestic fuel production and to drive in an environmentally positive machine. My advice is to do your homework before you buy that “green” machine. Crunch the numbers pertaining to fuel consumption, short- and long-range maintenance costs and the intangibles in owning a “green” vehicle before you find out whether you are happy with your purchase instead of wearing your guilty conscience to the world.

As for me, I wouldn’t mind saving a few dollars at the pump when I have the right vehicle to do so in. All I need to do is to look for two things: A yellow gas cap/or filler label and the badge stating it takes E85. Then, I know I am doing someone a favor by supporting locally/regionally-produced energy sources and my little bit to clean up the environment.

Photo by Randy Stern

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