FEATURES: 2006 Chevrolet Impala E85: Hopped up on Ethanol

By Michael Austin - August 14, 2006
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I'm standing inside the Coors Brewery in Golden, Colorado, and I feel like I've won a golden ticket. First, this is the largest single-site brewery in the world. Second, they're making ethanol out of beer--ethanol that can fuel a car. As a beer-loving car enthusiast,my buttons have been pushed. Coors makes 22 million gallons of beer and 3 million gallons of ethanol a year. This plant's output is tiny in comparison with the 4 billion gallons of ethanol produced nationwide, and that, too, is tiny compared with the 140 billion gallons of gasoline we use to fuel our cars. Despite the small scale, ethanol is being touted as the fuel of the future.
That's why I set out from Michigan in the direction of Colorado two days ago in a 2006 Chevrolet Impala. The plan was to investigate the current state of ethanol and drive exclusively on E85 fuel, a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. As of this writing, there are only 730 public E85 pumps in the country. But I wouldn't map out my fuel stops in advance; instead, when I needed a fill-up, I'd have an OnStar operator direct me to a station. It was not a good plan.
I eventually did make it to Golden, driving on E85 all the way. Environmentalists like ethanol because it lowers emissions and reduces fossil-fuel consumption. Farmers like it because it increases demand for their crops. And nearly everybody likes the fact that money spent on ethanol is money that doesn't go to Middle Eastern oil sheikhs.
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So it's all good, right? Well, not exactly. Without considering the political and scientific arguments that keep cable-news analysts employed, there are some things that you should know about ethanol. The good news is that E85 is at least 100 octane, so in certain instances, it might give you a few extra horsepower. It's also easier on engines because it burns cooler, and both carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emissions are lower because of ethanol's high oxygen content.
But a gallon of ethanol has only about two-thirds as much energy as a gallon of gasoline, so your fuel economy will drop. How much depends on a lot of things, but the EPA's fuel-economy figures provide a good estimate. Burning gasoline, the Impala is rated at 21 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway, versus 16/23 mpg for E85. My own trip average of 22 mpg backs this up. E85 is often cheaper than gasoline, but it's not normally the 30 percent less it takes to make up for that mileage deficit.
You can't just start pumping E85 into any car. All recent-model cars can run up to ten percent ethanol with no trouble, but to operate on E85, your car must be equipped to handle the high alcohol content, which requires some changes to the fuel system and engine computer. The good news is that all E85-capable cars sold here are flexible-fuel vehicles, so you can run straight gasoline, E85, or any mix in between. Of course, if you want to drive on E85, you'll need to find an E85 pump, which is where my plan first fell apart early on the second day.
Heading out of Des Moines that morning, I called OnStar. Up to this point, relying on OnStar had worked. After I ex-plained to them that, yes, they did have a database of E85 stations, they would find me one with an almost disturbing amount of cheer. This time the operator was more knowledgeable than usual about E85, but she told me that the closest pump was 60 miles away--back, no less--just as the Impala's fuel range showed 55 miles. I was angry, and it wasn't even my worst OnStar experience. This was in Iowa, the number-one ethanol-producing state in the country. That very morning, Iowa Representative Jim Nussle was on Fox News touting ethanol and (incorrectly) telling folks that they can easily convert any old car into a flexible-fuel vehicle.
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Meanwhile, still in Iowa, the check-engine light came on. Before seeking out a dealership, I called Chevy public relations. They told me that my E85 Impala was an early version and thus needed a software update to the engine computer, and then they set me up with Tim O'Neill Chevrolet in Council Bluffs to get me back on the road in a jiffy. But an hour after dropping off the car, I had the following conversation with the service adviser:
"The problem is that there's too much alcohol in the fuel," he said.
"I know that. I put the alcohol in there because I'm writing a magazine story on E85."
"Well, there's too much alcohol in the fuel. We reset the engine computer, but you need to put some gasoline in the tank."
"I'm not going to put gasoline in the tank. I'm doing a magazine story on E85 fuel. And the Chevy people I talked with said that resetting the check-engine light won't fix the problem."
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"Yeah, you've got to lower the alcohol percentage in your tank."
"The Chevy people told me this car needs a software update. I want to make sure that you've addressed that issue."
[Indifferent silence.]
Of all the problems facing the future of ethanol, I did not expect the dealer network to be the weakest link. An average customer would have been left with a car that would not run on E85. Lucky for me, a second call to Chevy PR sent them into panic mode, and they straightened out the dealership. But no, Tim O'Neill Chevrolet was not happy to see me again. On a long and lonesome highway, east of Omaha, I could only wish to be on the road again. But I don't feel much like riding, and I certainly wish the trip was through. Thank you, Bob Seger. Your lyrics are the only comfort in my five-hour delay.
As many bad experiences as I had in the Hawkeye State, there is one redeeming quality about driving through Iowa, and that is free wireless Internet access at all rest areas. At home, I have to buy an overpriced latte for "free" wireless; Iowa has it in the bathrooms.
Nebraska was highway heaven compared with Iowa, thanks to straight roads, 75-mph speed limits, and (best of all for this trip) E85 signs before each highway exit. I even dared to stop without consulting OnStar. But later that night, near Colorado, I needed someone to talk to, and I would need fuel before turning in for the night. So once again, I called OnStar, and the operator not only found me a filling station in Denver but also called ahead to make sure it was open twenty-four hours. That is the beauty of OnStar. They will do anything for you--call a hotel, call a gas station--they'll even look up Web site information if you ask. But that's when they're on their A game. Much like E85 itself, OnStar's E85 support is not quite ready for prime time. Most of the time it works. Other times, you get put on hold so long that the system hangs up.
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Filling up with E85 is exactly like filling up with regular, except that if you're dumb enough to huff the fumes, you might notice that E85 smells like cheap vodka instead of gasoline. Driving an Impala on E85 also is exactly like driving an Impala on gasoline, except for slightly improved throttle response. It takes about four judgment-impairing beers before the Impala starts to look attractive, and since I was driving sober, I didn't get too excited about my ride. In all fairness, though, the Impala cruises down the highway just fine. It also has nice chrome door pulls in the interior and the most draft-free sunroof ever made, but there's nowhere to put your change.
After finally arriving in Golden, I take a tour. The ethanol plant sits in a small corner of the fifty-five-acre brewery and makes ethanol from two sources. First, the slush of yeast left over from the brewing process is dried. The dried yeast goes to Purina for use in cat food, and the wet part--called yeast condensate--is distilled into alcohol. The other source of ethanol is straight beer. Beer spilled in production, beer that doesn't meet specification, and oversupply (how can there be too much beer?) is all turned into fuel instead of being treated as wastewater. About 98 percent of the ingredients in the brewing process either end up in the beer or get recycled. The ethanol plant works a lot like a vodka distillery, except it has an added step that separates every last molecule of water so it won't screw up your engine.
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To me, a lapsed engineer, it is all incredible. And the free beer provided at the end of the brewery tour has me feeling fine. So I'm feeling pretty good about ethanol. Reducing our foreign oil consumption is a good idea, even if ethanol does that only by a tiny amount. And it doesn't cost extra to have an E85-equipped car. Every Impala with the base 211-hp, 3.5-liter V-6, for instance, is a flexible-fuel vehicle.
Economically, there are a lot of good things going for ethanol as well. Oil production is running near peak capacity right now, and demand continues to increase. In other words, oil is not going to get cheaper, but renewable ethanol should stay around the same price. It also has help in the form of a 51-cent-per-gallon tax credit. But ethanol isn't on every corner yet; it's not even close. There are still thirteen states that don't have any E85 stations. For now, E85 remains a fuel of the future unless you live near an ethanol pump. The closest I'll get to "Live Green, Go Yellow" will be more like "Go Yellow, Live Green" after I drink a case of Coors Light and recycle the cans.


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