2006 Chevrolet Impala E85: Hopped up on Ethanol

Michael Austin

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.

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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