Flex Fuel Vehicles and Using E85

E85 Flex Fuel

We had a listener last week with a 100,000-mile Ford pickup and he was considering switching from unleaded gasoline to E85 because he discovered his vehicle was a flexible fuel vehicle.

Flex Fuel Vehicles

Flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs) are designed to run on gasoline or gasoline-ethanol blends of up to 85% ethanol (E85). Except for a few engine and fuel system modifications, they are identical to gasoline-only models. FFVs experience no loss in performance when operating on E85, and some generate more torque and horsepower than when operating on gasoline. However, since ethanol contains less energy per volume than gasoline, FFVs typically get about 20-30% fewer miles per gallon when fueled with E85, thus wiping out any savings per gallon, and will cause you to go to the pump more often.

Weighing Cost Per Gallon VS Mileage Per Gallon

The EPA tracks fuel economy for all sorts of vehicles at its website, FuelEconomy.gov, including flex-fuel vehicles.  I looked at a 2017 Chevy Tahoe with the 5.3-liter V8.  Running on regular fuel, the fuel economy rating is 19 combined city and highway.  On E85, that drops to 14 combined.  The range on a tank of regular fuel is 494 miles, using the flex fuel option it drops to 364 miles. 

Putting a dollar amount to it, in Dallas, where I am located, regular fuel today is $2.16 per gallon.  E85, when found, is $1.73. I quickly calculated that for a 15,000 mile per year driver in the Tahoe, the annual cost for regular fuel is $1705.  With E85, even with the decreased per gallon cost, you will spend $1853 per year, resulting in a net increase of roughly $150 per year.

History of FFVs

FFVs have been produced since the 1990s, and more than one hundred models are currently available. Since FFVs look just like gasoline-only models, you may be driving an FFV and not even know it. Check your owner’s manual to find out if your car is a flex fuel vehicle if you are not sure. Usually, there is a badge on the back of the car, and they have yellow gas caps.

Filling Up With E85

If you decide to make the move to E85, know that it is not easy to find.  Currently, there are only 4000 E85 stations in America, and that number seems to be dwindling.  Many gas stations added the capability of dispensing E85 over a decade ago, only to switch the tanks back to regular gasoline.

The first car that could use E85 from an automaker was the 1996 Ford Taurus, but many have followed.  The 1996 Taurus could also run on methanol.  While there are a lot of vehicles able to use E85, it is estimated that fewer than 10% of the people who can use ethanol actually do.  Most who try E85 figure out quickly that although the cost per gallon is cheaper, overall it is more expensive.  Some who use it do so because it does burn cleaner, and results in fewer tailpipe emissions.

Bottom line:  if you want to use E85 in a vehicle equipped for it, it is fine to do, just don’t expect there to be any savings at the pump.

Photo Credit: Carolina K. Smith MD/Shutterstock

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