What does flex fuel mean? Over the past few years, you’ve likely heard increasingly more about flex-fuel vehicles, even if you didn’t fully understand what they were. Today, a number of known flex-fuel benefits exist. However, before investing in this type of vehicle, you should first understand what you’re purchasing. Continue reading to learn about flex fuel and its pros and cons.
What Does Flex Fuel Mean?
Flex fuel, or flexible fuel, is an alternative fuel made of a combination of gasoline and methanol or ethanol. Flex-fuel vehicles are those that have internal combustion engines designed to run on more than one type of fuel. Other than a few modifications to the engine and fuel system, says Kiplinger, flex-fuel vehicles are virtually identical to gasoline-only models.
This technology isn’t new. It was first developed in the early 1990s and used in the mass-produced 1994 Ford Taurus, according to Car Bibles. By 2017, there were approximately 21 million flex-fuel vehicles on the road.
Flex Fuel Benefits
Let’s look at some of the reasons you might want to consider making the switch to flex fuel.
Cleaner for the Environment
Car Bibles states that more people today are concerned about fuel consumption’s effects on the environment. Ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline, which means flex-fuel cars pump fewer toxic fumes into the environment. Flex fuel also contributes fewer greenhouse gases, making it a more environmentally friendly option than traditional gasoline.
One of the greatest advantages of a flex-fuel vehicle is that is can burn whatever proportion of fuel mixture is in the combustion chamber. The car is equipped with electronic sensors that gauge the blend, and its microprocessors adjust the fuel injection and timing.
According to Car Bibles, modern flex-fuel vehicles are built using advanced technology such as electronic sensors. As mentioned, these technological advances allow your car to adjust the way it’s operating, including detecting the fuel blend and making any necessary adjustments.
Modern flex-fuel cars can contain 10 to 85 percent ethanol. Thanks to the technology it’s equipped with, your vehicle will determine the most efficient proportions.
Many flex-fuel vehicles run on ethanol, which is sustainably produced from ingredients such as cane sugar and corn. This makes ethanol a good alternative to purchasing foreign oil.
Consumers who drive flex-fuel cars receive tax credits that can significantly reduce or even eliminate their tax obligation.
While some might argue that using an alternative fuel source can negatively impact a vehicle’s performance, in reality it can have the opposite effect. Flex-fuel vehicles don’t experience a loss in performance when using E85 fuel. In fact, some even generate increased torque and horsepower.
Disadvantages of Flex Fuel
Flex fuel does have some disadvantages you should be aware of before purchasing one of these vehicles.
Sole Crop Use
While it’s great that flex fuel can be sustainably produced using corn and sugar, its production comes with a downside. Crops designed to be used for flex-fuel production can’t be allocated to other sources.
This could potentially drive up the price of animal feed. Corn is also susceptible to disease and weather conditions such as flooding and drought. This can be problematic for corn prices during poor harvests.
Possible Engine Damage
Obviously you want to treat your engine in the best way possible. Unfortunately, ethanol absorbs dirt easily, which can potentially corrode and damage your engine, says Car Bibles.
One of the main concerns about driving a flex-fuel car is its gas mileage. While some experts assert that flex-fuel vehicles have similar mileage as regular fuel-powered vehicles, others claim they have lower gas mileage.
While ethanol does raise a vehicle’s octane level, it contains less energy. In other words, it will take 1.5 times more to provide the same energy levels. So, yes, you will get fewer miles per gallon using ethanol. However, ethanol costs less than regular gasoline, so the savings should more than offset the mileage loss.
Scarcity of Fuel Stations
Because flex fuel isn’t as economical as gasoline, gas stations are less likely to carry it. In fact, only a small percentage of gas stations nationwide supply ethanol, although that is likely to change as more consumers purchase flex-fuel vehicles.
The benefit of a modern flex-fuel vehicle, though, is that you can use any combination of gasoline and ethanol, whether it’s 100 percent unleaded gas or 85 percent ethanol. Your vehicle’s sensors will detect the blend and make the necessary changes.
How Does Flex Fuel Work?
A flex fuel car running on E85 will generally run just as it does when running on pure gasoline, with a few key exceptions. The pump octane number of E85 is typically 110, as opposed to gasoline’s 84 to 93, which means it can withstand more compression before auto-igniting, or “knocking.”
That means it’s possible to run more spark advance and thereby extract slightly more power out of an engine running on E85 than the same engine can produce when burning regular or premium unleaded gasoline. (Note that a variable compression engine should really be able to capitalize on E85, but the Nissan/Infiniti VC-Turbo engine is not currently flex-fuel rated.)
Another big difference: Because E85 contains just 73 to 83 percent of the energy found in a gallon of gasoline, range and measured fuel economy both decrease when operating on E85. Fuel economy typically drops by 15 to 27 percent relative to today’s pump gasoline, most of which has contained 10 percent ethanol since 2010.
What Makes Flex-fuel Vehicles Different?
Although modern automobiles can tolerate a certain amount of ethanol in gasoline without serious issues, increasing ethanol content to 83 percent requires that the fuel system is made of materials that can resist its corrosive effects, especially in terms of the additional moisture in E85 fuel.
Flex-fuel vehicles use a sensor to detect the type of fuel being fed to the engine and adjust the combustion process accordingly. You can even mix a tank of standard gas with E85 with no risk of damage, although there’s no benefit to doing so.
Can My Car Use Flex Fuel?
Manufacturers make flex-fuel vehicles with modified internal combustion engines using traditional gasoline and ethanol blends, such as E85. A badge with “Flex-Fuel,” “FFV,” or “E85” on the rear of the vehicle may indicate it is compatible with the alternative fuel.
Having a yellow gas cap is a good indication that the car can use flex fuel. If the vehicle has a capless fuel filler, a yellow ring around the hole where the nozzle gets inserted signals E85 works for the vehicle.
Using any octane level of gasoline in a flex-fuel vehicle is acceptable. The sensors in an FFV detect whether the fuel is pure gasoline or 85% ethanol and make necessary changes for optimal fuel injection and timing of combustion.
Putting E85 in a car not designed for flexible fuel can be harmful. Always refer to the owner’s manual for specifications on fuel to use in your vehicle.
Can You Still Buy Flex Fuel Cars?
In recent years, manufacturers have slowly drifted away from flex-fuel. As recently as 2015, eight major manufacturers were offering E85-compatible vehicles in the US. Today, only Ford and General Motors are selling new flex-fuel vehicles – and most of those models are limited to fleet sales.
Not that long ago, the federal government provided financial incentives for automakers to produce flex-fuel vehicles. Today, the government has moved these incentives to electric cars. This is a good thing, but it can be frustrating if you’re not ready to leap to electric.
Thankfully, there’s a healthy used market. With over 20 million flex-fuel vehicles on America’s roads, you can still buy a used model in good condition.
Where Can I Buy Flex Fuel?
The Department of Energy reports that there are 3,300 stations in 42 states currently dispensing E85 fuel, with the highest concentration in the Midwest. (Other sources peg the total number of stations as high as 4,800.) Minnesota has the most (451), followed by Illinois (298), and Michigan, Indiana, and Iowa each have just over 200 stations.
There are no public E85 stations in Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, or Rhode Island. Selling E85 requires installation of a dedicated tank, which reportedly costs in the neighborhood of $60,000, which helps explain the dearth of E85 stations. The DOE offers a zip-code station locator here.
Where Does Flex Fuel Come From?
Ethanol is a domestic energy source and as such helps to reduce our reliance on imported oil. The U.S. is the world’s largest ethanol producer, generating some 16 billion gallons per year, 98 percent of which comes from corn.
The U.S. and Brazil account for 85 percent of the world’s ethanol production (most of Brazil’s ethanol comes from sugar cane). Six states in the Midwest produce 72 percent of that total: Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, and South Dakota (listed in descending order of production).
Availability of E85 and FFVs
More than 5,700 gas stations across the U.S. sell E85 flex fuel, mostly in corn-producing eastern and midwestern states. You can find vehicles compatible with E85 nationwide because those automobiles can also use traditional gasoline.
It’s unclear how many flex-fuel vehicles exist on the road today. One study found 21 million FFVs in the U.S. in 2017. More recently, some estimate more than 27 million vehicles are using flex fuel.
The number of new FFV offerings from manufacturers has decreased. The reason: Federal incentives for automakers shifted to those building electric vehicles.
Three automotive brands — Chevrolet, Ford, and GMC — offer FFVs in the model year 2023. Only nine configurations of 2023 models are available as FFVs, down from 11 in 2022. Some offerings are sold only to fleet purchasers.
According to the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), more than 80 different models from eight manufacturers were available to consumers as recently as the model year 2015.
Does Flex Fuel Save Money?
The cost of adding flex-fuel capability to a new vehicle is minimal and seldom passed along to the customer because flex-fuel capability has long brought with it a Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) benefit.
So the math revolves primarily around whether your local fuel cost relative to gasoline is reduced sufficiently to cover the expected 15 to 27 percent reduction in fuel economy that can be expected with E85.
At the time of this writing, the EPA is figuring a $2.28/gallon national average cost for E85 and a $2.25/gallon average price for regular unleaded fuel.
That means that for the current crop of flex-fuel-rated vehicles listed below (whose combined EPA rating on E85 drops by between 17.6 and 31.6 percent when operating on E85 versus gasoline), the annual fuel cost increases by between $450 and $850 a year when operating on E85 (assuming 15,000 miles/year, driven with a 55/45 percent split of city/highway driving conditions).
A few caveats: Drivers in the Midwest may well find E85 priced sufficiently lower to make driving on E85 pencil out; if your region and season land you with the 51 percent blend, the range drop will be far less, so your results may vary—widely.
Back in 2014, I ran a long-term GMC Sierra Denali on E85 for a month and saved 2 cents/mile on gasoline costs, but back then E85 was selling for 80 cents per gallon less than gasoline in Michigan.
Other Ethanol Fuels
E85 isn’t the only ethanol-gasoline blend on the market. Here are some of the most common types:
- E10 fuel contains 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline. It can be used in ordinary gas engines and makes up the majority of gas sold in the US.
- E15 fuel contains 15% ethanol and 85% gasoline. It’s not as common as E10 yet, but 95% of passenger vehicles in the US now support E15.
- E25 is a 25% ethanol blend that hasn’t caught on as well as the others. Even so, you can use it in BMW and Mini vehicles.
- E98 is a 98% ethanol blend that you won’t see at your local gas station. It’s commonly used for compatible racecars, though.
What Does The Future Hold For Flex Fuel?
Ethanol as fuel has been a political football for years, pitting Midwestern corn-producing states against the rest of the country in a pitched battle for fuels legislation (the Iowa caucus going first in presidential campaigns makes it political suicide to be against ethanol).
As the new-vehicle market has shifted away from E85 compatibility, the Renewable Fuels Association has switched its focus to increasing the “regular gas” blend from 10 to 15 percent.
The EPA has approved E15 for use in all vehicles produced since 2001, but not all manufacturers have blessed the fuel for that long. All GM cars have been E15 compatible for nine years, Fords for eight, but Mercedes-Benz, Mazda, Mitsubishi, and Volvo still don’t include E15 as an approved fuel in their owner’s manuals.
It is not recommended for motorcycles, light-duty trucks, or medium-duty passenger vehicles. So, for the foreseeable future, E15 will need to be labeled and sold alongside E10. The Renewable Fuels Association reports that 1,900 stations are currently selling E15.
Will flex-fuel be cheaper than petrol?
Yes. Flex-fuel uses ethanol along with petrol to create a flex-fuel blend. This reduces the amount of petrol used, thereby reducing the amount of imported petrol, which results in a lower fuel price.
What cars can use flex-fuel?
Cars with specially designed engines featuring electric control modules can use flex-fuel. The electric control modules sense the blend of fuel being used and effectively control how the engine burns the fuel.
Can flex-fuel be used in a petrol car?
No, flex-fuel requires a specially designed engine to be used. Pure petrol cars lack the components to effectively use flex-fuel, which could damage the car’s engine.
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