Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

The Consumer Guide to E85 Ethanol Vehicles

        Auto | Fuel-efficient Vehicles

The Cons of Buying an E85 Ethanol Vehicle
Added expense and reduced convenience are the primary drawbacks of driving a flex-fuel vehicle on E85 ethanol, and you also may feel limited in the variety of vehicle types available to you. Here are some of the negatives you need to consider if you're thinking of buying an E85 ethanol vehicle:

Fuel Efficiency

In the expense category, E85 ethanol users need to buy more fuel and fill up more often than they would using 100 percent gasoline. That's because E85 ethanol fuel contains less combustible energy as gasoline per unit of volume.

Overall, using E85 reduces fuel economy by about 20 percent. In other words, a tank of E85 ethanol will take you only about 80 percent as far as a tank of conventional gasoline. Running on conventional gas, the V6 Chevy Impala, for example, is rated at 21 mpg city/31 highway. Running on E85, the same Impala is rated at 15 mpg city/22 highway.

Not only will you consume more fuel using E85 ethanol, you may pay more per gallon. Rising demand, limited supply, and extra costs associated with the transportation of E85 all play a role in its pump price. The EPA in November listed the average price for a gallon of E85 ethanol nationally at $2.41, compared to $2.23 per gallon for regular-grade gasoline. However, some Midwest service stations were pricing E85 ethanol as much as 30 cents per gallon below regular-grade gas.

General Motors used the 2007 Chevrolet Avalanche to launch its
"Live Green, Go Yellow" E85 campaign.

To help defray fuel costs, GM, as part of its "Live Green, Go Yellow" E85 ethanol campaign, gives buyers of its flex-fuel vehicles a $1000 debit card toward the purchase of E85 ethanol fuel. (As of November 2006, the offer was good only to buyers in the Chicago and Minneapolis areas.)


Convenience is an issue, too. It may be difficult to find a gas station that carries E85. Fewer than 1000 of the nation's 180,000 gas stations have E85 pumps, and most of those stations are in Midwest corn belt states. As of November 2006, Minnesota had the most E85 fuel sites, 300. Illinois had 132, Missouri 63, Iowa 56, and South Dakota 50. Most states had fewer than a dozen. Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont had none.

A list of stations that carry E85 ethanol can be found at And if you drive a GM flex-fuel vehicle equipped with the OnStar assistance system, the OnStar advisor can direct you to the nearest E85 refueling station.

Limited Selection

Choice is a hallmark of today's automotive landscape, but that's not necessarily so for E85 ethanol vehicle shoppers. The list of flex-fuel vehicles includes such popular models as the Impala and Chevy Tahoe, Ford F-150 pickup, and Jeep Grand Cherokee. But it does not include two vehicle classes gaining favor with fuel economy-conscious buyers: subcompact and compact cars.

The automakers have decided, for now, to concentrate their E85 ethanol flex-fuel programs on larger vehicles, which are less fuel-efficient to begin with than small ones. Their strategy holds that the E85 ethanol campaign is designed to reduce America's consumption of gasoline, so the greatest good comes from using E85 ethanol in the vehicles that burn the most gasoline.

"It's all about reducing the amount of petroleum that vehicles use," said Dave Barthmus, GM's spokesman for environmental and energy matters. He said GM's calculations show that over 15,000 miles, "a small [gas/electric] hybrid car" will consume 120 more gallons of gas than an E85 ethanol flex-fuel Tahoe full-size SUV with a V8 engine.

Barthmus said GM acknowledges some of the disadvantages of flex-fuel vehicles, such as less range per tank of fuel than on 100 percent gasoline. "We're trying to be as up front about that as possible," he said. However, he added, GM is optimistic that increased production of ethanol would lower E85 pump prices, and that more refueling stations would come on line to address the issue of convenience. Still, he acknowledged, using E85 ethanol fuel may be "more [an expression of] altruism than economic sense."

For some people, altruism may be incentive enough. Whatever your motivation, the next page has a comprehensive look at your 2007 E85 ethanol flex-fuel vehicle choices.