DETROIT - Ford Motor Co. will dramatically boost production of ethanol-burning vehicles, building about 250,000 flexible-fuel vehicles over the next three to four years.
The program begins in earnest in the 1999 model year, when Ford plans to build 50,000 to 60,000 Ranger pickups that can run on E85, or gasoline, or a mixture of the two. E85 is a mixture of 85 percent ethanol, an alcohol-based fuel made from corn, and 15 percent gasoline.
Last week's announcement is meant to spur more installations of pumps that dispense E85, said Mike McCabe, marketing manager of worldwide alternative fuel vehicles. Currently, there are fewer than 40 E85 pumps in the United States, and most are in the Midwest.
But at the same time, Ford will reap corporate average fuel economy benefits from the move - an important factor as growing sales of fuel-thirsty trucks, sport-utilities and minivans drag down the fleet CAFE average to the point where the automaker runs the risk of being hit with penalties.
To encourage use of alternative fuels, the federal government awards automakers extra CAFE credits for selling vehicles that run on fuels other than gasoline.
McCabe said the credits mean Ford can sell two fuel-thirsty vehicles for every flexible-fuel vehicle sold.
The Ranger will use the same 3.0-liter V-6 engine that is used in flexible-fuel versions of the Taurus sedan, which was introduced in 1992. Ford sold about 5,200 flexible-fuel Taurus units in the 1996 calendar year, and has sold about 5,000 so far this year, spokeswoman Sara Tatchio said. In the last seven years, Ford has sold 12,117 flexible-fuel vehicles.
The V-6 is also suitable for other vehicles, such as the Windstar minivan, that will be used to meet the 250,000 unit goal, said McCabe.
With incentives, the flex-fuel Taurus costs about $345 less than a conventional Taurus, even though the upgrade costs Ford about $300 per vehicle, McCabe said.
About half that upgrade cost is for a sensor, mounted in the fuel line, that determines the mixture of gasoline and ethanol. Other changes include upgrading the fuel tank and lines to stainless steel because ethanol is more corrosive than gasoline.
McCabe said ethanol has lower emissions and slightly better performance because the fuel has a 105 octane rating. Also, because it is derived from corn, ethanol is a renewable fuel source.
But on the down side, ethanol has about only 75 to 80 percent of the energy density of gasoline. That means a vehicle has to burn more ethanol to go the same distance as gasoline.
So even though E85 is about 12 to 15 cents cheaper per gallon than gasoline, the owner of a flex-fuel vehicle spends about 15 percent more on fuel than for a gasoline-fueled engine, McCabe said.
Nonetheless, Ford is strongly committed to the program, McCabe said. 'This is a good bridge type of vehicle for future alternative fuel vehicles,' he said. 'With the flex-fuel strategy, the owner is not penalized for driving outside the range of fueling infrastructure.'
METHANOL ON THE WANE
An apparent loser in Ford's decision is the methanol industry, which has also been touting its wood-derived fuel as an alternative to gasoline.
Ford has offered the flex-fuel Taurus in both ethanol and methanol versions. While more than 5,200 ethanol Taurus models were sold last year, only about 500 methanol versions were sold.
Ford has not built any methanol versions of the flex-fuel Taurus this year, but continues to offer the option, and will do so for the 1998 model year, spokeswoman Tatchio said.