The test market for E85 is Minnesota -- home to about a third of the nation's E85 pumps, with more on the way.
Ethanol has integrated itself into the culture of Minnesota to a greater extent than in any other part of the country, thanks to a massive effort among corn growers, gasoline stations, auto companies and even the American Lung Association.
It's not uncommon for a car shopper to walk into a dealership there and request a flex-fuel vehicle without being prompted.
"It's just a matter of time before it starts spreading across the country," said Bob Ryan, owner of Ryan Automall, a Chevrolet and Cadillac dealership in Buffalo, Minn. "As gas approaches the $3-plus level, we have got to look for alternative fuels."
Todd Snell, owner of Snell Motors in Mankato, Minn., said the key to making the fuel more popular throughout the country is teaching people that it benefits everyone. "This has gone from something that's good for pocket-protecting environmental types to something good for everyday men," Snell said. "Before, flex fuel was for people who wanted to be different -- the tree huggers."
As for ethanol's poor fuel economy, he said, people are aware of it. "This isn't about a gasoline versus ethanol thing," he said. "This is about: Do you want to buy gas from people who are trying to kill you? That's when the everyday person gets it. They know someone who is in the Middle East fighting or has a son or daughter who's in the Middle East fighting."
General Motors gave sales of E85 a boost with a fuel-card promotion that ran from May through July in Minnesota. People who purchased flex-fuel vehicles got a $1,000 card that could be used at selected stations for either gasoline or E85.
"When you say E85, that really doesn't mean anything to a lot of people. But when you see a one-thousand-dollar gas card " said Roger Moody, president of Friendly Chevrolet in Fridley, Minn.
Moody credits the flex-fuel option with doubling his Impala sales.
"Normally we'd have some Impalas sitting around," he said. "The ones that burn E85 are gone. They are hard to get right now."
Chicago area Chevy dealer Raymond Scarpelli Jr. also reports brisker sales. He decorated his dealership with cornstalks to generate excitement about E85 and flexible-fuel vehicles. To provide customers a visual illustration of how little gasoline is in E85, the dealership displayed a one-gallon milk jug filled to the 15 percent mark with cola.
Moody has become a big advocate for ethanol. He cites Brazil, where ethanol has nearly freed the country from dependence on imported oil.
"If it works in Brazil, why would it not work here?" he asked. "I don't see any negative with it."
You may e-mail Leslie J. Allen at [email protected]