We've all seen the headlines that General Motors and others have created in the past year: "E85 to save the world," or something to that effect.
Don't believe what you read, folks.
If E85 is going to wean us off Middle East oil, we're going to need a few more ethanol pumps in America. And a few more ethanol production plants. And a few more acres of farmland devoted to energy production vs. food production. Little things like that.
A recent multistate road trip from Detroit to Minneapolis -- right into the heart of E85 country -- looked like a great opportunity to find out how a Chevrolet Suburban would run on the mix of 85 percent alcohol and 15 percent unleaded gasoline.
If you look up fueling locations at E85fuel.com, you'll see that nearly 300 of the nation's 700 or so E85 stations are in Minnesota. An additional 40 are next door in Wisconsin, smack dab in the middle of our planned trip. We figured if we couldn't find E85 fairly readily on this trip, its future might not be so bright. (Michigan, by the way, is home to 19 E85 stations. We've yet to find one on our regular commuting routes.)
The good news: You can get E85 in out-of-the-way places such as Tomah, Wis., and Waseca, Minn., not just in big cities such as Minneapolis, St. Paul and Milwaukee.
The bad news: You might want to call ahead to check on availability and get directions to your E85 station of choice because you won't find the stuff at every big service plaza at every exit along the major freeway routes.
Hot spots, dry hole
We used the Suburban's excellent navigation system, backed by cell phone, to target our E85 pumps. Even then, one station that advertised E85 turned out to be a dry hole.
"We're waiting on our pump," the attendant said.
We could have driven farther off the beaten path for our fuel of choice, or made a few trips out of our way, or made a point of filling up every time we spotted an E85 pump. But that's not how Americans buy their fuel. And it goes against the concept of saving fuel and money to drive out of your way looking for a certain product.
Most drivers buy fuel when they need it, and at the cheapest price they see. We're sure that folks who focus on E85 as their favorite fuel get to know the stations along their regular travel routes. But trying to rely on E85 for a cross-country jaunt just isn't that convenient.
Cost savings, but
E85 will save you 20 to 40 cents a gallon over regular unleaded gas. On the other hand, we'd been told to expect as much as a 15 percent hit on fuel economy running on E85. Our test showed an 18 to 23.5 percent drop in fuel economy over two tankfuls.
That means on a per-mile cost, we paid more to drive on E85 than straight unleaded. But isn't doing your part to save the planet worth a few more pennies to the oil barons and farming conglomerates?
The Suburban ran at 13 to 14 mpg on E85 vs. its normal 16 to 17 mpg on unleaded, which includes city and highway mileage. Highway range isn't a problem for a full tank that's as big as the Suburban's. But it could be an issue for E85 hunters who are nearing "E."
The Suburban rolled along just fine on E85, with no perceptible change in performance or power from the 5.3-liter V-8. It continued to cycle along between V-8 and V-4 mode, with no apparent change in operation.
We attracted the attention of a Wisconsin state trooper who stopped us just after we wheeled onto the freeway after a refueling stop. We were running 2 to 3 mph above the state's 65-mph freeway speed limit.
Cursing our blue Michigan license plate, we wondered: Could he really be stopping us for that?
Nope, said the trooper. Just thought you'd want to close that gas tank lid before you slosh your fuel out onto the highway. In our effort to document our E85 consumption, we'd forgotten to cap the tank and close the fuel door. Thanks, officer.
Sure glad he didn't get a whiff of all that alcohol.
You may e-mail Bob Gritzinger at [email protected]