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Consumers driving flex-fuel vehicles are paying a lot less to fill up

But even with record-high gas prices, automotive experts say the alternative fuel has little future

Person filling car with gas
Photo (c) Anchalee Phanmaha - Getty Images
At gas stations that sell E85 fuel, or flex-fuel, consumers who are filling their tanks may be shocked at the price difference between their purchase and those who are paying for regular or premium fuel. 

At some stations, the difference between E85 and regular is around 70 cents a gallon, meaning a 20-gallon fillup costs around $14 less. But unless you’re driving a vehicle specifically made for the cheaper fuel, using it can cause engine damage.

“Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFV) are very similar to traditional gas-powered vehicles in most ways,” Mia Bevacqua, chief mechanic at CarParts.com, told ConsumerAffairs. “However, the engine management system in an FFV must be designed to monitor the fuel concentration so that engine operating parameters can be adjusted accordingly.”

Automakers embraced the technology around 2008, the last time gasoline prices hit record highs. With today’s emphasis on electric vehicles, you don’t hear much about the older technology.

Automakers unlikely to step up production

Karl Brauer, an executive analyst at iSeeCars.com, says it’s highly unlikely that automakers would pivot to turning out more FFVs, even in today’s record-high fuel price environment. Even if they wanted to, they would encounter more of the same challenges they now face.

“There’s more technology going on inside the engine compartment than with a standard car and there are more microchips involved, more advanced sensors and technology under the hood,” Brauer told ConsumerAffairs. “Just like electric cars are more difficult to make in this environment because they use more microchips, flex-fuel cars present more challenges to carmakers than traditional vehicles.”

Bevacqua agrees. While it’s true that the U.S. would be less dependent on oil if more vehicles used E85 fuel, automakers are highly unlikely to move back to the technology.

“Even though E85 might cost less per gallon than regular gasoline, FFVs tend to have a lower fuel economy rating than traditional vehicles,” she said. “E85 contains less energy than regular gasoline, resulting in higher fuel consumption. In addition, E85 is often derived from corn and other crops, which are valuable food sources.” 

FFVs in demand

Bevacqua says cars with electric powertrains will also reduce the country’s dependency on oil but without tapping valuable food sources.

Consumers can still find FFVs on dealer lots, but the vehicles are likely in demand now and will carry a premium price. In addition to the reduced fuel economy, Brauer says drivers could end up buying a lot of regular gas since the availability of E85 could be an issue.

“I’m not sure how many stations sell high ethanol fuel,” he said. “Again, it’s probably similar to electric cars when it comes to infrastructure. It’s certainly not going to be as common as standard gas stations.”

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