Print 43 comment(s) - last by ebakke.. on Nov 12 at 11:52 AM

The GMC Sierra is a flex-fuel vehicle with some power and a sweet interior.  (Source: Jason Mick, DailyTech/vehicle courtesy of GM)
I drove a big-truck, but I didn't eat any burgers

For my adventure to the Platts Cellulosic Ethanol and Biofuels conference 2008, GM courteously gave me a Flex Fuel Vehicle (FFV) to try out.  I sort of expected (or hoped) for perhaps a FFV like the Impala or Monte Carlo, which would be familiar territory as I drive a mid-size sedan as my daily kicks.  That was not in the cards though -- GM offered me a "larger vehicle".

I said yes, as I was eager to compare the FFV experience, but I didn't know quite what I got myself into until it rolled up.  It was huge!  I was lent a 1/2 ton payload GMC Sierra 1500 LT Crew Cab pickup -- a monster of a truck.  Amazingly this huge beast was capable of running on E85.  I wasn't sure at first what I would think of the truck -- the largest vehicle I had driven in my life was a Jeep Cherokee.  I quickly warmed up to the experience though, and by the end of the trip I felt like a trucker and was more than a little sad to see the big guy go.

Now, as I said, I can only represent those who come from a non-truck background, but I can say that while the Sierra is a beast, it is a pretty manageable one.  The cockpit is spacious and roomy and it seats 5 comfortably.  The ride is ultra smooth and there's no noticeable difference in acceleration or other character when running on E85 vs. running on gasoline.

The truck was a bit of a monster to park, but modern sensors helped me to pull off slick Chicago parallel parking successes.  The sensors beep when you get close to an object in the rear, so you won't be running over lesser cars.

Compared to other rides, one of the nicest features is the very responsive cruise control.  The acceleration and deceleration on hills is much better tuned than in most cars and it maintains your desired speed almost flawlessly.  The Vortec 5.3L V8 (aluminum block) was a real performer.  Fuel economy was actually pretty decent -- by my estimates I got around 19 mpg-21 mpg on the highway, at times beating the rated 19 mpg.

The car featured a large 26 gallon tank, that costs a small fortune to fill these days, but can take you from Detroit, Michigan to Chicago on less than 3/4 of a tank. 

One thing that struck me about the E85 experience is how true GM's Candace Wheeler's talk about the lack of ethanol stations is.  There are stations to be found, but you have to go looking for them -- you won't wander across them typically.  For this reason, committing to ethanol fully is a serious business (though GM makes the choice easy as you can just run on normal gas primarily).

I filled up ethanol for the return trip that featured a good deal of slow/rural driving.  Currently ethanol is almost $0.40 more than gas in the part of Chicago where I filled up, which was frustrating.   As a result, a full tank cost around $70.  However, I should note that this particular station may have been price gouging a bit on ethanol, so this might not be the general state of things.

Returning back I got around 11-12 mpg, under the rated mileage, but in line with GM's estimate of a 25 percent dip in fuel economy for city mpg with ethanol (as most of the drive time was at sub-highway speeds due to extensive construction).

The OnStar directions service was also quite handy and easy to use.  The operators spoke perfect English and were courteous.  They even were able to give me an alternative route during heavy traffic -- I was impressed.

In the end, like I said, I got kinda attached to the big old truck.  Some, such as DailyTech's Michael Asher would certainly be shocked to hear me make such comments (Michael, I didn't eat any burgers at least....), but GM has simply put together a truck that can even please non-truck lovers after a little acclimation.  The Flex Fuel concept is pretty cool in my opinion, too.  It allows you the flexibility of using regular gas or ethanol -- whichever is least expensive.  That way, even if you don't support foodstock ethanol, you can start to use ethanol once the market makes the switch to cellulosic as Coskata and others bring plants online.

While the F150 may reign supreme in sales on a yearly basis, those in the mood for a powerful truck, might want to give the Sierra a try.  They would get a lot of truck for their money, indeed.  They might be purchasing a beast of a vehicle, but it’s a friendly one at that and gets as good gas mileage as many older sedans.

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By MrPickins on 10/19/2008 11:37:40 AM , Rating: 2
So with the ethanol $.40 more than gas and the fuel economy on ethanol being 25% lower, how much more per mile did you end up spending?

This is the reason I don't bother with E85 in my FFV Ranger, even with a fueling station nearby. The price of E85 is never low enough to beat the cost/mi of gasoline, and rarely comes close to even.

I'm still hoping the cellulosic ethanol comes through, though.

RE: Milage
By FITCamaro on 10/19/2008 1:44:48 PM , Rating: 2
I think its only more expensive for now cause of gas plummeting. Don't expect it to last.

RE: Milage
By jsv35 on 10/19/2008 1:52:10 PM , Rating: 2
The E85 station just down the street from me here has it going for around $2.50 right now, which is almost $0.60 cheaper than gas. This is just outside of Madison, WI.

RE: Milage
By MrPickins on 10/19/2008 3:01:05 PM , Rating: 1
You pretty much proved my point.

Since you only get ~75% fuel economy from E85, the price should be 3/4 the price of gasoline to break even in cost/mi. With E85 at $2.60 and gasoline at $3.10, ethanol is only 20% cheaper. You are losing money (admittedly not much, but some).

RE: Milage
By omnicronx on 10/20/2008 10:06:55 AM , Rating: 3
Since you only get ~75% fuel economy from E85, the price should be 3/4 the price of gasoline to break even in cost/mi.
75% fuel economy is not across the board, it all depends on the design of the engine. Many E85 engines are very close or match the fuel efficiency of the exact same gasoline engine. For example the new Saab 95 has the exact same fuel economy whether it uses E85 or gasoline. I also know that fords line of E85 Tauruses have long been very close, with less than a 5% gap, which does make it cheaper than gasoline in most cases.

Its a very common misconception that all E85 vehicles have 25% less efficiency, and its just not true. Its all up to the manufacturer, those that have taken the time to take advantage of E85's pro's and limited the cons ended up with the best results. Expect most flexfuel vehicles within the next 5 years to follow suit.

RE: Milage
By MrPickins on 10/20/2008 11:33:28 AM , Rating: 3
I am specifically referring to energy density by volume.

Gasoline has an energy density of 33.72 mJ/L, whereas E-85 has an energy density of 25.65mJ/L (only 76% of gasoline).

As for the Taurus, you seem to be sorely mistaken. From what I can gather they include the same POS 3L 6-cylinder engine as my Ranger does, and I can assure you it gets nowhere near the same mileage on E85 as gasoline (based on empirical data of my own).

Maybe you shoud check out this site in more detail...

As for the Saab, energy doesn't magically appear from nowhere, the engine really must be inefficient on gasoline if it runs the same mileage on E85 as gasoline.

RE: Milage
By RTFWiki on 10/20/2008 12:42:17 PM , Rating: 2
E85 consumes more fuel in flex fuel type vehicles when the vehicle uses the same fuel/air mixture and compression for both E85 and gasoline because of its lower stoichiometric fuel ratio and lower heating value. European car maker Saab currently produces a flex fuel version of their 9-5 sedan which consumes the same amount of fuel whether running e85 or gasoline

Saab accomplishes the above mentioned task by controlling the boost depending on the fuel in the tank.

In another test, however, a fleet of Ford Tauruses averaged only about 6% fewer miles per gallon in the ethanol-based vehicles as compared to traditional, gas-powered Tauruses.

*Friendly tip: Wiki/Google is your friend, Pickins

RE: Milage
By MrPickins on 10/20/2008 1:47:42 PM , Rating: 4
Did you bother reading my link? Show me one year that the Taurus gets the close to the same mileage on E85. I seriously question the study you reference it just doesn't match up with the my experience, or the rated mileage values.

Ok, the Saab uses a lot of extra electronics to transition between fuels and maximize economy (the Taurus does not as far as I can tell). How much does all that cost to include? My whole argument is about cost/mi. Unless the added cost is small, the fuel savings won't cover the difference.

Friendly tip: Don't believe everything you read, especially when it comes from a corporation's marketing department...

RE: Milage
By RTFWiki on 10/21/2008 7:09:33 PM , Rating: 1
it just doesn't match up with (sic) the my experience

My apologies. You obviously would know better than a study on an entire fleet of vehicles.


RE: Milage
By tomthehand on 10/27/2008 10:34:10 AM , Rating: 2
I looked over Saab's site, and can see no claim that their cars provide the same fuel economy with E85 as they do with gasoline. They do claim more power, because the higher octane rating of E85 lets them run more boost, but fuel efficiency is conveniently not mentioned; if they did get the same fuel economy, you'd think they'd say something about it. I'm going to go out on a limb here (heh), and say that Popular Science, the reference in the Wikipedia article, doesn't know what it's talking about and it interpreted Saab marketing-speak ("You can put in E85, and the driver won't notice any difference") as "E85 gets the same fuel economy as gasoline".

In the study of Ohio's fleet of Ford Tauruses, the FlexFuel vehicles got 6% less fuel economy, but only 63.4% of the fuel they used was E85. Their economy had they run E85 exclusively would have been worse. Here is the actual report:

This is what happens when you rely on Wikipedia blindly, rather than checking your facts with the cited source.

RE: Milage
By NullSubroutine on 10/20/2008 4:58:23 AM , Rating: 2
Same, here in Iowa/Neb/SD, E85 is almost a $1 cheaper, but then again we have about 20 ethanol plants in a 100 mile radius. (I may be exaggerating)

I think ethanol make sense, just not as an E85 blend. I think 15-25% would be best balance. Though, I am not a chemist, but 10-15% ethanol always ran pretty well in my 98 Malibu.

RE: Milage
By omnicronx on 10/20/2008 10:11:28 AM , Rating: 2
Ethanol, with our current ways of production is pretty much pointless, just taking into consideration the cost of energy it takes to produce it, it is only good for a little more than 15% green house gas reduction over gasoline. And this does not take into account the high tech and costly transportation costs. (if you have ever seen a taker with ethanol you know what I am talking about).

Using ethanol in cars not gasoline cars not designed to make use of it is not very smart either, having 25% ethanol will do little to nothing except raise the price of produce, and your the vehicle itself, and as you have already pointed out, it certainly does not help with engine temperature.

RE: Milage
By FITCamaro on 10/20/2008 10:40:10 AM , Rating: 2
How did you get to engine temperature?

And as far as it goes, you want a hot engine. You want it has hot as possible. Higher compression = more heat. More heat equals more efficiency, more power, and less emissions.

RE: Milage
By Fracture on 10/21/2008 12:51:01 PM , Rating: 2
E85 gas station here in Schaumburg, IL (a suburb of Chicago) is usually $0.60 less per gallon than normal gasoline (currently $3.19/gal).

You got gouged.

RE: Milage
By inperfectdarkness on 10/23/2008 3:38:41 PM , Rating: 2

i have a friend who completely switched to e85-e95 on his 1992 mitsubishi. his words as follows:

e85 has better combustion characteristics than octane, and can handle higher levels of boost, SAFER, than c16 (race gas).

based purely on performance generated by ethanol vs. race gasoline--e85 is a steal.

the largest, most often overlooked (by right-wing naysayers), and most beneficial aspect of ethanol is that its capability as a fuel source has much less to do with it's inherent btu rating--and much more to do with how well it utilizes that potential energy upon combustion.

i'll remind you that gasoline is VERY thermally inefficient--since most of the total output generated is heat.

flex fuel vehicles CANNOT take full advantage of ethanol because of the inherent lower-threshold limitations imposed by mandating the optional use of conventional octane. for all intents and purposes, the only difference between these two fuels is you'd need 30% larger injectors to run ethanol at any given power output level. (this does NOT directly correspond to mpg).

and don't even get me started (with the bs) on how ethanol will potentially drive up the cost of crops.

RE: Milage
By ebakke on 11/12/2008 11:52:45 AM , Rating: 2
and don't even get me started (with the bs) on how ethanol will potentially drive up the cost of crops.
Not a fan of facts, eh?

"Very large vehicle" ??
By tjr508 on 10/19/2008 6:03:37 PM , Rating: 2
Last time I checked, the 1500 is a "light truck."

You guys need to get out of the city more.

RE: "Very large vehicle" ??
By s12033722 on 10/19/2008 8:20:20 PM , Rating: 1
It's also a 1/2 ton truck, not one ton, but I was still pleasantly surprised to see a fairly reasonable take on the truck. Good job, sir. Also, my V6-powered AWD import car gets about the same mileage as that truck, and a V8-equipped sports car like the '05-'06 GTO, current Corvettes, etc. all get MPG in the upper 20's to low 30's depending on driving style. A big, powerful engine comfortably moving a vehicle is more efficient than a small straining one.

RE: "Very large vehicle" ??
By MrPickins on 10/20/2008 1:03:54 AM , Rating: 2
For most people, a 1/2 ton pickup is a "very large vehicle."

It's definitely no compact pickup.

RE: "Very large vehicle" ??
By the goat on 10/20/2008 7:50:02 AM , Rating: 2
For most people, a 1/2 ton pickup is a "very large vehicle." It's definitely no compact pickup.

I would call the vehicle in question a mid-size truck (1/2 ton truck). I drive a full-size truck (3/4 ton crewcab F250) and I don't consider it a "very large vehicle".

The bottom end of "very large vehicle" would be a boxtruck (UPS van) or a utility truck (power company bucket truck). I wonder what the original poster would call a fire truck or an 18-wheeler?

RE: "Very large vehicle" ??
By MrPickins on 10/20/2008 5:50:40 PM , Rating: 2
Ok, "very large personal vehicle". Feeling better about the semantics now?

RE: "Very large vehicle" ??
By Spuke on 10/20/2008 12:17:21 PM , Rating: 2
For most people, a 1/2 ton pickup is a "very large vehicle."
I know tons of people with trucks and none consider them "very large vehicles". That's usually saved for vehicles like semi-trucks, buses, etc.

RE: "Very large vehicle" ??
By FITCamaro on 10/20/08, Rating: 0
RE: "Very large vehicle" ??
By Spuke on 10/20/2008 2:18:43 PM , Rating: 2
Maybe to people in Cal-i-for-nya
Not even out here. We're the truck capital of the world.

RE: "Very large vehicle" ??
By mindless1 on 10/20/2008 6:19:52 PM , Rating: 2
Unless you get the crew cab and extended bed, driving a 1/2 ton pickup is more like driving a compact pickup than either is like driving a compact car.

After the past couple decades' proliferation of minivans and SUVs, many people would psychologically consider this smaller, more easily handled than those.

When you wrote "most people" I think you were overgeneralizing young city dwellers, at least in the US, as outside the cities it's quite common for every other vehicle to be a truck or SUV when drivers are old enough to have more income to afford a larger vehicle. Recent gas price hikes may change that in the future.

RE: "Very large vehicle" ??
By MrPickins on 10/20/2008 7:46:07 PM , Rating: 2
Take a look at the picture of the vehicle in question. It's not a single-cab shortbed.

FWIW I grew up in in rural TX. I still say that a 1/2 ton pickup is on the "very large" end of the passenger vehicle spectrum.

RE: "Very large vehicle" ??
By mindless1 on 10/22/2008 5:58:21 PM , Rating: 2
Compared to a car yes, but surely there's plenty of vans and SUVs down there? A pickup tends to feel smaller than it is compared to these other two vehicle types because of the lower center of gravity and lesser blind spots in the rearview mirror. You still have to be mindful of the larger turning radius, esp. when parking but this is easily enough adjusted to.

2 things
By Screwballl on 10/19/2008 11:55:38 AM , Rating: 2
1) Those who are not "truck" people do not realize how much fun and power we enjoy with these beasts. "Its a truck thang" lol
As a guy that has owned almost nothing but trucks since I started driving 16 years ago, I will never choose a car over a truck or at least larger SUV. Even these crossovers are more car than truck and tend to get ignored when it is time to buy for us truck types.
It also makes a big difference that I am 6'5" 220lbs and cars tend to wreak havoc on my knees and back if I drive them too long or in/out of them too much. Anyone 6'2" and shorter just wouldn't understand (and yes those 3 inches do make a big difference).

2) All this talk about gas mileage and safety tends to come from 5'3" people driving these super compact death traps that by themselves have a 5star crash rating but have a much higher death rate or serious injury rate when in an accident with any vehicle that s larger than itself. Granted they may get 40mpg but the way technology is progressing, I suspect it will be another decade or two when we start seeing these full size trucks getting 30-40 mpg city mileage. The testing and technology starts with Prius' and Volts and similar cars, but eventually makes it way up to the larger vehicles.

Sure I may pay more for gas overall right now but the safety and security of driving a larger vehicle and keeping me and my family safe is worth much more than just saving a few dollars in gas now.

RE: 2 things
By djc208 on 10/19/2008 2:28:33 PM , Rating: 4
I get the truck thing, I've owned them. In fact I just bought a "new" '46 Dodge PowerWagon as my next restoration project, a truck if there ever was one, but the "safety" excuse is always kind of annoying.

If that's what you need to justify buying one to yourself fine, but truth is it doesn't help get us away from them as a society, (and their dismal fuel economy and excessive nature), if we frighten everyone back into HUMMERS and F150s because it's not "safe" in anything else. It's an arms race we don't need any more of.

You need a truck because your tall, fine. You like the room and power, fine. You comfortable with the costs, fine. I own a HEMI powered car, I get the fun and power side of vehicles. Just don't excuse not being PC in buying a truck because it's "safer". By the "it's safer" logic I should drive a dump truck because I'll be safer if I get hit by your pickup, next thing we'll all be driving tanks.

RE: 2 things
By FITCamaro on 10/21/2008 10:25:43 AM , Rating: 2
You remember the Power Wagon concept Dodge came out with several years back?

By killerroach on 10/20/2008 10:04:41 AM , Rating: 2
The car featured a large 26 gallon tank, that costs a small fortune to fill these days, but can take you from Michigan to Chicago on less than 3/4 of a tank.

Not that impressive... I live in Michigan (just outside of Kalamazoo), and it's less than a two hour drive to Chicago. Maybe going from Detroit to Chicago on 3/4 of a tank?

RE: Clarify?
By aguilpa1 on 10/23/2008 10:59:41 AM , Rating: 2
I agree, 3/4 of a tank for a 2hr drive is very bad. I just drove from Lubbock Texas to El Paso 6hr drive in my 2004 Ford F150 with 4.2L V6 1/2 ton pickup, 22gal tank over 400miles each way and I still had almost 1/4 tank arriving there (one way). This was driving loaded through 5400+ft elevation at Guadalupe Peak, round 75mph.

This flex truck sound like a fat cow compared to that.

RE: Clarify?
By tjr508 on 10/24/2008 2:16:06 AM , Rating: 2
Detroit to Chi Town is not a 2 hour drive.... Read more carefully next time...

RE: Clarify?
By aguilpa1 on 10/24/2008 10:35:43 AM , Rating: 2
well what is it than? cause it still sounding like a fat cow.

Price Gouging?
By dever on 10/20/2008 2:18:37 PM , Rating: 2
may have been price gouging a bit on ethanol
Mick, what is your definition of price gouging? Do you think "price gouging" should be out-lawed?

In my estimation, since you as a consumer were willing to pay, it's especially hard for you to justify your claim of "price gouging."

In my opinion, what some people label "price gouging" is simply a reflection of a whole panoply of market factors. Since these factors aren't immediately obvious to you, or someone else who might want to justify some external force to repress free cooperation between individuals, some people immediately cry something meaningless like "price gouging."

If prices are higher than market conditions can bear, then the seller will not make a profit. On the other hand, if a seller ignores conditions that support a higher price and allows the prices to be artificially low, shortages will occur.

Laws banning price gouging are more than just bad ideas, they are harmful. We have "price gouging" laws in Florida, and the effects during hurricanes are obvious and detrimental.

Even though there is an increased demand of supplies like batteries and fuel, stores are restricted from reflecting the basic economics of supply and demand in their prices. This causes individuals to purchase more gas or batteries than they would have otherwise causing shortages. Those who are hurt the worst are those who need it the most.

RE: Price Gouging?
By Ringold on 10/20/2008 7:47:37 PM , Rating: 2
Laws banning price gouging are more than just bad ideas, they are harmful. We have "price gouging" laws in Florida, and the effects during hurricanes are obvious and detrimental.

I love how people around here in Florida whine about price gouging, and then, at least here in central Florida, were throwing a fit and wondering why we were having some shortages of gasoline after that hurricane hit Texas not long ago. Simultaneously, some gas station owners attempted to preserve their fuel stocks in the face of panic-driven surges in demand by hiking prices, and what happened to them? They were nailed to a holy socialist cross for violating our price gouging laws. Now, I know they were trying to cash in on a pay day, but that's how capitalism works; by working in their own self interest, the effect of those gas station owners actions would've been to preserve gasoline for those who really needed or wanted it. Instead, we just ran out in some places.

This plays in to psychology. If some people don't like the price, they'd rather everybody suffer rather than allow others to buy what they want. We see in economic tests that even in simple games people are willing to harm their own situation if it satisfies their base instinct for vengeance; anti-"price gouging" laws are partly a reflection of that in the real world.

I'm not going to jump on Jason about it though. This was his best blog post ever. :P

RE: Price Gouging?
By FITCamaro on 10/21/2008 10:32:35 AM , Rating: 2
Well a better way to preserve the stocks would be to limit people on how much they can buy. I remember before Hurricane Frances you had people pulling up to gas stations with 50 gallon drums (and some idiots with plastic garbage cans) to fill up with gas. Happens with almost every major storm.

Gasoline is one of those things that people have little choice to buy for those who need it to go to work. Price gouging laws seek to make sure they can get it without stations jacking up the price to $8 a gallon because they know they'll get it. Stations should just stop people from filling up 50 gallon drums or other large containers before hurricanes hit. And some do.

I'll agree on things like generators and wood though, it can be bad.

RE: Price Gouging?
By dever on 10/29/2008 11:50:48 AM , Rating: 2
Artificially limiting supply also has harmful effects. It's fine if an individual supplier wants to limit quantities purchased, but not if this is coming from government.

Here's the problem with assuming that the activities of others are nefarious... what if some of those "idiots" filling large containers were pooling resources and getting fuel for a number of people in the neighborhood (there may be some elderly retirees in FL). By restricting everyone to 8 gallons, you force everyone to sit in line wasting gas, with engines running to get fuel. That person may then come back 4 times to fill 4 vehicles, wasting gas each time.

The best solution is to free the market so that prices reflect demand. That way everyone will conserve while prices are high.

Fuzzy Math?
By joemoedee on 10/20/2008 10:21:15 AM , Rating: 2
Returning back I got around 11-12 mpg, under the rated mileage, but in line with GM's estimate of a 25 percent dip in fuel economy with ethanol.

It was stated that the truck obtained 19-21 mpg on Gas. As a sidenote, having a V8 GMC myself, that is what I normally maintain in mostly Atlanta Highway driving.

To be in line with the 25% dip you'd have to be 14.25-15.75 mpg. It ran closer to a 40% dip with the 11-12 mpg numbers.

RE: Fuzzy Math?
By Keeir on 10/20/2008 12:16:49 PM , Rating: 2
I think the author noted he did not drive Highway on the return trip.

"Amazingly capable of running on E85"?
By tallcool1 on 10/20/2008 1:14:28 PM , Rating: 2
Amazingly this huge beast was capable of running on E85
Why is this amazing? The size of the vehicle has absolutely no impact on the ability of a modern combustion engine to be configured to run E85.

By Topweasel on 10/21/2008 4:52:00 PM , Rating: 2
Its the tree hugger in him. It might as well read I can't believe a Truck or SUV (read nemesis's)can use green fuel. Obviously we know the tree hugger and anti-tree hugger by the titles. But nothing has better Defined Mr. Mick then that comment.

Now if only people would let him in on the fact that it isn't really cleaner and puts a strain on food production. Then he can go back to hating all things SUV and Truck.

Being honest
By djc208 on 10/19/2008 3:49:13 PM , Rating: 2
Thanks for being honest about your experience in the truck. All this criticism of the Big Three over their Truck/SUV culture wasn't without a basis, and it wasn't because they forced them down the public's throat. People liked these vehicles for all the reasons you listed and more.

Problem is the whims of car and truck buyers change faster than the industry can design and manufactur new models. Detroit makes some of the best full-size pickups and SUVs, but it was at the cost of other markets. It takes time to change that focus.

Ford and Dodge haven't upgraded their pickups this year because it was a good time to do so, they did it becuase they had been planning and designing these changes for years. The market has been changing fast, and any corporation as big as GM or Ford has trouble moving fast.

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