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.