What Are Flexible-Fuel Vehicles (FFVs)?

Not a hybrid, but they do take gasoline blended with ethanol

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A flexible-fuel vehicle (also known as FFV) might sound fancy, but it’s not a hybrid, and it doesn’t rely on any cutting-edge technology. A flexible-fuel vehicle is just a car, SUV, or truck with the option to run on gasoline that has been blended with ethanol. A flexible-fuel vehicle may not be right for everyone. Comparing the pros and cons will help determine if it is a good choice and worth considering.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, flexible-fuel vehicles (also known as FFVs) are those that can run on gas that contains up to 85% ethanol (also known as E85) without experiencing any performance loss other than a decline of 15% to 27% of their fuel efficiency.

Driving a flexible-fuel vehicle will cause your gas mileage performance to decline somewhat.

In 1994, the Ford Taurus E85 was released with a computer system that could distinguish between fuel blends and allowed it to run on gasoline blended with ethanol. Now, there are many more options for FFVs on the market today. According to the Renewable Fuels Association, there were more than 24 million FFVs on the road in the United States as of 2018. 

Pros and Cons of Flex-Fuel Vehicles

Pros

  • Cleaner fumes

  • Makes you feel good

  • Choice of fuel

Cons

  • Lower fuel economy

  • Chance of engine damage

  • No tax benefits

Cleaner Fumes

While FFVs still emit waste from the tailpipe, ethanol burns cleaner than traditional gasoline does, so you’ll be keeping the air around you cleaner.

A Choice that Makes You Feel Good

Do you believe in reducing our reliance on foreign energy sources from often unfriendly regions? E85 fuel helps us do that. Likewise, you’ll be using fuel grown by domestic corn and sugarcane farmers, and you’ll be helping keep the planet greener. 

Choice of Fuel

As the name implies, an FFV empowers you to choose between using traditional gasoline and an E85 blend. If E85 prices are low in your area, this could save you money.

Lower Fuel Economy

Ethanol is a less efficient source of fuel than traditional gasoline is—in other words, ethanol-laden fuel contains less usable energy per equal amount of gas. Because of this, a flex-fuel vehicle that is running on E85 is going to have a slightly lower gas mileage. Depending on E85 prices, this could mean you are paying more to travel a shorter distance when you opt for this fuel type. 

A Chance of Some Engine Damage

E85 can sometimes corrode the engine if it has absorbed any impurities on its way into your tank.

No Tax Benefits

Currently, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) only offers a tax benefit on qualified plug-in electric vehicles, so an FFV doesn’t qualify.

How Much Does a Flexible-Fuel Vehicle Cost?

There are many FFVs on the market, and they range in price. An FFV doesn’t necessarily cost more than any other type of vehicle. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center offers a list of the various types of FFVs on the market. Among 2019 models are the Chevrolet Impala, Ford Explorer, and Chrysler 300. While cost may differ by dealership and location, these vehicles could start at around $28,020, $32,365, and $29,470, respectively.

The costs of driving your car and choosing to fuel it with ethanol will depend on a variety of factors. Where you live can have an impact on cost, as can the state of the global oil market, and the yield of corn and sugarcane crops in recent years. According to the website E85 Prices, E85 costs an average of $2.11 per gallon in the U.S. as of December 2019.

Make sure you do the math and figure out whether it makes sense for your budget to fuel with E85. 

For example, if you estimate that you lose 25% of your fuel efficiency on E85, and regular gasoline is $2.50 a gallon at the station, you should fuel your car with E85 only if it is priced at $1.87 per gallon or less.

You can find and compare FFVs, calculate your flexible-fuel miles per gallon (MPG) for your vehicle, and learn other tips for driving more efficiently on FuelEconomy.gov.

Additionally, some formulations of E85 can also corrode your engine faster because ethanol easily attracts dirt and other impurities. Make sure that you regularly maintain your vehicle to avoid E85 causing any damage. It may not be more expensive to repair an FFV, but you may have to factor in the cost of additional inspections if you regularly fuel with E85.
Last, choosing to drive an FFV is typically not something that will increase or decrease your car insurance premium. Of course, the type of vehicle itself might—a sporty model is going to generally be more costly to insure, whether fueled by traditional gas or E85. 

The Bottom Line

An FFV has its pros and cons, from offering you another fuel choice and burning cleaner to decreasing your fuel efficiency and not offering tax benefits. Regardless, an FFV might be the right choice for you. Just be sure to crunch the numbers to determine if it also fits into your budget.

Article Sources

  1. U.S. Department of Energy. "Ethanol," Accessed Nov. 1, 2019.

  2. U.S. Department of Energy. "Fact Sheet: Ford Taurus: Ethanol-Fueled Vehicle," Accessed Nov. 26, 2019.

  3. Renewable Fuels Association. "RFA Releases Updated Brochure Allowing Consumers to Track Latest Flex Fuel Models," Accessed Nov. 26, 2019.

  4. IRS.gov. "Plug In Electric Vehicle Credit IRC 30 and IRC 30D," Accessed Nov. 26, 2019.

  5. U.S. Department of Energy's Alternative Fuels Data Center. "Alternative Fuel and Advanced Vehicle Search," Accessed Nov. 26, 2019.

  6. Chevrolet. "2019 Chevy Impala: Full-Size Car - Sedan," Accessed Nov. 26, 2019.

  7. Ford. "2019 Ford Explorer SUV," Accessed Nov. 26, 2019.

  8. Chrysler. "2019 Chrysler 300," Accessed Nov. 26, 2019.

  9. E85 Prices. Accessed Nov. 26, 2019.