Somerset is in the vanguard of forecourt outlets where area police have signed up to 15 Ford Focus Flexi Fuel Vehicles (FFV).
Assistant Chief Constable Steve Mortimore of Avon and Somerset Police took delivery of the first five fully-liveried FFV estates last week. They will be used as emergency response vehicles.
A further 25 Ford Focus FFVs are destined for other members of the Somerset Biofuel Project, and Ford has received other inquiries for Ford Focus FFV patrol cars from forces in West Yorkshire, Humberside and the Metropolitan Police. The Ford Focus FFV – also available as a version of the C-Max – can run on bioethanol or unleaded fuels in any mix in the same fuel tank.
It is being heralded as a major contributor to reducing global climate change through reduced CO2 emissions.
The Focus FFV will come in estate and five-door trim, in the usual LX, Sport, Zetec, Zetec Climate and Ghia trim levels.
Ben Whitworth has test driven a 1.8-litre Focus five-door hatch and investigates the implications of the new fuel for fleet drivers.
Focus FFV prices start at £14,095 for the entry level LX five-door model. Interestingly, the 1.8-litre engine plugs the obvious gap between the 1.6 and 2.0-litre models in the Focus line-up.
The Euro IV-compliant engine develops 125bhp at 6,000rpm and 122 lb-ft of torque at 4,000rpm for a 0-60mph of 10.3 seconds and a 123mph top speed.
Running on unleaded petrol, the Focus FFV returns 40.4mpg on the combined cycle with a CO2 rating of 169g/km. Switch to E85 and combined economy drops to 30.3mpg while the CO2 level stays the same at 51g/km. However, there’s no denying the environmental advantages of E85 fuel – run an FFV and its field-to-forecourt CO2 level is a huge 70% lower than an equivalent petrol-powered Focus.
It will be hugely useful in helping the Government achieve its goal of 5.75% of all transport fuel sold in UK being renewable by 2010.
This is all well and good, but you don’t need to be a maths genius to realise that FFV’s figures don’t add up. Yes, Morrisons is currently selling it at around two pence per litre cheaper than normal unleaded, but factor in a 25% slash in fuel economy and the upshot is you will need very deep pockets to fuel your green conscience. A dramatic drop in economy is not going to make fleet managers very happy.
But – and it’s a but that could be bioethanol’s saving grace – another important characteristic is its ability to carry hydrogen in chemical form.
Which means that it could establish itself as the ideal step between fossil fuel and hydrogen power, being burned to create hydrogen, which is then used as a vehicle power source.
Behind the wheel
Driving the bioethanol-powered Ford Focus Flexible Fuel Vehicle (FFV) is much the same as driving any other petrol Focus.
Our example, a 1.8-litre Focus five-door, felt like every other Focus we’ve driven, with the usual taut handling, firm ride and punchy performance.
Punchier in fact, because at 107, the Octane rating of its E85 fuel is significantly higher than that of 95 octane unleaded petrol.
Key to the FFV’s appeal is its utter normality. It looks, feels and drives just like a standard Focus. You aren’t faced with any special dials or instruments in the cabin to indicate its fuel flexibility and you refuel it just as you would any other petrol or diesel Focus.
Peel off the small green Flexifuel badge on the car’s rump, and no-one would be able to distinguish it from a standard Focus.
Changes to the engine itself are pretty minimal, too.
Because bioethanol is more corrosive than unleaded, the engine has hardened valve seats and the fuel lines that link the tank and the engine are fitted with more robust seals and gaskets.
And because the FFV can run on any mixture of E85 and unleaded fuels, the engine’s ECU electronic black box is also recalibrated to detect the varying ratio of bioethanol to standard unleaded and adjust the ignition accordingly.
And because it is a flexible fuel system, the FFV can run on any mixture of E85 and unleaded for greater geographic freedom. So why not run the car on 100% bioethanol, as motorists do in Brazil? Because you won’t be able to start your car on a cold morning.
The bio-fuel’s lower combustive nature makes it harder to fire up the engine on icy winter mornings – which isn’t a problem in Brazil.
So, an utterly normal Ford Focus, running on an impressively green fuel. And that’s the idea, according to Andy Taylor, Ford’s European sustainability director.
‘What we want to do is make the car feel like an ordinary Focus, so that’s there’s no stigma attached to the car, or to make the driver feel he is driving something different or odd,’ he said.
‘It should look, feel and drive like a normal car. That’s crucial to customer acceptance.’
But FFV drivers will find themselves filling up more often – although performance from E85 is perkier, it has lower carbon content than unleaded petrol, which means fewer miles per gallon. Ford claims that economy drops by 25%, so that the FFV’s combined economy figure is 40.4mpg when running on unleaded and 30.3mpg on bioethanol.
If a customer mistakenly puts a small amount - up to two litres - of E85 bioethanol in a conventional petrol car and drives away, no damage would be done. The misfill should first be diluted by adding the correct fuel until the tank is full.
If a customer mistakenly fills up with E85, he or she should contact the dealer for the fuel to be changed. The consequence of driving could be misfiring and damage to the catalyst. This is because a Flexible Fuel Vehicle is able to detect and adjust for E85, which contains more oxygen than petrol.
Sweet formula, shame about the consumption
Ethanol is the alcohol produced by the fermentation of sugars, and bioethanol is the form of alcohol that is naturally derived from feedstocks such as wheat, sugar cane and sugar beet.
It can also be derived from cellulose, grass or even waste materials. In the UK this bioethanol is called E85 – named because of its 85% bioethanol content, the remaining 15% comprising unleaded fuel.
The key to bioethanol’s appeal is it environmental friendliness. When viewed over its entire life cycle – from field to forecourt – bioethanol is almost carbon neutral because of the high degree of CO2 absorption by the crop as it grows.
Cars that run on a high ethanol content fuel, such as E85, produce around 70% less carbon emissions compared with unleaded fuel vehicles. Bioethanol also has a higher 107 octane rating, which means enhanced engine performance compared to 95 octane unleaded petrol. Emissions may be lower, but fuel consumption is higher because bioethanol’s calorific content is lower than that of unleaded petrol.
One gallon of E85 contains less energy than one gallon of unleaded petrol. The result is an E85 fuel economy drop of around 25% over an equivalent unleaded petrol-powered engine.
Tax breaks will be key to healthy bioethanol future
Sugarcane-based bioethanol imported from Brazil is currently available through ten Morrisons supermarket petrol stations.
Five of the forecourts selling bioethanol are in Somerset, where Ford has the highest concentration of its Focus FFVs.
The remainder are in East Anglia – three in Norfolk and two in Suffolk. Within three years though, the UK should be producing enough bioethanol to satisfy national demand and meet export requirements if necessary.
Green Spirit Fuels, the UK’s leading bioethanol development company, was launched last June by cereal giant Wessex Grain. In January this year, it was given the production go-ahead by South Somerset District Council Planning Committee to build the UK’s first grain bioethanol plant at Henstridge in Somerset.
The £50 million private-funded plant will start producing bioethanol using an advanced cellulosic ethanol extraction process, in January 2008, converting 350,000 tonnes of locally grown high-starch wheat into 120 million litres of ethanol.
The waste product will be used as cattle feed.
British Sugar plans to build a second bioethanol plant fuelled by sugar beet in Wissington, Norfolk. Somerset was chosen for this venture for two reasons – firstly, its local economy is primarily rural based, making it an ideal location for grain production and secondly because it is located close to livestock-intensive farming communities that would benefit from the cattle-feed by-product of the bioethanol plants.
According to Graham Hilton, Green Spirit’s bioethanol strategic consultant, the UK has such as high arable efficiency that it has the ability to generate one third of its road fuel from bioethanol production without impacting on food production.
He expects the Tesco super-market giant to follow in Morrisons’ footsteps and sell bioethanol fuel Ford is not the only manufacturer to embrace bioethanol – Saab now has bioethanol versions of its recently revised 9-5 model on sale, and Renault has said that by 2009 half of its petrol-engined cars on sale in Europe will be able to run on fuels containing up to 85% ethanol.
The UK would be following a tried and tested path – both Sweden and Brazil have incredibly successful bioethanol production programmes.
There’s no denying the long-term appeal of bioethanol. It offers virtually carbon-free motoring without any of the compromises suffered by alternatives like liquefied petroleum gas. Flexi-fuel vehicles look, feel and drive just like standard petrol or diesel-powered cars. Fuel stations need little modification to stock and sell the fuel – it can be stored in the same tanks as unleaded or diesel and the dispensing pumps need no alterations.
On a global stage, the freedom from the reliance on fossil fuel would go some way to alleviating the reliance on the Middle East and its high levels of political instability.
But the ultimate determinant of bioethanol’s longevity in the UK will be tax breaks from the Government. At the moment it retails for around two pence less per litre than normal unleaded. Factor in the reduced economy from the bioethanol and, despite, its green credentials, it is not going to have much appeal to even the most fervent environmentalist.
Ford FFV appeal is being ‘normal’
The air of utter normality about the Ford Focus FFV will be a key part of its appeal, reckons Jeff Knight, CAP’s future residual forecast manager.
‘Unlike cars that run on liquefied petroleum gas, the FFV isn’t compromised with a second fuel tank, you don’t need different filler points with different nozzles,’ says Knight, ‘and you can fill it with any combination of E85 and normal unleaded.’
He added that the geographic spread of E85 is going to be important, but not that crucial to the FFV’s appeal simply because you can run it on any fuel.
‘To really get the fleet advantages you will need a depot-based fleet because the infrastructure is crucial to maintain the FFV’s low CO2 tax levels.
‘I’m not seeing the Ford’s fuel flexibility as a disadvantage simply because it is so normal, and there’s no re-conversion cost to be borne by the used buyer when the car is de-fleeted.
‘I’m pretty certain it will retain its value as well as a conventional petrol-fuelled Focus.’