The Chevrolet Impala is one of America's best-selling family sedans. After close to 50 years on the U.S. highways and byways, this car continues to improve with every generation. And on all fronts: inside, outside, and under the hood.
For 2008, Chevy has made a solid commitment to the Impala’s flex-fuel capabilities. Unlike other E85 offerings, the Impala is ethanol-compatible at virtually all trim-levels and engine types. This means the LS, LT, and LTZ models are all flex-fuel. Also, this year, the larger 3.9-liter V6 joins the base 3.5-liter V6 as a flex-fuel engine offering. Only the SS model of the Impala strictly runs on straight gasoline. For advocates of E85, the Impala is one of the front-running flagships in the alternative fuel brigade.
The Impala earns big points for its powerful and efficient engines, an available six-passenger seating configuration, and solid crash testing scores. All of these make it a strong contender for family car of the year. The suspension is a little soft, which results in an overall comfortable ride for passengers, but somewhat compromises handling dynamics behind the wheel. The two things that really hurt this vehicle’s appeal are its cheap, low quality cabin materials, and a noticeable shortage of legroom in both rows.

Bowmanville, Ontario - The large “Powered by Ethanol” stickers on the flanks of my Impala tester provoked me to look further into this alternative fuel source, sending me on a mission to fulfill their bold claim.

As it turns out, the domestic automakers have been quicker to provide “FlexFuel” vehicles - vehicles that can operate on E85, which is a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline - than the imports (Nissan being the only exception). GM claims to have put over two million FlexFuel vehicles on the road so far. (FFV’s can often be readily identified by a “FlexFuel” badge on their rump and a yellow fuel filler cap).
Part of this domestic enthusiasm for E85 doubtless lays in the fact that ethanol, which is a form of grain alcohol, is currently produced primarily from corn - a popular crop in North American agriculture, with all of its attendant social and political implications, GM’s recent investment in alternative-source ethanol producer Coskata notwithstanding.

Getting some positive green press is always a good thing too, though there are several studies arguing both ways as to whether conventional-source ethanol fuel really is or is not ultimately friendlier for the environment by the time it is grown, cultivated, harvested, and refined. It’s definitely not carbon-neutral.

Probably the biggest factor is the US Government’s CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) legislation, a fleet-averaged economy standard which the automakers must meet or face stiff financial penalties.

Considering how comparatively truck and SUV-biased the domestic automakers’ vehicle fleets are, adopting a relatively inexpensive and transparent technology, which helps them meet CAFE regulations - and thereby reduces their substantial fines - is a no-brainer.

The benefit is quite significant, because only 15% of an FFV’s fuel consumption (the gasoline portion, while on E85) is factored in to the fleet average, making each FFV sold a valuable offset. Expect to see even wider availability of E85-capable models soon, as the CAFE average was just tightened to 35 miles per US gallon.
Still, it’s not a complete freebie for the automaker; ethanol is far more corrosive than gasoline, so steps must be taken to remove certain vulnerable materials from the fuel systems of vehicles intended to operate on concentrations higher than the 10% that’s already allowable in conventional fuel. This often involves the use of more expensive components.

Some additional engineering is required to allow the vehicle’s engine computer to adjust to whatever mixture of fuel is in the tank, be it straight gasoline, E85, or any proportion in between. This is because roughly 30% more E85 is required to provide the same power as straight gasoline, and E85’s combustion properties mean that minor spark timing adjustments are also necessary.

In the Impala, the computer relies primarily on feedback from the exhaust oxygen sensors to make these determinations. In my experience, the transition from straight gasoline to E85 and back was absolutely seamless, and the performance on either virtually indistinguishable.

Actually, the biggest trick is finding the fuel, and if you’re not in Ontario, you’re out of luck. At present, in Canada, only the UPI gas bars in Chatham and Guelph reliably offer E85 to retail customers. A third, independent station in Ottawa did not have any available at the time of my inquiries, but expected to offer it soon.

If you live close enough to the US border, you may improve your odds by cross-border shopping, though ethanol fuel is fairly scarce in the northern states too.A conversation with Guelph-based UPI Energy LP president and CEO, Robert Sicard, revealed that plans are underway to open additional E85 outlets in Oshawa and the Sudbury region, the former at the behest of both the City of Oshawa and General Motors, which has its Canadian headquarters, as well as production and engineering facilities, in town.

Mr. Sicard also confirmed that UPI’s ethanol is Canadian made, primarily sourced and produced in the Chatham region. Interestingly, each UPI station’s E85 supply is blended on site.

My tank of ethanol blend cost me 108.9cents per litre, 7cents per litre higher than regular gas, which isn’t unreasonable given E85’s premium-like 94 octane rating (premium gasoline is typically 11cents per litre more).
What does hurt is that you will likely use more E85 than gasoline to travel the same distance. Remember that ‘30% more’ fact? GM’s own estimated fuel economy numbers (in litres per 100 km) for the 3.9-litre FlexFuel Impala are 11.5 City/7.2 Highway on gasoline and 15.7/9.7 on E85 respectively - that’s a 35-37% increase in consumption, effectively making your equivalent litre of E85 worth about $1.48 - ouch!
(Strangely, my observations don’t entirely support those numbers; my E85 economy of 13.6 was just half a litre per hundred kilometres worse than my gasoline-only results. I chalk that up to two coincidental factors; better than 75% of my E85 driving occurred on the highway, and my gasoline driving was mostly in town and through slush and snow.)

GM’s promotional slogan for E85 is “Live Green, Go Yellow”, yellow being a play on both corn and the yellow fuel cap. As far as this fuel goes, my question would have to be, “How much green are you willing to pay to be green on yellow?”