LIKE ALL the U.S. car companies, Ford is trying to find the right mix of flexible-fuel models to offer consumers.

With current petroleum price woes, and growing interest in ethanol, the company kicked off 2006 by shipping its first F-150 E85 pickup trucks and introducing a new E85/electric hybrid SUV. It also discontinued production of what it claims were less popular ethanol-friendly versions of the Taurus and Explorer for consumer markets. The E85 Taurus will still be available for fleet purchases.

The first flexible-fuel vehicle (FFV) F-150s rolled off the assembly line at the company's Kansas City plant in late December and began arriving at dealerships, primarily in the Midwest, in late January. The FFV technology is built into the truck's standard 5.4-liter V-8 engine and is available at no additional cost. According to Kansas City plant manager Ken Ward, “Customers will find the F-150 FFV offers the same functionality as the gasoline version, including horsepower and torque.”

The company's other FFV introduction is the Escape Hybrid E85, which combines the FFV system with electric power. Touted as the first hybrid to also run on up to 85% ethanol, the Escape comes standard with a 2.3-liter I4 engine and is rated at 36 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway.

The nation's No. 2 automaker says it plans to produce 250,000 ethanol-capable vehicles this year, including the F-150, Ford Crown Victoria sedan, the Mercury Grand Marquis and the Lincoln Town Car.

Promotion of ethanol use

To promote ethanol and the use of its E85 vehicles, Ford last month launched a program called Midwest Ethanol Corridor that will expand the availability of E85 ethanol throughout Illinois and Missouri. Partnering with VeraSun energy, a renewable energy company, as well as city and state governments and several companies, the automaker aims to boost the number of locations where E85 is available by one-third, as well as increase the number of its hybrid vehicles on the roads.

Ford apparently chose to work in these states first because of the number of FFVs there, with 50,000 Ford FFV owners in Illinois and 28,000 in Missouri. The company will work with fuel providers to convert some 40 existing gasoline fuel pumps to E85.

Growing interest in E85s

This past year's rising fuel prices stirred up more interest in ethanol-friendly vehicles at dealerships around the Midwest. “I can't say our sales of E85 vehicles jumped significantly yet, but people are definitely asking about them a lot more,” says Jim Oman, salesman at Kohls-Weelborg Ford Mercury in Redwood Falls, MN. “If fuel prices continue to stay high, and there is a 60- to 70-cent difference in the prices of regular gas and ethanol, I expect more people will consider this type of vehicle, especially now that there is no additional cost for the feature, and with the addition of the F-150 E85 model.”

There are no real differences in service and maintenance of E85 vehicles, adds the dealership's service manager Jason Garmon. “All the service intervals are the same and most components are the same. The only differences are in the computer and the injectors, but those are minor,” he says.

Drivers of E85 cars and trucks generally report getting 2 to 3 mpg less on the ethanol blend, he adds, “and you can expect to have a little harder starting in the cold weather when you're running E85. That's why Ford recommends switching back to regular unleaded gas when temperatures go below 30°. You can still run on E85 in cold weather, but you'll probably just need to crank the engine a few times. Once it's warmed up, it runs fine.”

His other tip to E85 users: Don't regularly mix a tank with regular gas. “The vehicle's computer is designed to monitor how the fuel is burning and can tell what type of fuel is in the tank that way,” he says. “So it's best to run your tank down, if you're going to switch fuel types, so you're running either regular gas or E85. You'll get better performance that way.”

For more information about the new E85 F-150 or Escape Hybrid, contact your local Ford dealer, visit www.fordvehicles.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 203.