In little more than a month's time, a fresh-faced Holden Commodore will slip into showrooms and challenge the way we think.
For a start, it will be billed as the most environmentally friendly Commodore yet, producing far fewer emissions — small print attached — than even the all-new 3.0-litre V6 engine unveiled with much fanfare late last year. It will also ask us to reassess what we put into the fuel tank, for this will be a large family car with the potential to burn through less petrol than any other model before it.
Holden will soon fit the nation's best-selling car with what it calls a flex-fuel engine, capable of running on anything from 100 per cent petrol right up to E85, a shandy of 15 per cent petrol and 85 per cent ethanol.
Its bold move with the Commodore will usher in the age of flex-fuel cars, capable of drawing on a source of sustainable fuel to help owners make the most of dwindling oil supplies. By 2020, the maker wants to have a flex-fuel option for almost every model it sells in Australia.
Even better, the flex-fuel engine won't cost customers any more money to buy.
Australia, and Holden for that matter, are no strangers to ethanol. For some of us, it's been an unconscious part of our regular routine of filling up the family car with cheaper E10-blended petrol.
Holden has even shown several E85-compatible vehicles under the guise of concept cars, including the V8-engined Sportwagon (passed off as a US-only export) and the Coupe 60 (billed as Holden's 60th anniversary present to Australia). The maker also sold ethanol-friendly versions of the Commodore to Brazil as part of a former export program that helped Holden hone its skills.
Holden is keeping its powder dry, holding back most details about the rollout of the new engine until it arrives some time next month as part of a mid-life spritz for the Commodore.
But we're told it will be standard kit, just like the base-model Commodore's cloth seats, stability control and electric windows. Other than the "Ecoline" badge denoting Holden's commitment to more fuel-efficient motoring, most buyers probably won't even pick that the car is any different until they see the "E85" sticker on the fuel-filler cap.
And it will be entirely up to buyers to decide if, and when, they want to use E85, as the Commodore will still be capable of running on normal unleaded fuel.
Holden has already tested the water with E85 flex-fuel vehicles through its GM Premium Brands division. For several years it sold the Saab 9-3 compact and 9-5 mid-sized luxury cars with the option of turbocharged BioPower engines that could run on E85.
Even though the flex-fuel cars carried only a $1000 premium over conventionally fuelled models, BioPower attracted few buyers.
Holden's energy and environment director, Richard Marshall, will have the job of selling E85 to the buying public. He says part of the problem for Saab was the lack of availability of the fuel. At the moment, only a handful of service stations in Australia — scattered through Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide — sell the fuel to drive-in customers.
However, Holden is already ahead of the game, this week announcing a joint venture with fuel retailer Caltex Australia to establish E85 pumps at 31 outlets during the next few months. That will eventually expand across the eastern seaboard to 100 outlets in metropolitan and regional areas.
Holden wants to establish enough retail outlets that the closest one will be no more than a 10-minute drive away for most suburban-based E85 Commodore owners.
We already have plenty of the stuff. According to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, last year the big three fuel-grade ethanol producers - Queensland-based companies CSR and Dalby Bio-Refinery and NSW-based Manildra - had enough capacity to make more than 300 million litres of the fuel.
In anticipation of Holden's flex-fuel Commodore, capacity is this year expected to increase to 440 million litres. Manildra alone is already sitting on a lake of 100 million litres of fuel-grade ethanol, just waiting for buyers.
Feed stock for the distillers includes the surplus left over from making wheat starch, molasses left over from the sugar-refining process and sorghum.
There are other ways to make it that don't rely on food production; the so-called second-generation biofuels. US-based ethanol start-up Coskata caused a stir last year when it announced it would work with Holden's parent, motoring giant General Motors, to develop a refinery that can turn waste products as diverse as food scraps, timber offcuts and even lawn clippings into ethanol.
The company has since set up a small-scale plant in the US's north-east. Trials are producing about 400 litres of ethanol per tonne of dry biomass.
Coskata even visited Australia last year as part of an international roadshow to drum up support for the technology and is now in talks with the federal and Victorian governments to assess their interest in helping to build a full-scale plant here.
One of the big benefits that Coskata is spruiking about the technology - and one that is vital in a rain-parched country such as Australia - is that it can produce a litre of ethanol using less than half the amount of water needed to produce a litre of petrol.
But will it be cheaper? Marshall quotes industry figures showing it costs about 45 cents a litre to make ethanol. Drive tracked down a long-standing, independently owned outlet at Hoppers Crossing on Melbourne's western fringe selling E85 - almost exclusively to a select clutch of Saab customers and privateer race-car owners seeking a performance edge.
It has sold the fuel in relatively small volumes, with the pump price this week sitting at 99.9 cents a litre - the same price it has been for at least six months.
According to Biofuels Association of Australia chief executive Heather Brodie, when the first widespread sales of E85 start, it could be just as expensive to buy as petrol.
"Ethanol is still relatively expensive to make," she says. "Forward pricing is impossible to predict but I would think it would be about the same price, maybe a bit cheaper, than petrol."
We can get a sense of what to expect from the US, one of the largest markets for ethanol-blended fuel worldwide, where it is sold as either E10, E20, E30, E40, E50 or E85. The website e85prices.com shows that earlier this month, ethanol-blended fuel was selling for an average of about $US2.26 a gallon (about 66¢ a litre) compared with $US2.75 a gallon (about 80¢ a litre) for pure petrol, a difference in ethanol-blended fuel's favour of a bit less than 20 per cent.
In the past year, the average price spread between ethanol-blended fuel and normal petrol has ranged from a low of 10 per cent to a high of 22 per cent.
Ethanol will also get a leg-up from the Australian government. Hidden among the federal budget papers tabled in May was a gradual scheme to tax ethanol used as a transport fuel at the rate of just more than 12¢ a litre, to be phased in over a five-year period. Under an earlier proposal, fuel-grade ethanol was to be excised at just more than 38¢ in the dollar, the same rate at which petrol is taxed, phased in over a five-year period.
Brodie says that even though it is a win for the ethanol industry, the gradual reduction of the subsidy is about five years too early.
She also questions whether this system is fair for ethanol, saying her association would prefer to argue for a change to a more equitable system where the level of excise on a fuel is determined according to the amount of energy stored in it. This will mean ethanol will have a lower rate of excise than petrol.
Brodie would also like to see ethanol-blended fuels treated differently to help kick-start its acceptance by motorists.
"The industry is finding it really difficult because they want to increase production, to help Holden and others who are going to use E85, but at the moment it's quite prohibitive for them to do that," she says.
"So the chances are that Holden are going to have to import some of their supply."
Importing ethanol? The last time someone tried to bring in a shipload of ethanol in 2003, it generated a political storm that was felt all the way up to the Prime Minister's office.
According to Holden's Richard Marshall, the big difference the E85 Commodore will make will be at the pump.
"We're really moving ethanol into the mainstream," he says.
"Up until now it has very much been just a fringe thing but with us getting behind it and launching the car later this year, it will become mainstream in Australia and give people something to think about."
While it will initially be offered in what's likely to be one engine, Marshall says the mid-term plan is to add E85 compatibility to all the Commodore's engines. That means it will be spread across the 3.0-litre V6, a larger 3.6-litre V6 and Holden's 6.0-litre V8. It will also be available on a number of body shapes, including sedan, wagon and ute.
One of the big questions for buyers, though, is likely to be E85's green credentials.
The fuel has more energy than petrol and burns slightly more efficiently and with fewer carbon dioxide emissions. However, over a set distance the Commodore will burn through more E85 than petrol, so on a per kilometre basis fuel economy will be worse while driving on E85.
(Drive's experience of the Saab 9-3 Sport Sedan BioPower showed that the turbocharged 2.0-litre engine's fuel use rose by 20 to 30 per cent on E85, compared with running the car on regular unleaded.)
As far as greenhouse gas emissions go, Marshall says that while the as-yet undisclosed CO2 figures for the E85 Commodore are likely to hover around those for engines running on petrol, looking at the well-to-wheel life cycle of the fuel rather than just what comes out of the exhaust pipe shows it cuts emissions in half compared with unleaded petrol.
"People need to think about the amount of energy put into producing a fuel so it's ready to go into your tank, as well as the emissions when you use the fuel to drive the car," he says.
He cites US research showing that greenhouse gas emissions from producing fuels such as petrol and LPG add about 8 per cent extra to a vehicle's emissions. For the current Commodore, that means the petrol in the tank adds an extra 18g/km CO2 to the official 221g/km CO2 even before the engine starts.
Marshall says the clean image of ethanol starts with the way it is made.
"While the plants used for ethanol production are growing, they're absorbing carbon dioxide. Because producing ethanol with waste product is a fairly efficient process already, it doesn't put that much back in, so your net CO2 equivalent reduction is around 50 per cent already," he says.
All that said, Marshall says Holden will still work on other strategies as part of its aim to eke out more fuel savings and give buyers more choice about what powers their vehicle.
That strategy also includes the arrival in 2012 of the Holden Volt, a battery-powered electric car that will come with a back-up engine that could run on fuel sources as diverse as LPG, compressed natural gas, petrol or E85.
In the meantime, the E85 Commodore will be only one small part of Holden's attempt to help Australia make the transition to alternative fuels.
"We're not talking about replacing all fuel with ethanol," Marshall says. "We're talking of getting the right balance of solutions because there's not just one solution for reducing greenhouse gases and having fuel security and affordable personal transport.
"We're a long way away from the flux capacitor on the DeLorean where you just chuck any old thing in," he says in reference to the fusion-fuelled car that featured in the Back to the Future movies.
"With what Coskata's doing, though, we're coming close," he says. "But for us, 2010 will be the year of ethanol."
What is E85?
Simply put, it's a blend of up to 85 per cent ethanol and 15 per cent petrol and has an octane rating of 105. The higher octane rating means your Commodore will feel a lot more responsive than when it runs on petrol alone. The Holden Commodore will be the only locally made vehicle sold in Australia that can run on the fuel.
Is it just like petrol?
No. Seasonal variations mean you may be sold anything between E70 — a mix of 70 per cent ethanol and 30 per cent petrol — and E85. In cooler regions, the Commodore may have to use more petrol in its mix during winter to help with cold-engine starts, reverting to E85 when temperatures warm up. Diesel fuel in Australia has a similar cold/warm weather variation.
How much will E85 cost?
Caltex Australia will reveal the price when it launches E85 commercially early next month. However, a handful of independent retailers that already sell the fuel charge less than $1 a litre for it.
How much E85 wil lI use?
It's difficult to tell because no fuel standard exists for E85 in Australia so there's no way of formulating an official figure. Holden says you will use more E85 than petrol; the question of how much more is still a closely held figure.
Can I convert my existing Commodore to run on E85?
No. The ethanol-friendly engines use special components that are similar to Holden's dual-fuel engines that run on either LPG or petrol. They have a slightly different head and specially hardened valves. There's even a piece of equipment mounted in the fuel tank — very similar to a police breathalyser unit — that can detect how much ethanol is in the fuel and retune the engine's electronics to suit the mix.
What if I put E85 in my car by mistake?
You're unlikely to put E85 into a car that won't run on it. Caltex has placed a lock mechanism on the E85 nozzle that you need to depress before releasing it. If you fail to recognise that you're pumping E85 into the tank, you're in big trouble because it will damage engine components. If you realise in time, you can fill up the rest of the tank with normal petrol to dilute the ethanol.
Will my car run on E5/E10?
Not all cars can tolerate ethanol. A list of those that can run on either E5 or E10 is at www.fcai.com.au/en vironment/can-my-vehicle-operate- on-ethanol-blend-petrol-.