Over hill and dale: How to find new flex-fuel vehicles

Walking around the floor at the Orange County International Auto Show this week, it struck me that the rear ends of new cars are like billboards that automakers used to show off their latest technology.

Flex-fuel vehicles used to be the hot young thing: The first among them was the 1994 Taurus. Now FFVs — whose versatile engines can run on any mixture of gasoline or ethanol, up to E85 — have become commonplace. Which is a good thing.

Ford2Among the rows and rows of blazingly shiny new cars, trucks and SUVs (check out this story for a slideshow), I found only one bona fide, old-school flex-fuel badge. It was worn proudly by a silver 2016 Ford F-150 FX4 Off Road pickup (pictured at right). The flex-fuel engine is a giant 5.0-liter V8, and if you run it on American-made E85, it’ll be the most patriotic thing on wheels.

Other flex-fuel vehicles resided temporarily inside the Anaheim Convention Center, but they were more discreet: In the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles encampment, FFVs were all around, but one has to do research to know this. The adorable Renegade, for instance, is E85-compatible for the two models that have the 2.4L Tigershark engine (the Limited and Trailhawk versions, same with the Cherokee that has the engine). FCA’s other properties also have models that can take E85: Chrysler (the 200, Town and Country), Dodge (Journey, Grand Caravan, Dart, the awesome Charger), and Ram trucks (the 1500 and 2500).

FCA spokesman Scott D. Brown said E85 compatibility is just one of the things the company offers to increase fuel efficiency. For instance, the pickups reduce power to the electronics systems when they’re not needed, to conserve energy. “There’s just a lot of cool things that are happening,” he said.

IMG_0900Elsewhere, examples of the Next Big Thing in engine tech were everywhere: Ford’s electrified series, including the C-Max hybrid and the Focus all-electric (76-mile range!) were right out front in Fordland, next to the carpeted faux blacktop (another version of the Focus is flex-fuel). Further down the road, Chevy was showing off its new Malibu hybrid, and of course the 2016 Volt. Around the bend, two editions of Toyota’s by-now-mythical hydrogen-powered Mirai gleamed.

For all the wizardry and design on display in today’s car industry, the best attribute to the flex-fuel vehicle, as a concept, is that it’s relatively low-tech. A sensor inside the vehicle’s on-board computer knows what type of fuel is being poured in. E85 is a safe, legal fuel, and there are 17.4 million FFVs out there that can take it, with more rolling out of factories.

Check out the government’s FuelEconomy.gov site for a rundown of flex-fuel models, and their mpg ratings.

And by all means, if you live in SoCal, visit the O.C. Auto Show, which runs through Sunday evening.

More posts about cars: