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Brazil fights oil prices with alcohol

Sales of 'Flex' cars that run on alcohol or gasoline surpassed August sales of gasoline-only vehicles.

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Brazilians aren't waiting for high-priced hybrid cars.

Drivers are fighting rising gasoline prices by buying "flex" or "flexible fuel" cars that slurp more alcohol.

Alcohol made from sugar cane is becoming the fuel of choice in Brazil, and other countries - so much so that global sugar prices hit a seven-year high this week.

Regular car engines will run fine on a 10 percent blend of alcohol and gasoline. But by using computer sensors that adjust to whatever mix is in the tank, flex car engines run on either ethanol, gasoline, or any combination of the two. And they have been roaring out of dealerships here since Volkswagen sold the first TotalFlex Golf in March 2003.

Today, flex cars are outselling traditional gasoline models. In August, 62 percent of new cars sold were flex, according to industry numbers. "Demand has been unbelievable," says Barry Engle, the new president of Ford Brasil. "I am hard-pressed to think of any other technology that has been such a success so quickly."

As many countries reexamine their dependence on petroleum fields for fuel, Brazil offers a model for how to make the switch to cane, beet, wheat, or corn fields. The successful transition here comes down to many factors, but price is the primary one, experts say.

Unlike hybrids sold in the US, for example, flex cars sold in Brazil don't cost any more than traditional models. In fact, some models are only available with flex engines now. Ethanol engines use 25 percent more ethanol per mile than gasoline. But ethanol (the alcohol produced by fermenting sugar) usually sells at somewhere between a third to half of the price of gas. Even people who were reluctant to take the plunge and buy a flex say they have been won over by the savings.

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