Will 2008 Be the Year of Flex-Fuel?

They’ve been around for years (dating back to the mid-’90s), but 2008 may be the year flex-fuel vehicles break away from the herd and come into their own. Overshadowed in recent years by the arrival of hybrids and even hydrogen vehicles, flex-fuel vehicles are finally receiving a major push from automakers, who are trumpeting this mature technology, which helps reduce carbon-dioxide emissions simply by reducing the amount of gasoline cars consume.

A flex-fuel vehicle burns E85, an alternative fuel that’s a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. According to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, E85 burns cleaner than gasoline, and can improve vehicle performance, since it has a higher octane rating than gasoline. It’s also considered a renewable fuel, because ethanol is made from biomaterials such as corn. Using E85 also helps support the domestic agricultural industry.

Those are the basics, but drivers probably have two main questions about flex fuel: Which cars run on it, and where can you fuel up with E85 if you have a flex-fuel vehicle?

The surprising news is that a wide range of 2007 and 2008 cars will run on flex fuel, and in fact many drivers may already own cars that can run on E85 and not even know it. A car’s VIN contains a clue that can help you determine if your car will run on E85 (it’s the eighth digit), although it can be tricky to discover the VIN’s secret since different makers and models use different digits and letters to indicate a flex-fuel vehicle. It’s simpler just to check your owner’s manual or the manufacturer’s website.

Volvo, for instance, offers five vehicles that will run on flex fuel, including the new C30 1.8 Flexifuel (picturered above), which runs on a 125-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. Although it will be available only in Europe starting in January, it’s an indication of what’s possible for flex-fuel vehicles.

In the U.S., Ford, GM, and Chrysler have made investments in flex-fuel vehicles. The updated 2008 Chrysler Town and Country, for instance (pictured above), will be available with a 3.3-liter V6 flex-fuel engine, and GM and Ford both have cars (and websites) devoted to flex-fuel technology.

The final and most critical question – where can you fill up if you have a flex-fuel vehicle? The good news is that E85 is available in nearly all 50 states. Texas, for instance, has more than 30 E85 fueling stations. Check the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition’s website at www.e85refueling.com to find a station near you.

How Often Should I Change My Oil?

Oil change

So it’s about that time when you notice that the mileage on your odometer has just exceeded the figure written on the sticker from your last oil change. Which makes you wonder: should you change your oil as often as the sticker says, or can you wait a little longer?

Like many people, I get a little skeptical when someone who has a vested business interest in working on my car tells me I should come by as often as possible. Many shops will tell you to come in every 3,000 miles. That number may seem like a lot, but what if you reside outside the urban sprawl? Maybe you commute 10-15 miles to work and take a road trip every month. That means you could end up driving nearly 1,000 miles per month. So if you go by the recommended 3,000 miles/change, you’ll need to change your oil every 3 months. At $30 a pop, you pay $120 per year based on potentially biased advice.

Read literature on the subject and you’ll find that you can hold out beyond 3,000 miles per change. For example, Consumer Reports says that you can typically go around 7,500 miles between changes without negatively impacting your engine. Many cars also have an oil monitoring system to tell you when to change your oil.

Regardless of the numbers, conventional wisdom says you should change your oil based on the kind of car you have. Fivecentnickel.com recommends dispensing with the “one-size-fits-all” mentality and simply reading your owner’s manual to learn about your car’s unique needs.

In any event, you can save money by going above and beyond your local lube shop’s recommendations. Knowledge is power, so stay well-read and proactive.

– posted by Taeho Lim

Frankfurt Kicks Off with Green Debuts

The Frankfurt International Motor Show (officially known as the Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung, or IAA) has just kicked off in Germany, with nearly 90 new cars scheduled for introduction over the next few days. The focus for many of the debuts will be fuel economy and sustainability, and in fact “green” seems to be the watchword for the entire proceedings. Many of the introductions, such as the Mercedes-Benz F700 (above), are concept or test cars. The F700, for instance, will probably never make an appearance in your local showroom, but will be used to test out new green technologies, such as its small (1.8 liter) yet powerful (238 horsepower) four-cylinder DiesOtto gas engine that gets about 40 miles per gallon.

While Mercedes goes upscale, other automakers are downsizing. Volkswagen, for instance, introduced its Smart-Fighter mini-car, which is said to eke out 100 miles per gallon. And Toyota will respond by showing its Endo microcar (below), which is just under 10 feet long but can comforably seat three adults and a child. According to rumors, the Smart-Fighter might be headed to the U.S., but no word yet on the possible availability of the Endo here.

As you might expect, hybrids will also make a number of appearances, though according to a recent article in The New York Times, the Europeans are still not entirely sold on hybrid technology. Opel, for instance, will show its new Flextreme concept car, which will be driven by a hybrid/diesel combo. And a number of debuts, including new models from VW and Audi, will feature new or updated diesel engines, which is a green technology more in line with European thinking.

Then, of course, there’s Lamborghini, which (perhaps not surprisingly) has decided to go in a completely different direction by unveiling its limited-edition Reverton supercar, with a price tag of just $1.4 million (one million Euros). Twenty of the cars have already been sold, mostly to buyers in the U.S. according to the Italian automaker. Well, we can’t all be green, I guess.

Choosing the 2008 Design Winner: It’s Honda By a Nose

With Labor Day behind us, we can turn our full attention to all the new 2008 cars, trucks, SUVs, wagons and crossovers rolling into showrooms – and decorating the covers of the fall’s automotive magazines. I have a couple of annual “New Car” issues within easy reach on my desk right now, and it’s great fun to thumb through all the glossy pages, see photos of all the ’08 cars back to back to back, compare all the new designs we’ve heard and read about (and in many cases written about on this site), and of course, pick our favorites.

Choosing the year’s best-looking cars is always a subjective exercise. One person’s dream car is someone else’s design nightmare. But I think I can make a few overall observations about the designs of the Automotive Class of 2008. First, there are very few truly ugly cars out there this year (although I’m not quite sure what Lexus was thinking when it designed the droopy-nosed IS-F sedan, scheduled to arrive early next year). My second observation is that designers have spent an inordinate amount of time and energy focusing on the front ends – or what I call the noses – of 2008 cars.

It’s a very noticeable trend this year. A great number of vehicles have received more aggressive, more geometrical, more “designy” noses, with grilles that are pulled deeper into the bumper and angled, wraparound headlights that seem ready to slide off the sides of the vehicles. This look is exemplified by the 2008 Honda Accord Coupe (above), which has a clean, angular, and certainly more aerodynamic look, and gets my vote for one of the best-looking cars this year. The grille is simple in its design, but for some reason it catches and holds my eye. There’s something about its design that is classic yet contemporary, and I really like it.

Another example is the 2008 Saab 9-3 (the SportCombi is pictured above), with its new, deeper grille that dips down into the bumper. It’s a good demonstration of how to refresh a car’s look without alienating long-time fans. And then of course there are the cars like the 2008 Cadillac CTS (below), which sports a wide-mouthed look with a double-bar grille and pointy trapezoidal headlights. There’s no doubt that it’s an in-your-face design, but it works, and it certainly makes the new CTS a car to watch in ’08.

There are many more cars worth mentioning here, like the new BMW 1-Series, with its eye-shaped headlights (very cool); the Chevy Malibu, with its two-section grille; the Ford Focus, with its relatively sedate but no less distinctive grille; and the Subaru Impreza, with its shark-like front end. What’s great is that, unlike a few years ago, today’s cars have individual character again, and you can actually tell the difference between them when you spot them on the road or on the new car lot. And that’s certainly a step in the right direction.