Driving Entirely On Ethanol: Brazil’s Volkswagen Gol Flex-Fuel Vehicle

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What’s it like to drive on pure ethanol, known as E100, without a drop of gasoline in the car?

In the case of the Brazilian Volkswagen Gol, it’s quite unremarkable.

Brazil’s most popular small car for 27 years starts, performs, and otherwise behaves just like a gasoline-fueled car—except that it’s burning pure ethanol derived from sugar cane.

Flex-fuel from 2003

VW was the first carmaker to offer vehicles with flex-fuel capability in Brazil, starting in early 2003. Now, every engine it builds in Brazil comes standard with the ability to burn ethanol (E100), the gasoline-ethanol blend sold as “petrol”—which contains 78 percent gasoline and 22 percent ethanol—or any mix of the two.

Fuel filler of Volkswagen Gol, Brazilian flex-fuel vehicle

Fuel filler of Volkswagen Gol, Brazilian flex-fuel vehicle

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That means Volkswagen's highest-volume models in Brazil can use either fuel or both. They include the Gol (not Golf!) subcompact family, the slightly smaller Fox, the Brazilian version of the Up minicar, and the new Golf compact, all assembled in Brazil and powered by engines built in the country.

ALSO SEE: Flex-Fuel Vehicles And E85: Why Ethanol Isn't Making Its Numbers

Only more expensive VW models (or higher-performance engines) imported from factories in other countries lack the flex-fuel feature, including the Jetta, Tiguan, and Passat.

Brazilian sugarcane

Brazilian sugarcane

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Brazil has worked to turn homegrown sugar cane into vehicle fuel since the mid-1970s, following the first oil crisis in 1973. Back in the days of carbureted engines, the early ethanol cars ran solely on E100, without the gasoline alternative--and did not have a good reputation for performance or smooth running.

The country did raise the proportion of ethanol in its standard gasoline, however. Its current 22 percent ethanol blend (it actually varies from 20 to 24 percent depending on the sugar crop each year) uses more than twice as much of the biofuel as U.S. gasoline, which is universally up to E10 and which the EPA is hoping to raise to E15.

Brazilian ethanol refining, however, produces twice as much fuel from an acre of sugar cane (about 600 gallons) as U.S. production does from an acre of corn (about 300 gallons).

Ethanol is viewed as a carbon-neutral fuel, since the feedstock--whether corn, sugar cane, or any other plant--absorbs carbon dioxide from the air, offsetting the carbon emitted during combustion.

Engine compartment of Volkswagen Saveiro, Brazilian flex-fuel vehicle

Engine compartment of Volkswagen Saveiro, Brazilian flex-fuel vehicle

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Two engine options

The Gol (it means “goal” in Portugese), which U.S. buyers would consider a subcompact, is a five-door hatchback.

Two other body styles share its underpinnings and engine options: The Voyage is a four-door sedan, and the Saveiro is a small pickup truck, offered in standard or extended-cab versions.

We drove a Gol Rallye—a sporty, high-end trim level—and a Saveiro Cross, the pickup truck with extended cab that also sports a higher ride height, rubber fender lips, plastic side cladding, and other tough off-road stylistic touches. It doesn’t have all-wheel drive, but the look is popular nonetheless.

DON'T MISS: Supreme Court Won't Reverse EPA E15 Ethanol Rules

Both of our test vehicles had the more powerful of the two engines offered in the Gol family, a 1.6-liter fuel-injected four-cylinder that produces 102 horsepower (76 kW) on ethanol and 99 hp (74 kW) on gasoline. It is part of Volkswagen’s EA111 engine family.

The other engine offered in the Gol family, which we did not test-drive, is the same 1.0-liter three-cylinder used in the Volkswagen Up minicar we tested—but adapted for Brazilian production.

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