Fuel filler of Volkswagen Gol, Brazilian flex-fuel vehicleEnlarge Photo
But sales tumbled when gasoline prices fell in the early 1990s; ethanol production remained tightly regulated, and consequently expensive, so it no longer offered a cheaper way to drive.
Nonetheless, conventional “petrol” in Brazil soon became a blend of gasoline and ethanol as well.
Since 1993, the mix has stood at E22, or 22 percent ethanol—though the percentage is set annually, varying between 20 and 25 percent, depending on each year’s sugar crop yield.
A new era of ethanol use arrived in the early 2000s, when far more capable computerized engine-control units and port fuel injection allowed the introduction of flex-fuel cars. They could run on E100, E22 petrol, or any mix in between that might be produced by refilling a tank with a different fuel.
Pump with multiple ethanol/gasoline blends.Enlarge Photo
New flex-fuel era
The first carmaker to launch such flex-fuel vehicles in Brazil was Volkswagen. It introduced the first Gol capable of running on any liquid fuel (including the G100 gasoline found in Argentina) in March 2003.
Built since 1980, the VW Gol has now been Brazil’s most popular vehicle for 27 years. Volkswagen do Brasil has built more than 7.5 million of the five-door hatchback, which would be considered a subcompact in North America. (The small VW is also a major export earner for Brazil, with more than 1 million Gols sold in 60 countries around the world.)
Volkswagen now builds flex-fuel capability into every engine and every car manufactured in Brazil. Close to a dozen other carmakers do the same, including Chevrolet, Fiat, Ford, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Peugeot, Renault, and Toyota.
Corn Ethanol PumpEnlarge Photo
Combating climate change
By the time the new flex-fuel cars had established themselves in showrooms, ethanol had come to be viewed as having two separate advantages. Not only was it a renewable fuel that could insulate car owners from oil-price fluctuations, it could also cut climate-changing gas emissions from vehicle transport.
The carbon dioxide produced by burning ethanol in an engine is roughly the same as the amount of CO2 its feedstock (sugar cane, in this case) absorbs from the air during photosynthesis. That means it’s considered to be a carbon-neutral fuel—unlike gasoline, which adds CO2 to the atmosphere.
Caveats to that distinction include the energy required to sow, harvest, and process the sugar cane, as well as more diffuse impacts on overall agriculture and other uses for the sugar cane.
Still, Brazil’s ethanol crops yield twice as much of the liquid fuel—roughly 600 gallons per acre against 300 gallons per acre—as the corn-based ethanol that dominates in the U.S.
Volkswagen provided airfare, lodging, and meals to assist High Gear Media in bringing you this article.