Car Buying Tips

Alternative Fuels


An alternative fuel is any fuel other than gasoline or diesel. Since many of these alternatives can be produced in the U.S., they could reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

Some alternative fuels come from renewable sources, like plants that can be harvested and replanted to keep the production cycle going indefinitely. Other alternative fuels such as biodiesel, ethanol and methanol have been produced and used on a small scale for decades, and electric cars go back to the end of the 19th century, before refined gas became the industry standard for motorcars.

The Alternatives


This renewable fuel can be burned in a diesel engine and produced from the oil extracted from plants including peanuts and soybeans.

Biodiesel is non-toxic, biodegradable and nearly free of sulfur and carcinogenic benzene — two of the components of petroleum diesel that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state emissions boards have issued regulations on. The main drawback to biodiesel is that it is not widely available yet.

Diesel engines are more efficient when it comes to MPGs, but the particulate and other emissions that come out of the tailpipe are typically higher than those from gasoline engines. But not these days with the advent of clean diesel. Companies like Mercedes-Benz offer Bluetec with AdBlue to reduce the particulate matter in the engines. Audi, VW and BMW also have engines that meet the 50 state regulation.


This renewable transportation fuel is primarily made from starch crops.

First-generation ethanol is produced from food products such as corn or sugarcane. Second-generation is called cellulosic ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol can be produced from non-food sources, including wood by products, corn husks and landfill.

Ethanol can be blended with gasoline and used in cars with little or no modification of the engine. FYI, nearly one-third of U.S. gasoline contains ethanol in a low-level blend to reduce air pollution.

When ethanol and gas are blended, you get gasohol, a mixture of about 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline that will run in an unmodified car. In fact, when you fuel up at a gas station in many U.S. states, this is exactly what you're buying.

Ethanol E85

Nicknamed “hamburger helper” because you mix it with gas, Ethanol 85 is produced in the US from corn. Made up of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, E85 can be used in a flexible fuel vehicle (FFV) – one that runs on gasoline or a mix of gasoline and ethanol.

Dodge makes a number FFVs that burn E85, including the Chrysler Town and Country minivan, Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV, Chrysler Sebring sedan and Dodge Ram 1500 pick-up. Ford and GM offer a similar range of ethanol-friendly FFVs.

Electric Cars

Another alternative, the electric car, runs on electrical power stored in batteries. Considered zero emission vehicles, some electric vehicles have onboard generators; others plug into an outside source.

One electric car currently for sale in limited numbers is the energetic Tesla Roadster (0-60 in 4.4 seconds as tested by Car & Driver® Magazine). There are also small “neighborhood” vehicles called NEVs with top speeds of about 35 mph) which work for errand-running city dwellers, but aren’t built for weekend retreats on the open highway.

Fuel-Cell Vehicles

These use a sophisticated electrochemical energy conversion device similar to a battery. The power is put to the wheels by an electric motor. The core source of energy is hydrogen, which is sometimes extracted from water. Aside from hydrogen’s clean-burning qualities, its potential for domestic production and the fuel cell vehicle's potential for high efficiency (two to three times more efficient than gasoline vehicles) make it a very appealing alternative fuel source. The Honda FCX Clarity fuel-cell vehicle takes 5.3 kilos of hydrogen—that’s 270 miles of driving time.

Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs)

HEVs combine high fuel economy [electric] and low emissions with the power, range and convenience of conventional diesel and gasoline. HEV technologies have the potential to be combined with alternative fuels and fuel cells for additional benefits.

There are also forms of alternative energy that one would most likely not consider. For example Michelin has taken that empty space in the wheel and put an entire electric drive train inside of it.

Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)

An alternative energy that you don’t hear about much, Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), is typically used for heating, cooking and cooling. However, when it is compressed and stored in a fuel tank, CNG can be used as a very clean-burning fuel for cars and trucks. Most CNG vehicles are part of commercial fleets (taxicabs, municipal buses, etc.) that have on-site pumps for convenient refueling.