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Saab ready for ethanol, but is Australia?

Grrrrreen: 9-5 BioPower echoes Saab's new eco advertising theme.

Saab to follow BioPower 9-5 with E85-ready 9-3, before high-ethanol fuel hits bowsers

30 Oct 2007

THERE may be no E85 ethanol fuel available in this country – or any real prospect of it happening in the near future – but that has not stopped Saab from introducing its high-ethanol-compatible cars to the Australian market.

Saab Australia has just released an E85 ethanol-compatible version of the 9-5 that is priced $1500 above the equivalent petrol-only version at $61,900, but cannot say when or where owners might be able to fill them with the desired E85 fuel (which is made from 85 per cent ethanol, with 15 per cent petrol for cold-start performance).

Thankfully, the Saab BioPower engine operates normally on normal unleaded petrol – though, of course, with none of the environmental benefits for which it is designed.

In a letter sent to Saab owners two weeks ago, company director Parveen Batish revealed that the updated 9-3 range – which is being launched locally on Friday – will also include a BioPower model.

Mr Batish told GoAuto on Monday that introducing ethanol-compatible models was an attempt by the company to promote the alternative fuel, which he believes is one of the few short-term solutions available to global warming.

He also rejected suggestions that introducing the BioPower models was just a PR stunt aimed at supporting the GM-owned brand’s new advertising ‘Grrrrrreen’ theme.

Saab claims to be the first ‘carbon neutral’ car company in Australia because it pays the Greenfleet organisation to plant 17 native trees – enough to offset a car’s carbon emissions for about a year – for every new and approved used Saab sold this year.

This program costs Saab Australia $40 per car. The company is on track to sell about 2000 new cars this year, so the total cost of the program will be more than $80,000.

Mr Batish said that Saab Australia was only talking to one oil company about offering E85, but could not say when or where the first pump may appear, or whether government approval is required before it can be sold.

In its homeland of Sweden, where Saab has a big voice and the government is environmentally strong, Saab has been successful in gaining state support of E85 through tax and other incentives, while other European countries are also starting to offer the fuel.

Brazil remains easily ethanol’s biggest market and most car-makers offer vehicles that run exclusively on that country’s mainly sugarcane-sourced fuel, which has no petrol content.

Legislation currently restricts ethanol content in Australia to 10 per cent (E10).

38 center imageEthanol-powered cars still emit CO2, but Saab claims it is up to 80 per cent better than petrol for the environment overall because the raw crops used to produce the fuel absorb CO2 as they grow.

Saab’s turbocharged BioPower models differ from pure ethanol-burning cars in being able to also run on unleaded petrol and have exactly the same performance as a regular low-boost petrol-engined Saab (136kW and 280Nm in the case of the 9-5).

Running on E85 fuel, which has a higher octane rating of 104, the BioPower model produces 20 per cent more power at 154kW and 16 per cent more torque at 310Nm.

Although E85 should cost less at the bowser – Mr Batish suggests it should be between 20 and 50 cents cheaper – consumption is about 30 per cent higher, so there is no overall cost saving.

Mr Batish agrees that potential buyers are therefore taking a “leap of faith” by buying a BioPower model, based on potential environmental benefits some time in the future, if and when E85 becomes available.

“In markets where we have introduced our BioPower cars, they’ve been accepted very well,” Mr Batish told GoAuto.

“With Australia, more and more people are getting into the debate on being green. There was a survey done recently that 50 per cent of car buyers would look at a green alternative, and that’s way up on where it was even a year or two years ago.

“What we want to do is break away from that chicken and the egg situation where the fuel suppliers don’t want to supply the fuel because there’s no marketplace for it (and) car producers don’t want to sell cars because there’s no fuel.

“We’re tying to break that cycle and the beauty of BioPower is that it can run on normal petrol, so you can buy the car ready for (when someone is) able to sell ethanol.

“We have been in discussions with a petrol company who is looking at selling E85 and it may be that we just have one, two, three pumps around the country that sell it, but it’s a start. It is an alternative to using just fossil fuel.

“If you have a car that runs on E85 that can also run on normal petrol, and you can’t tell the difference, then why wouldn’t you do it? To all intents and purposes it’s exactly the same car, it just has a BioPower badge on the back. So there’s no difference to buying the BioPower car to any other car...” Except, of course, the customer is paying an extra $1500 for a benefit that does not yet exist, and may not for some time.

Despite that, Mr Batish believes Saab buyers will be prepared to buy this new technology “almost like a statement of intent, if you like”, in order to put ethanol on the agenda.

“Yes, we are (expecting a fair leap of faith for buyers),” he said. “I’ll be honest with you – yes, we are. But it’s there if they want to buy it. If we don’t offer it, and nobody offers it, then the debate will never get going.

“We are not the only car manufacturer who has the capability of producing E85 cars. I’m sure there will be other manufacturers offering E85 cars in Australia in the very near future.” But is Saab getting support from any other car manufacturer or importer in Australia? “Currently, no,” he admits before pausing. “I don’t know who they are, though I could have a guess, but I’m almost certain that other manufacturers will be able to offer E85 cars in this country in the near future. I reckon in the next six to 12 months other people will be offering it, too, because they are already doing it in other countries.

“There are people who argue against global warming, but I disagree with them – we definitely have global warming and... if we can make a small impact on that, then why wouldn’t I? We have a car on hand that we can sell, which does exactly that – I just can’t fill the general public’s petrol tank with E85.” Mr Batish, who came to Australia from the UK 16 months ago and says he has a personal interest in the environment beyond his job, said there was nothing special about the Australian market that would stop E85 and Saab’s BioPower models from taking off.

“France, for example, had zero filling stations at the beginning of this year and they’ve gone for a target of 500 this year. I don’t know where they are against that target, but that’s what they’ve gone for.

“When I was in the UK, we had zero when we launched the car and we had 15 filling stations when I left, so why can’t the same thing happen here?” So when will we see the first E85 pump at a local servo? “I don’t know, to be honest with you. I’d love to be able to say in the next three or four months, but it’s not my call obviously. It’s the petrol companies that have to decide that.” Is Saab talking to other oil companies? “There’s only one we’re talking to, to be honest with you. I think others are interested, but there’s only one we’ve been talking to.

“GM have won a fleet contract on the basis that we can provide three ethanol-powered cars, so the debate is alive out there. We just need some filling stations.” Having released the first BioPower model and on the eve of launching the second, what sort of take-up does Saab Australia expect? “I don’t know, to be honest. I couldn’t tell you.” So how many cars have Saab ordered from Sweden? “On 9-5, we ordered 50, but on 9-3 I don’t know. I don’t know what the take-up would be.” It seems that, when it comes to ethanol in Australia – a big country with a small population and relatively cheap petrol – there are still more questions than answers.

Read more:

Saab offers ‘flex-fuel’ car for Australia

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