For 22 years, Toyota Motor Corp. has made hybrid cars that don’t require drivers to choose between running on gas or electricity. In October it will add a third option: ethanol.
The Japanese manufacturer will package its ultra-pragmatic drivetrain in an all-new Corolla sedan that will be bolted together at its plant in Sao Paulo. Toyota is billing the vehicle as the cleanest hybrid ever made.
Ethanol has long been a popular fuel in Brazil, where it’s brewed fairly efficiently from fast-growing sugar cane. Because the plants process CO₂ as they grow, ethanol is considered a renewable fuel; burning a gallon of it releases only 10% to 20% as much carbon as burning a gallon of traditional gas, according to Unica, a sugar association.
“The goal is to make a car with zero carbon emission; that’s the industry’s race,” said Ricardo Bastos, Toyota’s head of government relations in Brazil. “With ethanol, we’re closer if you consider the whole cycle, well to wheel.”
The chimera car could prove to be a useful stopgap in an industry slowly transitioning to vehicles that exclusively plug in and run on batteries, particularly in countries committed to ethanol. Brazil has supported the fuel as a green alternative since the 1970s, and as a result it’s now available at all 40,000 of the country’s gas stations. Ethanol in Brazil is often cheaper than conventional fuel, depending on the price of sugar at any particular moment.
Electrified vehicles have made little headway in Brazil, in part because of anemic charging infrastructure and taxes of up to 120% on imports such as the Toyota Prius. Of the country’s 44 million cars and trucks, only 11,000 or so were electric as of the end of 2018.
These days, however, almost all new cars in Brazil can burn ethanol or gasoline. Last month, Brazilian policymakers further primed that market for the new Toyota, making tax concessions that will lower the price of hybrid vehicles by as much as 3% for cab drivers and fleet companies. With that sweetener, a hybrid electric vehicle that also burns ethanol could make up 10% of the fleet by 2025, according to some estimates.
Such a machine may also catch on abroad. Starting next year, Toyota plans to export its new ethanol-enabled Corolla to Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. “Any country which already uses ethanol or wants to increase the usage of hybrids is a target,” Bastos said. “If Europe wants it, we have the technology ready.”
In the U.S. nearly all fuel contains a small amount of ethanol, typically up to 15%, according to a federal renewable fuel mandate last updated in 2007. A traditional internal combustion engine can be damaged by more concentrated ethanol, and it’s still tough to find a more refined version. Only 3,400 stations sell a blend of as much as 85% ethanol for purpose-built flex-fuel vehicles, and most of them are clustered in the country’s Corn Belt.
Meanwhile, ethanol has fueled a long-simmering debate. Scientists point out that it’s not as clean as it’s been made out to be, considering the energy required to grow the plants ethanol is derived from and to refine the end product. What’s more, ethanol typically emits more smog than conventional gas and produces fewer miles per gallon.
The hybrid Corolla will be able to run on any of the three fuels or two at the same time. Toyota will make the car with engines from Japan at its Sao Paulo plant, a factory that can churn out as many as 70,000 vehicles a year. The automaker has yet to release pricing or mileage-efficiency estimates for the car.
© 2019 Bloomberg L.P.