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Are we ready for ethanol power?

Demonstration vehicles with UK specification were on hand for the press this week at the appropriate sugarcane region in Queensland.

The Saab 9-5 BioPower is flex-fuel capable, which means it can run on E85 ethanol or petrol or any combination.

Saab Australia and New Zealand director Parveen Batish says 9-5 BioPower vehicles are available to order. He anticipates their arrival about late March. They are expected to have a $1000 to $1500 price increase over the current 9-5 range and will be available in sedan and wagon form.

But as E85 is not yet publicly available at the pump and doesn't seem to be part of the plan for the near future, the cars will have to rely on E10 or unleaded petrol.

Saab says there is no indication of when we will see E85, but hopes its BioPower 9-5 will help speed up the process.

The bioethanol used by Saab, which is produced from biomass, reduces emissions in the environment as the CO2 released during driving on E85 is removed from the atmosphere through photosynthesis.

"Ethanol is the fastest-growing alternative fuel in the world, because it's renewable," Batish says. "It doesn't add to carbon dioxide. We at Saab believe ethanol is a key part to the environment's future."

And Saab has proven that ethanol doesn't mean you have to sacrifice performance. Indeed, the BioPower 9-5 produces better figures on ethanol than on petrol.

The 9-5 vehicles used for the launch had the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbo engine, generating 132kW, up from the 110kW on petrol and 280Nm, an increase of 40Nm.

But the models expected to arrive in Australia this year will be powered by the 2.3-litre, four-cylinder turbo engine, with 154kW, up from 136kW on petrol and 310Nm or torque, compared to the petrol's 280Nm.

Driving the BioPower 2.0-litre doesn't feel different to a normal petrol-powered car, although it takes away some of the guilt, knowing you're helping the environment. It's like eating low-fat chocolate and knowing you won't put on the kilos.

On the road, our test model made an unusually loud, jet-like sound, which apparently wasn't supposed to happen.

There was ample power on hand and it gave off an adequate performance on the track and real-road conditions, but still seemed to lack pizazz. The cars driven will spend a few months getting a workout by the media, government, industry and fleets for long-term testing, with E85 provided for the period by ethanol producers from NSW, the Manildra Group.

"We are using the by-products of crops that are actually waste," Batish says.

In order to run on bioethanol, Batish says no new technology is needed, rather the car just has to undergo minor engineering changes. By running on E85, the BioPower 9-5 is believed to reduce emissions by about 80 per cent.

While E85 consists of 85 per cent ethanol and 15 per cent petrol and is already used to start vehicles in cold climates, Saab says it has also developed the ability to run vehicles on 100 per cent ethanol.

BioPower 9-5 Saabs are already on the road in overseas markets, with more than 12,000 BioPower cars delivered in Sweden since July 2005. They are also available in Britain, Germany, Ireland and France, countries equipped with some E85 filling stations and where the governments offer tax breaks, reduced fees and cheaper parking to those driving the vehicles.

But Batish says there is a whole industry of ethanol already under way in Australia.

Renewable Fuels Australia executive director Bob Gordon agrees that ethanol is a good option for the present.

"Ethanol isn't going to solve our problems in decades to come, but until hydrogen-cell technology comes on line, we need a process to get there," Gordon says. "It's a stepping stone."

Batish adds: "We think biopower leaves a cleaner footprint on the environment."

Saab also released its 2007 9-3 diesel range this week. The company proudly boasts the title of the most fuel-efficient premium sedan and wagon on the market. It even has the first diesel-powered convertible in Australia, also making it the most fuel efficient of its type.

The 9-3 diesel sports sedan has a 5.8-litre per 100km fuel consumption combined claim, 6.3-litres per 100km for the convertible and 5.9-litres per 100km for the SportCombi.

Prices start at $44,900 for the manual sedan, $67,400 for the manual Convertible and the SportCombi starts at $47,400, all available with the Linear specification level.

The 1.9-litre turbo diesel engine produces 110kW and 320Nm and all the models have a six-speed manual as standard, with a six-speed auto optional.

Batish says there is now a greater acceptance of diesel engines and their positives, such as high-torque engines and better fuel efficiency.

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