SIKESTON -- Matt Zimmerman doesn't need any convincing when it comes to the future of ethanol.
Over the past couple years, the sales manager at Galemore Motor Co. in Charleston has witnessed firsthand the rise in demand for the corn-based fuel.
Today at least 80 percent of the Chrysler dealership's new vehicle sales are "flex fuel" -- vehicles that can run on up to E85 (a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline) or regular unleaded fuel, Zimmerman said. A year ago, probably 50 percent of new vehicle sales were flex fuel, and the year before that, it was probably 25 percent, he said.
"A lot of people who bought them back then probably didn't know they were getting a flex fuel engine," Zimmerman said.
Ethanol is increasingly becoming a burning topic -- whether talking about new flex fuel models, an E85 pump opening or the development of an ethanol plant.
"In the last six months, at least, it seems like there's been an increase in people buying the flex fuel vehicles," said Dan Sutton, a sales manager at Sikeston Motor Co.
Sales of flex fuel vehicles vary each month, but as many as 10 to 12 can be sold in that time period, Sutton said.
And it's not just farmers purchasing the corn-fuel burning vehicles. "It's a pretty good mix, a little bit of everybody," Sutton said.
Zimmerman said he thinks skyrocketing regular fuel prices have played a role in the increase of flex fuel vehicle sales. Generally, E85 is about 50 cents per gallon cheaper than regular unleaded fuel, he said.
Flex fuel vehicles are built to handle the high alcohol content of E-85, which can damage a regular vehicle's rubber and plastic parts over time. Owners will notice a small decrease -- about one to two miles per gallon -- with gas mileage, Zimmerman said.
"But if you're saving 50 cents a gallon, it's cheaper," he added.
About 6 million "flex fuel" vehicles on America's highways can run on up to 85 percent ethanol -- 200,000 of which are on Missouri roads, according to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition.
"It's going to more once more pumps are available," Sutton predicted.
Locally, E85 pumps are open at Express Fuel in Benton and MFA Petro-Card pumps in Bernie, Charleston and Dexter. Across the nation 757 private and public fueling stations carry E85. Currently, 58 E85 sites are open or soon will be open in Missouri.
To compare, when Express Fuel began selling E85 last November, it was the 27th station in the state to offer the fuel. Six months prior to that, the Petro Card in Charleston was the 15th in the state to open an E85 pump.
Russ Allen Mothershead II with Express Fuel Center in Benton said store operators are pleased with E85, which replaced the fuel pumps premium product.
"The sales on E85, initially, were equal to where premium was," Mothershead said. "Over the past 30 days, where we've seen crude rally up to $75 a barrel, we saw volume go up even more. As crude starts backing down, we've seen sales kind of level out just a little bit."
Zimmerman said MFA Oil Co.'s Petro Card pump in Charleston, which began selling E85 last May, has had a huge influence on the dealership's flex fuel sales.
"Because before that, it wasn't available, and it didn't concern as many people," Zimmerman said.
E85 has definitely been a popular product, Mothershead said. The corn-based fuel has also peaked the interest of the general public.
"People call the fuel center all the time wanting to know what the price of the product is and, more importantly, if their vehicles can handle it," Mothershead said, adding E85 brochures and E85 vehicle-compatibility information is also available for customers.
Missouri currently has three ethanol plants in production, two under construction and several others under development including a $175 million, coal-fired 100-million-gallon-per-year ethanol plant at the Sikeston Business, Education and Technology Park.
Shannon Shipman, general manager of Autry Morlan, said he thinks the arrival of ethanol plants to the area will also increase the demand of the alternative fuel. The Sikeston dealership sells Chevrolet and GMC models with flex fuel engines.
"I think more people are getting aware of it (E85) so (auto) companies are putting out vehicles that will burn it," Shipman said.
For example, General Motors expects to roll out 400,000 flex fuel cars and trucks this year, while Chrysler plans to build 500,000 and Ford 250,000.
But no matter which aspect of ethanol is being discussed. everyone's pretty much thinking the same thing, Sutton said.
"You want to help the local economy and local farmers, in addition to not being so dependent on the foreign oil," Sutton said.
For more about E85, visit www.e85fuel.com.