TRAVERSE CITY, MI – As the Big Three U.S. auto makers and, more recently, Toyota Motor Corp., climb aboard the E85 ethanol bandwagon, Honda Motor Co. Ltd. doesn’t rule out flex-fuel vehicles for North America.

But the auto maker is not fond of the fueling system either.

“In some ways for us, E85 (a mixture of 85% corn-derived ethanol and 15% gasoline) degrades our fuel economy from where we are now,” John Mendel, senior vice president-automobile operations for American Honda Motor Co. Inc., tells the media at the 2006 Management Briefing Seminars here.

Honda has the highest corporate average fuel economy rating of any auto maker selling vehicles in the U.S., at 29.1 mpg (8 L/100 km) for the ’04 model year, he says.

While other auto makers have seen their light-truck sales dip in recent months due to rising fuel prices, Honda sales rose 5% through July to 376,999 units.

Mendel says one reason Honda would consider producing a flex-fuel vehicle for the U.S. would be to lessen dependence on foreign oil. A Honda spokesman says it would not be difficult for the auto maker to produce such a vehicle, calling the technology “very easy.”

“If it’s mandated, we can get the vehicle out there,” he says, citing a movement from corn-based ethanol infrastructure in the U.S. to cellulose ethanol as a motivating factor in the decision.

Honda already sells flex-fuel vehicles in Brazil, where ethanol is derived from the country’s plentiful sugar-cane crops.

“We are prepared to do what we need to do on E85, but we feel the long haul here is hydrogen,” Mendel says. “We’ll continue to push for that,” but it doesn’t mean Honda will ignore E85.

In June, John Watts, manager-product planning for American Honda, told Ward's E85 was a flash in the pan.

“A year from now, it probably won’t be an issue,” Watts said at the time, adding General Motors Corp. was heavily promoting E85 because, “they don’t have a lot to talk about right now.”

Mendel says infrastructure will be another deciding factor on whether Honda produces a flex-fuel vehicle for U.S. buyers, noting the dearth of E85 pumps in the country.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com