As petrol prices edge towards £1 a litre (£4.50 or about $US7 an imperial gallon), the first Ford Focus Flexi-Fuel Vehicle (FFV) in Britain is being tested by fleets taking delivery of the car next year.

Southwest rural county Somerset-grown wheat will be used to produce the bioethanol powering the 40 FFVs coming to the county around March 2006.

They will, appropriately, belong to local organisations Somerset County Council, Wessex Grain, Avon and Somerset Police and Wessex Grain and Wessex Water – all members of the Somerset Biofuel Project.

Ford – the first major manufacturer to market a bioethanol-powered car in Britain – is sole vehicle provider to the project. Five refuelling points have been established for the four fleets.

Ford is hoping the Somerset pilot will stimulate wider interest in the FFV and bioethanol. Already other rural economies have expressed an interest in setting up a bioethanol infrastructure – using local crops such as sugar beet to produce the ethanol.

In Sweden, where 80% of Focus models sold are FFVs, bioethanol costs more than 40% less than petrol. The Somerset project draws on the Swedes’ experience of establishing regional bioethanol distribution networks and the introduction of flex fuel cars.

In Somerset, Wessex Grain is planning a new bioethanol production plant next to an existing grain storage site in Henstridge. The facility will be able to convert 340,000 tonnes of wheat into 131,000,000 litres of ethanol a year at full capacity from 2007. In the meantime bioethanol will be supplied by Wessex Grain from crops grown locally and processed elsewhere.

The 1.8-litre, 125PS Focus FFV offers an overall 70% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions compared to the same petrol-only model.

This is achieved by factoring in the CO2 absorbed by the crop when grown prior to harvest for bioethanol production. The car can run on either E85 bioethanol (a blend of 85% ethanol/15% petrol) or petrol in the same fuel tank in any mix.

Priced at £14,095, the flex-fuel Focus meets Euro 4 emission standards.