Jay Leno has a lot of vehicles -- more than 100 convertibles, cars and motorcycles. But the vehicle that plays the most active role in his daily life, getting him to and from the set of "The Tonight Show" is his Chevy Volt. Why? For starters, as of September, he had yet to fill his gas tank since December 2010, even after 10,000 miles.
You would think that Leno, given his salary, would not be concerned about saving pennies at the pump, but he seemed downright enthused about the mileage. "You get the first 40 miles free," Leno told Ad Age on the phone from his office on the NBC lot in Burbank, Calif. "So when I go to work every day that 's 28 miles, and I plug it in at work. Then I go shopping, run errands, pull in the driveway; that 's 40 miles so I plug it in. It's pretty amazing because you can actually check that on the computer on the car."
Leno doesn't see the Volt's all-electric competitors changing anytime soon. "I have a 1909 Baker Electric, and it goes 80 to 100 miles on a charge. The brand-new Nissan electric goes 80 to 100 miles on a charge," he said. "But the idea is electricity is like sex. People have no compulsion about lying about if it doesn't do what it's supposed to do.
"I like electricity when I need it and gas when I need to use it. With Nissan, you need two cars, one to get around town and the other to go on long trips. With the Volt, you don't. You can drive to San Francisco. It's just that after 40 to 50 miles — OK, you have a gas car again. It's silly to throw 150 years of internal combustion out the window. We don't dislike the engine. Let's come up with a better fuel. And until we do, let's do this hybrid thing. You can't do much better than that ."
It's that evolutionary hybrid technology and relative ease of use that Leno thinks could help revitalize Chevrolet's reputation and save the American auto industry to boot. "Engineers are now back in the forefront," he said. "When I was a kid, Oldsmobile built Oldsmobile engines; Pontiac built Pontiac engines; Chevrolet built Chevrolet engines. In terms of profit, each division tried to outdo each other. Then in the '70s and '80s they tried to go to a generic one-engine-fits-all type thing. To me that was kind of the downhill point. But now you've got engineers stepping in again."
The 61-year-old comedian has had a lifelong affinity for Chevrolet but has been more hands-on with its cars in the past 10 to 15 years. He has made several public appearances on behalf of vehicles such as the Corvette and the Malibu, and he counts Ed Welburn, General Motors' global vice president of design, among his friends.
"It wouldn't be a good relationship if it wasn't a good product," Leno said. "To me the Corvette is a car that rivals anything from Europe like the Lamborghini or the Ferrari. A lot of people might snicker and say, 'Not really,' but at a pretty good price you get just as good or more horsepower and just as good mileage."
His loyalty to the domestic brands also means making trips to Detroit to make the rounds of the auto show.
"I'm not a sports guy, so to me this is my team," he said. "I root for American manufacturers the way other people root for Manchester United or the New York Giants. Detroit is a tremendous city and has tremendous potential. It hit rock bottom, and now it can come back. Take your time to build the product properly, and people will come back."