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Jay Leno on EVs: Hurray for No-Compromise Chevy Volts and Porsche Spyders

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electric vehicles
Jay Leno is, like Tom and Ray, a car guy. They actually have a lot in common being popular broadcasters who leaven their shows with humor, although Megan Fox hasn't been on Car Talk lately. Or did I miss something?

Jay Leno loves his '58 Saab. (NBC photo by Paul Drinkwater)The Magliozzi brothers help people fix their cars, especially when they make funny noises. But Leno, who told me he listens to Car Talk when he can, fixes his own at the famous Jay Leno's Garage, which has more than 300 videos and every one of its more than 100 cars (and 90 motorcycles) online. I asked Leno for an exact number, and he said, "You sound like my wife."

I've been to Leno's Los Angeles HQ and drove an electric car around the test track at his prime-time show, and that led to other things. We got on the phone last week for two marathon calls that were ostensibly about his website's new iPhone app but soon went in all directions. Since I'm a car guy myself, albeit one with a distinct green tinge, that's how the discussion went. Leno has strong opinions on this stuff, as do I, so it was lively.

Leno likes the Chevy Volt "range extender," but isn't as keen on the Nissan Leaf battery EV and its ilk. "Electricity has always been the best way to power a car, but unfortunately battery technology has some issues," Leno says. "I have a Baker Electric that will get 85 to 100 miles on a charge, which is the same as a modern electric car. Gasoline is a tremendous source of power. Electricity is like an animal--you put it in a box, and it escapes, or it dies. Put a gallon of gas on a shelf and come back in a month, and you still have a gallon of gas. Do the same thing with a battery, and in a month it will be at 80 percent charge. Where did it go? It ran away."

Jay's 1906 Stanley Steamer: alternative energy from long ago. (NBC photo by Paul Drinkwater)Leno likes the Volt because it "uses electricity at the point of generation"--in the car itself. "The Volt is the smart one. The BMW Mini E, the electric drive Smart, I don't get those. With the Mini, they took a fine car and ripped out the rear seats, put batteries in it, made it more expensive, slower and heavier, with less range than the gas car. What's the advantage of that? Most people won't buy a car like that unless they're a really green sort of person. The Volt is an electric car 95 percent of the time, but when you need to go to Vegas or San Francisco, it turns into a regular car. That's the key."

According to Leno, no less than two electric motorcycles with less than their advertised range have left him stranded and pushing the dead rides back to the Garage. "Most people have range anxiety," he says. "I had one of the original GM EV-1s for a while, and I thought it was great as long as you went to work every day and came home. But on longer trips I was sweating bullets--'The meter says I have only seven miles left.' You never know if you're going to make it. That's one of the scariest things about EVs."

Have you heard the veggie burger theory? I hadn't either, but it goes like this, according to Leno. "They make it look like a hamburger, but when you bite into it you go, 'Phaaa, it doesn't taste like a hamburger.' Auto companies will take a Volkswagen Rabbit or something like that, pull the engine out, add in batteries, and now you have something that's less than what you started with."

Will Leno buy a Volt, then? He's not sure. He likes the Fisker Karma, which is in some ways a performance version of the Volt, with a gas engine that produces electricity but doesn't drive the wheels. And he really loves the plug-in hybrid Porsche 918 Spyder (see the video above), which the company intends to produce. "It's fantastic," he said. "The greatest example of hybrid technology, the fastest Porsche of all times and one of the best handling, and it gets 78 mpg. People will be saying they're buying it for the mileage, but they'll really be buying it for the handling and performance. The Porsche 918 Spyder plug-in hybrid is the future."

I get it now: Leno likes green cars that extend the concept of what a car can be, not compromises. He's got a good point there. People don't like to go backwards. But with car makers like Tesla telling me they could--with existing technology--get their Roadster up to 350 miles on a charge, it's unlikely EVs will remain a compromise forever.

"For the most part, I'm a big fan of electric," Leno told me. "I think it's great." I do too, and we can totally agree that EVs have to also be great cars, worthy of earning a place in the hallowed halls of the Garage. I think they will be, too.
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