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Jay Leno, March 2011

The thrills of driving to conserve energy

Jay Leno

Backing off the gas downhill, I can regenerate 12 miles of range. The thrill of those miles is as much of a buzz as driving my McLaren F1 fast
I recently took delivery of a car I never thought I’d buy. The Chevy Volt. It’s GM’s new hybrid electric car. I never really found previous hybrids like the Prius very interesting, and pure electric cars never seem to go as far as they claim. I’d had a Volt prototype for a while and could see the benefits but actually living with the car has been a revelation. I have had this car now for a few weeks and, with my daily commute being 30-35 miles, it has been easy to rack up 1000 miles already.

The car arrived with a full tank but no charge. Of that full tank I have only used 1.6 gallons – 1.6 gallons for 1000 miles! That’s exciting. I never thought I’d say a hybrid is exciting. I plug the car in at home overnight and at the studio in the day so it always starts fully charged. The buzz is how to get the longest range.

The cars runs on electricity the whole time. The little engine charges the battery if it runs low, but there is a regeneration system that puts charge back into the battery under braking or deceleration. Formula 1 had a similar system in 2009. On a hilly run like my commute, by backing off the gas downhill I can regenerate 12 miles of range. The thrill of those extra miles is as much of a buzz as driving my McLaren F1 fast. I see how these guys who take low-emission cars to the max find it exciting.

The method of getting the best from a car is nothing new to me. I am always after a unique driving experience. I have such an oddball collection that you need different ways to get the best from each machine. Ironically it is some of the older cars, especially the steam cars, that have the most similar driving style to a hybrid’s. In a steam car, the more pressure, the more acceleration. See a red light up ahead, shut off the steam pressure so you have enough to pull away again. It’s a good lesson in how to conserve energy.

Other cars that need a unique touch are the 8-litre Bentley, which has a gearbox that is hard to master. First to second needs to be done very slowly, double-declutching on the way. Then second to third as fast as possible. My old friend Phil Hill was a master Packard mechanic. He showed me the best way to drive the car and to avoid noisy gearchanges. He illustrated how, to get a silent move into reverse, it is best to lightly touch second. Just a brush. It makes all the difference.

Mind you, cars these days largely have no idiosyncrasies like that. If you were born in 1990 I can understand if you’re not interested in cars. If you needed to ease from one gear to the next, or coast up to traffic lights to be able to start again, you’d think it was broken. The Volt is a car for the video game generation. I can go online or check via an app on my iPad how charged it is and even what the oil level is. Maybe it won’t be long before I can drive it using the iPad!

Like the iPad, the Volt is smart technology from the US. I think, like in the UK, Americans have for too long had an inferiority complex about technology and how ours compares with Japan’s. Toyota has had a huge amount of bad press recently. And in more bad news, they say that even crash test dummies are refusing to get into Toyotas these days. But, seriously, we should be proud of the technology the West is putting out now. We just need to get it to market faster than the Chinese might pinch it.

I think the Volt is pretty exciting technology. They haven’t taken a standard Chevrolet platform and hidden batteries all around it. It’s totally new, the batteries go up the centre of the car, it’s very well put together. It’s clever engineering. You can drive the Volt like any normal car. It’s an electric car only when you need it. It goes pretty good. They’ve done everything they can to make it look exactly like a typical Chevrolet. In no way is it a sports car.

It’s meant to be an extremely practical car. And the thrill is in how to get the most from it. As a baseline you get 40 miles of free driving every time you charge it up. But the kick is in how much of the 40 miles you can get back during your journey.

I find myself increasingly competitive on my commute. Maybe it drives other drivers crazy as I drive the Volt gingerly. Yet if you drive it aggressively it’s still worthwhile, as even after those 40 free miles it still sips fuel, but it’s at its best when it is running only on its store of battery power. In a week that means saving ten gallons. A tankful. Over a year that’s hundreds of bucks.

Comedian and talk show host Jay Leno is one of the most famous entertainers in the USA. He is also a true petrolhead, with a massive collection of cars and bikes (see www.jaylenosgarage.com). Jay was speaking with Jeremy Hart.

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