With General Motors set to introduce an electric car seen as the troubled automaker's last best hope, late-night comedy giant Jay Leno suddenly has found himself cast in the role of unofficial spokesman.
Leno, a well-known automotive buff who test drove GM's soon-to-be-unveiled Chevrolet Volt back in December, generated headlines Monday after telling the Detroit News the Volt is meant to be "a people mover, not a people impresser." Leno also likened the Volt to a Chevy Cobalt, a backhanded compliment at best. Leno's remarks were later picked up in numerous news outlets.
On Monday morning, an audibly annoyed Leno told ABCNews.com that he thought the Volt represented nothing less than a breakthrough and complained that the Detroit News reporter, Robert Snell, had quoted him out of context following a brief exchange during a phone interview to promote Leno's appearance at a charity event at the Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, Mich. on Saturday.
"[The reporter] asks me 'so, Jay, are you going to be the first person to buy a Volt?' and I told him no, I already own a lot of cars and they tend to be sports cars. I was trying to explain to him that it's more of an everyday car, you know, not a Corvette. And the next thing you know you have headlines that say 'Jay Leno Zings the Volt,' and that's not at all what I was trying to get across. This is unfortunate because the reality is, I truly believe the Volt is going to be a breakthrough vehicle."
Snell disputed the assertion he quoted Leno out of context, and pointed out that his article included, prominently, Leno's positive comments about the Volt, specifically that the comic was excited about the technology.
In December, Leno posted a 10-minute video on his car website, jaylenosgarage.com, during which he gave the vehicle a test drive. In the segment, the denim-clad funnyman predicted the Volt would be a "breakthrough" and encouraged people to give it a try, adding "I think you'll like it."
The 2011 Chevy Volt uses gas to generate its own electric charge which can run the car up to 40 miles before the backup gasoline engine kicks in, resulting in the ability to travel far on a single tank of gas -- or use no gas at all in under 40-mile trips. The company has said in news reports that it would average 230 miles to a gallon in city driving.
"That's the nice thing about it," Leno said of the Volt's backup gasoline engine. "This will alleviate concerns of people who might be worried that with a battery-powered engine they could end up getting stuck. For new technology to succeed it has to improve upon what's already out there, and the Volt does that. It's the next generation Prius."
While Leno is best known for influencing political debate with his late-night barbs, his words carry sway in the car buyer's realm, with both gear-heads like himself and with the average motorist, said Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book, an online auto research website.
"His opinion is trusted, so what he thinks of the Volt is going to have some effect," Nerad said.
Rob Peterson, a spokesman for GM, pointed to the video on Leno's blog in which the comedian gives the Volt a rave review.
GM, which has fallen on hard times and needed government assistance to avert bankruptcy in 2008, has invested millions to create a car that would win over the green audience, extra hungry for fuel economy following the BP oil leak disaster. The car will go on sale late this year.
Leno said he is impressed with GM's engineering feat.
"For a long time, American built good cars," Leno said. "Then for a long time we built crappy cars. Now that's changed again, we're building world-class cars again."