The new essential earthquake survival tool: Toyota hybrids?

TOKYO -- Next time a devastating earthquake strikes, pray that you drive a Toyota hybrid.

That’s the not-so-subtle message from Toyota Motor Corp. following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan that left hundreds of thousands homeless and without power.

At a press conference last week, Toyota President Akio Toyoda sang the praises of the gasoline-electric cars in aiding survivors. The vehicles needed fewer fill-ups than gasoline-powered cars and they provided portable power generation.

In what appeared to be a tightly scripted answer to a journalist’s question, Toyoda plugged the hybrids, saying disaster victims have complained about power outages and gasoline shortages.

Some have written to him saying Toyota’s hybrids solve both problems, he said.

“They said, ‘I’m glad I have a hybrid vehicle’ because hybrid vehicles have a very long driving range,” Toyoda said. “And because of that, if they had not been using hybrid vehicles, they would be among those people cuing up for gasoline. They didn’t have to because they had hybrids.”

Then there’s the blackout factor.

“In some of the letters sent to me, people complained about the blackouts, the lack of electricity supply,” Toyoda continued. “But they have the Estima hybrid and were able to use electricity stored in the Estima to charge mobile phones or warm up emergency supplies or food.”

Toyoda noted that the Estima hybrid van can generate 1,500 watts of power.

Never mind that hybrids don’t eliminate the need to cue at the pump -- just extend the intervals between visits. And that the humble, old-fashioned internal-combustion engine also can act as a mini power station, through relatively cheap inverters that plug into accessory sockets.

Toyota is capitalizing on the quake as a reminder that hybrids are a step above gasoline-powered vehicles.

And with thousands of quake survivors soon back in the market for new cars to replace the ones washed away in the tsunami, memories of the disaster just might shape that next purchase.

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