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Published on January 12th, 2009 | by Jennifer Lance

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The Reality of Rural Mountain Living and the Future of the Hybrid Car

We need a 4WD PriusI live in a very remote region of far Northern California. I have always dreamed of owning an electric car or plug-in hybrid, as we live off-the-grid with energy to spare to charge a car’s batteries.  The problem is I do most of my driving on dirt roads, and four wheel drive is required at times.  Some of my neighbors have cars, in addition to their 4WDs, so I have dreamed that I could drive a Prius.  Last week, while getting my 4WD repaired in town, I was given a Prius for the day.  This was my chance to test it out and see if it would hold up to my mountain life.

One of the inconveniences of having your car repaired when you live in the country is it is an all day event.  Stuck in town, there is nothing to do but shop and/or see a movie, but I didn’t want to do either of these things. I also didn’t want to drive the two and half hours home to test out the Prius, so I drove to Whiskeytown National Recreation Area and went for a seven mile hike.[social_buttons]

The drive to Whiskeytown gave me a chance to see how the Prius would handle a little climb at high speeds. It had enough power not to get lapped by a log truck, but it didn’t have the same acceleration I was used to with my 4runner. I could live with that for the improved gas mileage; however, once I got off the highway, it was a different story.

The Prius handled the road curves just fine (one benefit to being low to the ground), but the clearance and distribution of weight was a problem once I got on a bumpy back road. The front and rear ends of a Prius are heavy, which caused me to scrape the bottom of the front end going over small bumps at reasonable speeds.   For my life, this would not work.  I cannot drive 5mph on our mountain roads, or I would never make it to my destination.  It is just not reasonable. Clearance is an issue; I can’t pick up every rock that falls onto the road.  I do have a friend that lives on a dirt road and owns a Prius; however, he is only a summer resident in our community.

Toyota has announced that there will be 10 new hybrids on the market in 2010. I really hope one is a real 4WD that gets good gas mileage.  Toyota has earned a reputation amongst mountain people around the world as the most reliable, tough 4WD on the market. We have broken Nissan trucks, Jeeps, and Dodges on our road; only the Toyota has survived (150,000 miles and counting).

Rural people spend a lot of money on gas, as we have to travel farther distances to get to schools and stores.  We need hybrid cars, but these cars need to be able to stand up to rough dirt roads, snow, mud, etc.  We need to be able to put mud terrain tires on our hybrids, and the current SUV hybrids on the market are a joke. Obviously, a hybrid 4WD won’t get the same mileage as a Prius, but have you seen that new hybrid Cadillac Escalade?  They don’t get good mileage, and they are city SUVs.  At one point, Toyota did make an EV Rav4, but those are rare, expensive, and hard to find.  Please Toyota, make a real hybrid or electric car for mountian people!

Image:  Prius Chat


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About the Author

Jennifer lives on 160 acres off-the-grid in a home built with her own two hands (and several more skilled pairs of hands) from forest fire salvaged timber. Her home is powered by a micro-hydro turbine, and she has been a vegetarian for 21 years. Jennifer graduated from Humboldt State University with a degree in art education and has been teaching art to children for over 16 years. She also spent five years teaching in a one-room schoolhouse before becoming the mother of two beautiful children. Jennifer has a Master's Degree in Early Childhood Education and is currently teaching preschool, as well as k-8 art. She enjoys writing, gardening, hiking, practicing yoga, and raising four akitas. Jennifer is the founder and editor of Eco Child's Play (http://ecochildsplay.com) "I’ve always been concerned about the earth and our impact upon it. Now that I have children, I feel compelled to raise them with green values. From organic gardening to alternative energy, my family tries to leave a small carbon footprint." Please visit my other blog: http://reallynatural.com



  • http://sunshinesupercars.blogspot.com Jo Borras

    This is a great post – many EV proponents are city-dwellers who tend to forget about rural driving needs, and the issues of dirt roads and steep hills are definitely very real!

    Have you looked into bio-fuel diesels or all-ethanol conversions?

  • http://sunshinesupercars.blogspot.com Jo Borras

    This is a great post – many EV proponents are city-dwellers who tend to forget about rural driving needs, and the issues of dirt roads and steep hills are definitely very real!

    Have you looked into bio-fuel diesels or all-ethanol conversions?

  • David

    I was looking at this, and I think that you should look into the Ford Escape Hybrid. Ford actually did something right with this vehicle. It gets incredible gas mileage, while still being a tough SUV. It’s priced just right and can come in four wheel drive. It’s much much more practical than a Prius for daily life and off roading.

  • David

    I was looking at this, and I think that you should look into the Ford Escape Hybrid. Ford actually did something right with this vehicle. It gets incredible gas mileage, while still being a tough SUV. It’s priced just right and can come in four wheel drive. It’s much much more practical than a Prius for daily life and off roading.

  • J Messmear

    “Obviously, a hybrid 4WD won’t get the same mileage as a Prius, but have you seen that new hybrid Cadillac Escalade? They don’t get good mileage, and they are city SUVs”

    They don’t get good mileage?! My brother has a hybrid Tahoe(same as the Escalade) and he is getting 21mpg. I have both an older Tahoe and a Toyota Sequoia(the wife’s) and they get around 14mpg. That is a 50% increase for a large SUV. Pretty fracking good in my book. We live in rural Kentucky with dirt/gravel roads, inclines, and rugged terrain. I would love an electric or hybrid. I would consider the GM vehicles. Both our Tahoe and Sequoia are good vehicles. The problem is to service the Sequoia is further away and costs more than the Chevrolet. Also I like our American products and willing to support our workers. We do make good products based on comparing the two I have.

  • J Messmear

    “Obviously, a hybrid 4WD won’t get the same mileage as a Prius, but have you seen that new hybrid Cadillac Escalade? They don’t get good mileage, and they are city SUVs”

    They don’t get good mileage?! My brother has a hybrid Tahoe(same as the Escalade) and he is getting 21mpg. I have both an older Tahoe and a Toyota Sequoia(the wife’s) and they get around 14mpg. That is a 50% increase for a large SUV. Pretty fracking good in my book. We live in rural Kentucky with dirt/gravel roads, inclines, and rugged terrain. I would love an electric or hybrid. I would consider the GM vehicles. Both our Tahoe and Sequoia are good vehicles. The problem is to service the Sequoia is further away and costs more than the Chevrolet. Also I like our American products and willing to support our workers. We do make good products based on comparing the two I have.

  • http://ecochildsplay.com Jennifer Lance

    Jo, our Dodge we run on biodiesel when we can get it, but we have had trouble with B99 in the cold weather and changing fuel filters.

    David, I don’t think Fords hold up to the kind of driving I do, unfortunately. In fact not all Toyotas do either. I had a 4wd Tacoma (it was not the TRD model but the basic truck), and I went through 3 steering racks on it before 30,000 miles. It was too light weight, which Toyota did to improve gas mileage. Toyota told me I needed the TRD or the 4runner. They told me I would break a highlander. I can’t say that I have tried the Ford or know anyone with it, but I just am skeptical.

    Actually, at this point it would be wasteful to buy a new vehicle. My truck will run at least another 100,000, and I take good care of it. I am just looking towards the future; there is no immediate need.

  • http://ecochildsplay.com Jennifer Lance

    Jo, our Dodge we run on biodiesel when we can get it, but we have had trouble with B99 in the cold weather and changing fuel filters.

    David, I don’t think Fords hold up to the kind of driving I do, unfortunately. In fact not all Toyotas do either. I had a 4wd Tacoma (it was not the TRD model but the basic truck), and I went through 3 steering racks on it before 30,000 miles. It was too light weight, which Toyota did to improve gas mileage. Toyota told me I needed the TRD or the 4runner. They told me I would break a highlander. I can’t say that I have tried the Ford or know anyone with it, but I just am skeptical.

    Actually, at this point it would be wasteful to buy a new vehicle. My truck will run at least another 100,000, and I take good care of it. I am just looking towards the future; there is no immediate need.

  • http://ecochildsplay.com Jennifer Lance

    J Messmear, you are correct that the mileage is improved from the standard models, but I don’t think it is enough. I think that all of our cars should be getting at least 35 mpg, whether hybrid or not. Obviously, my car does not.

  • http://ecochildsplay.com Jennifer Lance

    J Messmear, you are correct that the mileage is improved from the standard models, but I don’t think it is enough. I think that all of our cars should be getting at least 35 mpg, whether hybrid or not. Obviously, my car does not.

  • Carbon Buildup

    Hey Jennifer,

    As a fellow Humboldt grad I read this story with great interest, not just because of the subject matter, but because I wanted to guess where you live. My best guess is near Somme’s Bar. ANYway I have experience driving a Prius off – road literally, in NE Oregon. I think the Prius would be fine for you if you could just find 6 ply (load range C) tires, or better, and strengthen the suspension. I was amazed how well the Prius did driving over abandoned wheat fields during a trip that I will not disclose any more details about. Unfortunately it is even hard for me to find strong tires for my Honda CRV. It took me a long time to find that Cooper makes 6 belted tires that fit my car. They might make similar tires for a Prius.

  • Carbon Buildup

    Hey Jennifer,

    As a fellow Humboldt grad I read this story with great interest, not just because of the subject matter, but because I wanted to guess where you live. My best guess is near Somme’s Bar. ANYway I have experience driving a Prius off – road literally, in NE Oregon. I think the Prius would be fine for you if you could just find 6 ply (load range C) tires, or better, and strengthen the suspension. I was amazed how well the Prius did driving over abandoned wheat fields during a trip that I will not disclose any more details about. Unfortunately it is even hard for me to find strong tires for my Honda CRV. It took me a long time to find that Cooper makes 6 belted tires that fit my car. They might make similar tires for a Prius.

  • http://nickbostic.com Nick Bostic

    It sounds like you’re definitely heavy duty, so it probably wouldn’t work long term, but does the Highlander Hybrid have the ground clearance you would need? I have a RAV4 and a Corolla and love them, would love to see a RAV4 hybrid. I’m mostly city, but would love the AWD and cargo boost from a RAV4 over the Prius, but I personally don’t need the size of the Highlander.

  • http://nickbostic.com Nick Bostic

    It sounds like you’re definitely heavy duty, so it probably wouldn’t work long term, but does the Highlander Hybrid have the ground clearance you would need? I have a RAV4 and a Corolla and love them, would love to see a RAV4 hybrid. I’m mostly city, but would love the AWD and cargo boost from a RAV4 over the Prius, but I personally don’t need the size of the Highlander.

  • http://ecochildsplay.com Jennifer Lance

    Nick and Carbon Buildup: Well, not always heavy duty, but yea, I need my 4wd. I don’t think the highlander has lockers, which I like to have just in case I get stuck. Plus, toyota told me I would break a highlander, in fact, they weren’t sure the new 4runners are built as tough as my 2001. I do need 6ply tires for sure (hate flats), but I just think it is more sustainable at this point to have one car that can meet my needs than two (one for easy driving, one for 4WD needs). I did enjoy driving the prius and following my fuel economy, but I knew it wouldn’t work for me before I even left town. Turning into a parking lot, I bottomed out the front end. I know that I am somewhat unique in my car needs, but I think my driving conditions match those found in many third world countries besides rural America. When solving the car problem, it does make sense to address city drivers first, as the auto industry has started to do, but we can’t forget rural drivers too.

  • http://ecochildsplay.com Jennifer Lance

    Nick and Carbon Buildup: Well, not always heavy duty, but yea, I need my 4wd. I don’t think the highlander has lockers, which I like to have just in case I get stuck. Plus, toyota told me I would break a highlander, in fact, they weren’t sure the new 4runners are built as tough as my 2001. I do need 6ply tires for sure (hate flats), but I just think it is more sustainable at this point to have one car that can meet my needs than two (one for easy driving, one for 4WD needs). I did enjoy driving the prius and following my fuel economy, but I knew it wouldn’t work for me before I even left town. Turning into a parking lot, I bottomed out the front end. I know that I am somewhat unique in my car needs, but I think my driving conditions match those found in many third world countries besides rural America. When solving the car problem, it does make sense to address city drivers first, as the auto industry has started to do, but we can’t forget rural drivers too.

  • http://dotcommodity.blogspot.com Susan Kraemer

    Hey Jennifer – how about this sort of thing? These allterrain EVs look pretty hardy for rural driving – I had saved a video of this(but on my old computer that got fried)but believe me it looked very ‘torqu’ey and strong:

    http://evtworld.com/

    you could see one at – closest for you -

    Sonoma Segway / Eco-Friendly Vehicles

    524 Broadway

    Sonoma, CA. 95476

    Ph: 707-938-2080

    URL: http://www.sonomasegway.com

    Email: office@sonomasegway.com

    or are you a stickler for a roof? You sissy, you! :-)

  • http://dotcommodity.blogspot.com Susan Kraemer

    Hey Jennifer – how about this sort of thing? These allterrain EVs look pretty hardy for rural driving – I had saved a video of this(but on my old computer that got fried)but believe me it looked very ‘torqu’ey and strong:

    http://evtworld.com/

    you could see one at – closest for you -

    Sonoma Segway / Eco-Friendly Vehicles

    524 Broadway

    Sonoma, CA. 95476

    Ph: 707-938-2080

    URL: http://www.sonomasegway.com

    Email: office@sonomasegway.com

    or are you a stickler for a roof? You sissy, you! :-)

  • http://www.zoomilife.com Electric Cars

    Jennifer, you’re so right on about the need for higher ground clearance. I used to spend a lot of my time on country roads and there’s no way a Prius would have survived. So I got an FJ Cruiser instead. I really hope they release a hybrid model in 2010 so I can trade up :)

  • http://www.zoomilife.com Electric Cars

    Jennifer, you’re so right on about the need for higher ground clearance. I used to spend a lot of my time on country roads and there’s no way a Prius would have survived. So I got an FJ Cruiser instead. I really hope they release a hybrid model in 2010 so I can trade up :)

  • Carl Inglin

    Seems to me there would be a market here if somebody came up with a reasonably priced, reliable hybrid conversion for existing SUV’s and pickups. I’ve heard of a few small operations that do it, but since they’re essentially custom jobs the cost is exorbitant. To be successful, it would have to be done by a company large enough to bring the cost down and provide servicing. Since the auto companies want to sell new vehicles I don’t see it happening. But it sure would be nice if it did.

  • Carl Inglin

    Seems to me there would be a market here if somebody came up with a reasonably priced, reliable hybrid conversion for existing SUV’s and pickups. I’ve heard of a few small operations that do it, but since they’re essentially custom jobs the cost is exorbitant. To be successful, it would have to be done by a company large enough to bring the cost down and provide servicing. Since the auto companies want to sell new vehicles I don’t see it happening. But it sure would be nice if it did.

  • Jon

    This is an issue with many Prius owners here in the Pacific Northwest. If you’re going to stay on road, the Prius is fine. If you have even a MILDLY rugged driveway, the Prius is no good. My friend’s lowered 1987 VW GTi handles dirt roads here better than my friend’s Prius. I’m not hating on the Prius, though. It’s a great car in the hands of the right people.

  • Jon

    This is an issue with many Prius owners here in the Pacific Northwest. If you’re going to stay on road, the Prius is fine. If you have even a MILDLY rugged driveway, the Prius is no good. My friend’s lowered 1987 VW GTi handles dirt roads here better than my friend’s Prius. I’m not hating on the Prius, though. It’s a great car in the hands of the right people.

  • Obama

    I drive a 1989 Honda CRX. I have consistently got more than 50mpg. As per 2008-2009 EPA fuel economy standards the CRX gets better MPG than the toyota prius. I have driven this car through 5ft snow banks, and passed many 4wd trucks off-road. Although I must admit, if they knew how to drive, there would be no way I would be passing them. I would however recommend beefing up the drivetrain if you go off road a lot. I have broke a radius rod, but considering the hell I’ve put it through this is not bad at all.

  • Obama

    I drive a 1989 Honda CRX. I have consistently got more than 50mpg. As per 2008-2009 EPA fuel economy standards the CRX gets better MPG than the toyota prius. I have driven this car through 5ft snow banks, and passed many 4wd trucks off-road. Although I must admit, if they knew how to drive, there would be no way I would be passing them. I would however recommend beefing up the drivetrain if you go off road a lot. I have broke a radius rod, but considering the hell I’ve put it through this is not bad at all.

  • http://mountainjobs.com Amy S

    This is a very good post! It reminded of when I first moved to the mountains and I couldn’t imagine why there were almost as many Subarus as there were people. I said I would never get one and now over 10 years later, I admit I wouldn’t mind one. They really seem to fair best in the mountains from what I have seen. I had a small honda when I first moved and it was great to get around in but with no clearance, I was finished! Ended up with a Toyota Rav (because I got a good deal) and it has been great in the snow, gas mileage and clearance but horrible power (older model), difficult driving over mountain passes. See quite a few Prius’ around … in the summer!

  • http://mountainjobs.com Amy S

    This is a very good post! It reminded of when I first moved to the mountains and I couldn’t imagine why there were almost as many Subarus as there were people. I said I would never get one and now over 10 years later, I admit I wouldn’t mind one. They really seem to fair best in the mountains from what I have seen. I had a small honda when I first moved and it was great to get around in but with no clearance, I was finished! Ended up with a Toyota Rav (because I got a good deal) and it has been great in the snow, gas mileage and clearance but horrible power (older model), difficult driving over mountain passes. See quite a few Prius’ around … in the summer!

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