Cars for birders: the debut review (Volvo C70)

When Jenny and I went birding together in August we got into an extended discussion of cars and how they affect the experience of birding. So we thought it might be fun to review different cars we’ve driven from that perspective. That’s not your typical car review, we know, but if you’re here reading this you probably have some affinity for birding and depending on where you live or where you go birding, a car may be a big part of that. You’ll probably see me (Arlene) doing more of these since I’m the one voted Most Likely To Rent A Car. That’s mainly because I live in Alaska and so when I travel to other places, I usually fly there rather than drive.

But before I get into the rentals, I’ll start with my cars. First up, my 2011 Volvo C70, Annika. (yes, I’m one of THOSE that name my cars). I bought it used a few years ago  after I’d murdered my ’09 VW Jetta (I’ll do a review on Gerhard another day) and was going through a midlife crisis when I got around to replacing him and decided I could finally get a convertible and honestly? The used C70 was the only convertible in town that met most of my wishlist (including a price restriction: I would never have bought one new.)  And realistically, that it’s a Volvo has not much to do with this being a review of the car birding-wise, it’s mostly about it being a convertible.

That’s my pretty girl. In Whittier, Alaska. I think she always looks better for a little dirt on her, which is an advantage when it comes to selecting birding cars.

I’m a huge fan of convertibles for roadside birding, barring inclement or winter weather birding, of course. Annika has great sight lines for driver and passenger when the top is down and she’s got a quiet enough engine that when I’m creeping along country roads, I can hear a lot too. Not anywhere as near as quiet as a hybrid, but for a gas engine, she’s fairly well-insulated against engine noise.

I’m really not kidding about the inclement weather thing, though. Annika is a hard top so unlike soft top convertibles, she actually has a nearly full size rear window which gives her a step up from the ragtops. But in general, low slung sedans like her aren’t the best for visibility unless that top is retracted. And because of that, for winter roadside birding, I tend to take out my ’92 Jeep Cherokee, Poppy (see, I told you I was THAT person). I’ll do a review on Poppy later, too.

Other positives? She’s sturdy enough to take on less than ideal roads, not SUV-level, but better than a sports car; the back seat, while not big enough to actually seat real people is a great storage area for small coolers and bird books and other supplies you and one passenger might want on a birding expedition; and if annoying other birders is your thing, they do get jealous of the whole top-down look at birding hotspots because you can just lean your seat back and look up while they have to get out of the car. It’s like having a portable blind: you don’t have to worry about disturbing birds with the sound of doors or windows opening or closing. Plus you look pretty stylish getting to your birding destination.

Drawbacks: serious visibility limitations when the top is in place. If it’s above 80F or below 40F, unless you’re really hard core, it’s too hot or too cold to be running around with the top retracted. Not an off-roader. A lot of birders have some reverse snobbery toward Volvos because of how much they cost (and okay, maybe that’s just me being judgy since yeah, I am that person who never understood why somebody would own a Volvo and still don’t, to be honest). She can run off of regular fuel but prefers premium and in some of the smaller towns around Alaska, premium fuel isn’t exactly readily available, not to mention it’s expensive.

So on a scale of one to 10, 1 being “don’t go birding in this car” and 10 being “this is a car clearly built for the birder market” (if that exists), I’m currently ranking my C70 as a 7. And that’s mostly because it’s a convertible. If it weren’t, I think I’d have to bump it down to about a 3.

And now I’m off to think about the other cars I’ve driven in the last few years to see where they might fit in the scale. Got any cars you absolutely love or absolutely despise for the purposes of birding? Share your knowledge in the comments! What do you love about them? What do you hate?  –Arlene


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