Cars for birders review #5: 2017 Toyota 4Runner

Look: I actually got a photo of this one! Amazement.

Toyota 4Runner in a parking lot in Seattle. Okay, a Nordstrom Rack parking lot in Seattle. I don’t begin and end with birding, you know. (h/t to The Palm Beach Story.)

Okay, I have been known to have a soft spot for Toyotas, I’ll say that going in. My first ever new car of my own was a Toyota Paseo (2 door, subcompact sporty little thing) which I sold to my mechanic in 2009 after 185000 miles and 18 years and I still miss her (her name was Charis) so, so much. I never tried to go birding in her but I did some offroading and plenty of marathon drives and I would get 35 mpg going up mountain passes in Montana at 75 mph with the a/c on so okay, I’ll stop reminiscing now since that’s all completely irrelevant. I don’t think I have a bias in favor of Toyotas: certainly how badly I was treated by my local dealership over her last years in life and during my attempt to replace her with another Toyota model should have evened out any bias I might possibly have. I hope. I’ll let you make that call if you’ve taken a 4Runner birding and disagree with my assessment below.

Here’s the thing. I’m not really a SUV person, hence my ongoing feeling of loss for the Paseo and my almost-as-beloved Jetta, but when you’re birding, the appeal of an SUV can’t be denied. High ground clearance, good cargo space, good visibility. Well, in theory. As per my review of the Buick Encore, that’s not always the case. But the Encore was a small SUV and the 4Runner? What’s the level above behemoth? This thing was huge.

Let me boil it down though.

Pros: high ground clearance, good cargo space, good visibility (contradiction coming below), does well in a variety of driving conditions. Very comfortable to sit in and to drive, relatively quiet, did okay on gas consumption, not that I really tested it with speed since I drove it almost entirely on Vashon Island which was a crowded but reasonably short commute from SeaTac.

Neutrals: the turning radius wasn’t the best in the world but it was okay for a vehicle of this size and we all know how often doing quick turns on limited width roads comes into play when you’re birding by car in remote or semi-remote areas.

The near u-turn to get to the cabin where I was staying on Vashon. I could basically make it while traveling to the cabin (from left to right on the image, bravo 4Runner) but going back out? Yeah, not so much. 3-5 point turn, every time, even on the times I took that corner as wide as possible. I’m not sure my Paseo would have made that turn and she was practically omnipotent when it came to sharp corners.

Cons: This was not a quick exit/entry car for me. I’m between 5’5” and 5’6”. I desperately wanted a stepstool for this vehicle. The leaping in was okay, but the leaping out where the footing might be uncertain? Like on wet leaf covered roadsides? Was distressing. If you’re over 5’8” you might be okay.

Here’s another con and it directly relates to the quality of birding from the car. That’s the view from the driver’s seat to/through the back passenger side window. What the heck? How weird was this? So despite relatively good visibility about the car, it was messed up by the glass itself. I’m now curious as to whether or not this was something going on with this particular 4Runner or if this is a problem of them in general. Anybody know?

the view through the rear passenger side window. Has anybody else ever encountered any auto glass like this?

Ranking? Hmmm… It’s got to be higher than the Encore which I gave a 4 to. The sightlines and visibility are just so much better as is the cargo space. And I’m thinking about Poppy the Jeep which got a 6 and if I’m aiming for consistency, the 4Runner was better than her. Sightlines inside weren’t as good as Poppy but reliability, noise levels, comfort in riding (not in entering/exiting), better.

I have to go for a 7, I think, to maintain any consistency between reviews whatsoever. This surprises me rather a lot, since I would never purchase this vehicle for oh, so many reasons (including that troublesome dealership I mentioned earlier) and I doubt I’d be all that quick to rent one again soon but that may have more to do with the price of owning/renting plus my general disinclination to own SUVs but if you’ve got the money and don’t mind looking like something of a bully on the road while you’re birding, the 4Runner is a decent choice.


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