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COVID-19 even changing the ways people use vehicles

September 4, 2020
Since the proliferation of the coronavirus pandemic, cars are taking on even more functions, proving they’re not just for getting people from point A to point B.
 
Two separate surveys showed that many people are increasingly using their cars to get away from the people they live with, get a change of scenery, take a nap, make a personal or business call, get some "me" time or just to feel normal again.
 
"I had to drive out to the suburbs recently. I have two teens and it was my first time in a while being out of the house," said Jenni Newman, editor-in-chief of Cars.com in Chicago. "It was my first feeling that life was normal again. I was singing loudly and having a great time. It hit me, it was a fabulous soothing bond for my soul."
 
These new uses for vehicles are changing what consumers want to buy in their next cars. For example, some consumers said they now want off-road capability and more space in their next vehicle. Some people seek added technology so they can work in their car or have entertainment during road trips. In some metro areas, there has been an uptick in searches for sedans.
 
"The commute isn’t part of our life anymore, so getting back in the car is part of the fun and experiencing driving again," Newman said. "It’s a bubble on wheels for many of us."
 
The new date night
Kim Sperling and her husband Bruce, both 46, have reinvented their date night. Every Sunday afternoon when her parents babysit their 8- and 7-year-olds, the couple take off in their 2018 Chevrolet Suburban SUV.
 
"We go for a drive and that would be our date day," Kim said. "We go and get a milk shake and a lot of times end up taking a nap in our car. We talk for a while and turn on the air conditioning and fall asleep."
 
The suburban couple started the drive-dates in April because, "We realized we’d lose our mind if there wasn’t some way for my husband and me to connect," Kim said. Also, it was a chance to just get away from the kids and have a change of scenery.
 
In an April study by Cars.com, 53% of parents who responded to the survey said they "used their cars to hide from their kids, which is hilarious and also relatable," Newman said.
 
The study had 990 respondents, 445 of whom were parents. One in four of the respondents also said they use their vehicle as a makeshift office because it was quiet, Newman said.
 
Off-roading in Dr. Ben
A two-part study done by TrueCar found that 73% of the 2,000 respondents said they used their cars as a private space to get away from the people they live with. The first part of the study was done in March and the second part in July. TrueCar surveyed people ages 18 to 60-plus, an equal mix of men and women, said Wendy McMullin, director of research at TrueCar.
 
Her own colleagues were an inspiration to do the study, McMullin said.
 
"We have had Zoom meetings where their background is their vehicle," McMullin said. "They’re using it as an office when they need a quiet and isolated space or a place to escape. We also saw a good portion of people who said they were taking it out just for a drive, going nowhere, except to get time for themselves."
 
Beyond becoming a haven for "me time," other activities the TrueCar respondents said they use a car for:
 
• Leisurely drives (56% of respondents)
• Road trips (45% of respondents)
• To carry home improvement supplies (37% of respondents)
• A place to take business or personal phone calls (37% of respondents)
• As a makeshift office space (32% of respondents)
• Off-roading (26% of respondents)
 
Also, seven in 10 of the respondents said they think of their car as an extension of their home and as a part of their family. Car owners said they felt an emotional attachment to their cars, with 35% of respondents naming their vehicles. The most creative names included Betsy, Birtha, Bumblee, Cherry, Dr. Ben and Falcon.
 
"We asked about life moments experienced in the car and we had large portion say they got their first kiss in a car or shared major life news such as where they learned they’d become a parent," McMullin said.
 
Changing consumer desires
TrueCar also found people are starting to identify features they want in their next car compared to what they desired pre-pandemic, said McMullin.
 
"Comfort is the top one selected," she said. "People say they want to do more off-roading or have more space or better connectivity and more technology."
 
Close to one-third of those surveyed said they want off-roading capability in their next car. A third of the vehicles currently sold are not capable of off-road driving, McMullin said, adding, "So this represents more people saying they want that capability than we currently see in car sales."
 
The added technology satisfies people working in their cars to get quiet time. In the Sperlings’ case, they foresee more family road trips in the future, so they would pay to activate Bluetooth and have other in-vehicle technology.
 
"Our next car we get, we will buy a car with Bluetooth and built-in TVs in the car," Kim Sperling said. "We thought we’ll probably road trip now and wish we had that."
 
RVs and car sales rise
At Feldman Automotive, which has eight new-vehicle dealerships in Michigan and three in Columbus, Ohio, consumer preferences are shifting as people use their vehicles as an "escape" compared to pre-pandemic, said Dave Katarski, COO of Feldman.
 
"We have also seen it in the RV business," Katarski said, referring to Mark Wahlberg Airstream & RV in Columbus, Ohio, which the group co-owns. "People are buying RVs like crazy and they need a truck or SUV to tow the trailers."
 
Beyond that, Cars.com said consumer searches for vehicles with moonroofs and sunroofs inched up 1.5% compared with the year-ago period, said Allison Phelps, a spokeswoman for Cars.com. Cars.com also found that 29% of shoppers who were in the market to buy a vehicle over Labor Day weekend said they would be looking for a convertible. It was the third most popular choice.
 
"We also witnessed an uptick in search activity for sedans," Phelps said. "People searching for sedans increased 14 percentage points higher than the growth in overall search activity from April to June."
 
Phelps said major metro hubs saw more significant growth in sedan activity than the rest of the country. In New York City, sedan searches were 41 percentage points higher, Chicago was 24 percentage points higher, and Los Angeles was 4 percentage points higher than the overall increase in searches on the site, Phelps said.
 
"People are being hyper cautious about public transportation and ride-sharing and so they’re turning to vehicle ownership to get to where they need to go," Newman said.
 
 

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