COVID-19 has changed the way people use their vehicles

Cars have famously served as a makeshift bedroom for young or illicit lovers seeking private time together. 

But since the proliferation of the coronavirus pandemic, cars are taking on even more functions, proving they’re not just for transporting 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 awhile 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.”

Jenni Newman, the editor-in-chief for Cars.com, enjoys escaping for alone time in her car.

These new uses for vehicles are changing what consumers want to buy in their next cars too. For example, some consumers said they now desire off-road capability and more space in their next vehicle. Some people seek added technology so they can work in the 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.”

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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 7-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter, the Texas 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 awhile and turn on the air conditioning and fall asleep.”

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Bruce Sperling and Kim Sperling of Dallas, Texas stand near the 2018 Chevrolet Suburban that they escape in for “day dates” each Sunday since the coronavirus pandemic started. Studies show many Americans use their cars as retreats from home confinement.

The couple, who live in a Dallas suburb, started the drive-dates in April because, “we realized we’d lose our mind if there wasn’t some way for my husband and I 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,” said Newman. “Which is hilarious and also relatable.”

The study had 990 respondents, 445 of which 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

In a two-part study done by TrueCar, it 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,” here is the breakdown of the 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 ten 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 a 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 is because people are working in their cars to get quiet time. Or, 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” now 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. Also, it found that 29% of shoppers who are in the market to buy a vehicle over Labor Day weekend said they are 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.”

Cars.com Editor-In-Chief Jenni Newman behind the wheel. Studies show more Americans are seeking refuge in their cars during the coronavirus pandemic.

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.

Contact Jamie L. LaReau at 313-222-2149 or jlareau@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @jlareauan. Read more on General Motors and sign up for our autos newsletter. Become a subscriber.

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