COVID-19 Isn’t Dampening Enthusiasm for Labor Day Driving
Car sales are recovering even as coronavirus spreads — and the trend toward sedans isn't necessarily good news.
Auto sales are expected to spike this holiday weekend, according to a new survey — and a unprecedented number of drivers are looking for sedans, rather than the huge cars whose growing popularity has played an outsized role in our accelerating national pedestrian crisis.
A survey of prospective buyers on the car-shopping website Cars.com found that 51 percent of shoppers planned to take advantage of Labor Day sales at auto dealerships, rather than stalling until the economy recovers — and a surprising 44 percent of buyers were in the market for sedans. Another 39 percent of drivers still want mega-cars, but that’s a smaller share than pre-COVID. SUVs and pick up trucks accounted for an astronomical 70 percent of total sales last year.
Even during the pandemic, trucks, vans and crossovers have dominated the car market, despite an initial sales dip: In May 2020, 78.3 percent of cars sold were either light trucks or SUVs. Total vehicle sales since have climbed back to about 90 percent of their February 2020 levels, and big cars have held on to about 76 percent of market share today.
The idea that car shoppers might be turning to smaller styles at first blush sounds like good news for road safety.
Pedestrian deaths reached a 30 year high in 2019, and countless studies have named the popularity of huge vehicles as a key factor in the death toll. A recent study from the University of Michigan found that collisions with SUVs and other large cars with high and flat front-body designs were more lethal to walkers than collisions with smaller vehicles with low, rounded hoods.
But some experts think the sudden shift to sedans could point to a troubling phenomenon: a surge in first-time city car buyers who used to rely on transit but now are opting for small cars instead.
“We have tracked consumer sentiment about car buying and travel habits during the pandemic for months now — and our findings continue to show that more and more people are turning to car ownership because of the safety and freedom it provides,” said Kelsey Mays, senior consumer-affairs editor at Cars.com. “And, interestingly enough, this new generation of buyers – many of whom previously did not own a car, particularly in urban areas – are looking at sedans over the typically popular SUVs or crossovers as their vehicle of choice.”
So even if this weekend’s sales lessen the proportion of large cars on the road, it might not matter much for walker safety — because there might be more cars in formerly pedestrian-friendly areas.
Whether the auto-sales projections pan out, we can expect a lot of Americans on the roads this weekend. About 60 percent of Cars.com readers said they plan on traveling out of town for the Labor Day holiday, compared to just 36 percent who planned to travel over Memorial Day. Of course, the readers of the automotive website had a strong preference for how they’d get to those holiday parties: 88 percent said they would drive.