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Car Owners' Attitudes & Behavior in the US

Stereotypes, Secrets, and Sentiments- A Study on U.S. Car Owners- Attitudes and Behaviors
Sarah Mattie

Sarah Mattie

Updated December 8, 2021
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Editor’s note: Lantern by SoFi seeks to provide content that is objective, independent and accurate. Writers are separate from our business operation and do not receive direct compensation from advertisers or partners. Read more about our Editorial Guidelines and How We Make Money.
Cars are an integral part of the American experience. Though they were invented in Europe in the 1800s, America quickly took over the industry. Not only were mass production techniques perfected through car manufacturing, but the need for a massive number of cars became increasingly clear due to the sheer size of the country.Today, we don't think of cars as novel; they're just a part of life, whether in small towns or large cities. But cars mean different things to different people, which is why we surveyed 600 car owners about their views on buying, owning, and driving their vehicles. Join us for a behind-the-wheel tour of the current state of car ownership in the U.S.

Key Findings and Insights

If you're looking for some fast facts on car ownership in the United States, here are the key findings from our study:
  • (Perceived) Worst Drivers: Baby boomers, followed by millennials
  • Who Uses TikTok to Research Cars? Almost one-fifth of millennials and Gen Z-ers
  • Auto Loan Refinance Comfort Levels: Gen X and millennials are comfortable and interested; boomers and Gen Z are less so
  • Who Lies About Their Car Type?: Nearly 30% of men; about 9% of women
  • Is a Car a Good Gift? 52% of men say yes; 70% of women say no
  • Most Common Car Names: Start with the letter B, with Betsy as the most common 
  • How Does Driving Make People Feel?: “Free”

Car Ownership Data: Generational Differences

Each generation grew up in a different era of car ownership in the U.S. Baby boomers may recall riding in the car before seat belts were the norm and before the national speed limit was 55 mph. Gen X might remember hanging a poster of a Camaro or Lamborghini on their wall in an era that idolized a fast and luxurious lifestyle.As millennials hit the road, car makers were implementing more safety features like backup cameras and lane assist that were supposed to make driving safer (but also coincided with the rise of texting and driving). And to Gen Z, what is a car but a computer on wheels? With the autonomous vehicle revolution well underway, people may own cars but they themselves won’t  need to drive them in the future.  But for now, we wanted to understand how each generation feels and acts behind the wheel in the present. Here’s what we found. 

Driving Enjoyment and Behavior

How people feel about driving — and their interpretations of others' driving abilities — varies by generation.

Boomers, Voted Worst Drivers on the Road, May Actually Be the Best

We also asked our respondents who they believed to be the worst drivers based on generation. But were they correct? Here is what they said versus the number of convicted infractions reported by Insurify in 2020:Numbers are rounded, so they may not equal 100%.
So, while our poll respondents believe boomers are the worst drivers, the statistics show this generation commits the fewest convicted infractions. The word "convicted" is essential! Those given warnings aren't included in the Insurify study, so the numbers may not tell the whole story.According to police officer Kent Ng in an article for TrafficTickets.com, senior citizens are more likely to be given warnings instead of tickets when compared to other age groups.In our study, we also found "people who drive below the speed limit" is the second-highest reason other drivers become frustrated on the road, and Ng says that's one of the most common reasons older adults are pulled over. (The number one frustration was talking or texting while driving.)

Keep Moving: Car Maintenance and Age

Car ownership is expensive. According to our study, most people spend $101 to $500 per year cleaning and maintaining their vehicles.Even though our parents and grandparents may have spent years drilling the importance of car maintenance into us, over 70% of boomers spend $500 or less on car maintenance every year. Gen X spends the most, with 49% in this age group spending $501 or more each year. 

Millennials Love to Drive

Car ownership statistics don't lie: Millennials love to drive, with 41% of those polled giving their enjoyment level a "5," meaning "Love It." By comparison, only 22% of boomers enjoyed driving at that level. When it comes to genuinely hating driving — giving it a rating of 1 — our study points to Gen X-ers. Of those polled, 7.5% said they “Hate it” — more than double the percentage of millennials and Gen Z-ers who said the same. 

Getting from A to B Without a Car

Though all our respondents own at least one car, we all find ourselves without a vehicle from time to time. Using rideshares and walking are the two most popular methods of transportation when vehicles are unavailable.When asked what they're most likely to do when they can't use (or locate) their cars, this is what each generation had to say (percentages rounded to the nearest whole number):
  • Gen Z: Most likely to walk (33%)
  • Millennials: Most likely to rideshare (45%)
  • Gen X: Most likely to rideshare (36%)
  • Boomers: Most likely to walk (53%)
The least popular method of transportation? Biking. 

Car Buying and Financing

From researching options to figuring out how much you can spend, car shopping can be an ordeal.As with perceptions about driving and other modes of transportation, there are generational differences in how people shop for, choose, and finance their vehicles.

Dude, Where's My Car? Searching for the Perfect Vehicle

The most popular methods for researching cars, for all generations, are:
  • Car review websites
  • Referrals from family or friends
  • Kelley Blue Book
While many often assume older people aren't comfortable with technology and social media, this belief doesn't play out from our respondents' answers. In fact, when asked how they researched cars before purchase, over 40% of respondents over 40 years old said they used Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok.All generations like YouTube and Facebook when researching car ownership data and vehicle reviews. This shouldn't be a surprise if you've been watching your follower and friends lists, though: Pew Research shows the number of boomers and Silent Generation members on social media, especially Facebook, is quickly rising.A data point that may surprise you? TikTok is more popular than Reddit for researching cars overall.Even though TikTok is better known for dance videos, it seems cars are becoming a hot topic on the platform. Seventeen percent of Gen Z-ers and millennials (combined) in our study said they used it, and no generation went entirely without it.

What Car Features Matter to Different Generations of US Car Owners?

Generational differences appeared in what people look for in cars, too. Price and gas mileage were the two most important factors to all generations. But where the generations diverged was on what features were least important:
  • Gen Z: Hybrid/electric vehicles
  • Millennials: Outdoors and off-roading abilities
  • Gen X: Outdoors and off-roading abilities 
  • Boomers: Hybrid/electric
This is noteworthy because millennials were most concerned about hybrid/electric options, not Gen Z. Of all the generations, Gen Z is most likely to assess climate change as their top personal concern and are most likely to have taken action to combat climate change in the past year.Here’s what’s important to remember: Hybrid and electric cars are often more expensive than their traditional counterparts, and Gen Z has the lowest disposable income of all generations. Sometimes hard decisions need to be made.

Younger Generations Welcome Self-Driving Future

About 55% of U.S. car owners would consider buying a self-driving vehicle when all ages are considered. However, the comfort level with this varies by generation yet again. More than two-thirds of millennials said they would consider buying an autonomous vehicle. Gen Z and Gen X weren’t too far behind, with 58% and 61% saying they’d buy a self-driving car, respectively. Boomers were, by far, the least accepting of autonomous vehicles: only about 26% of boomers said they’d consider buying a self-driving car.

Get Out of My Dreams; Get Into My…House?

Despite what the seemingly infinite number of songs say about the importance of car ownership, our data shows a high number of people purchase their first homes or apartments before vehicles.In fact, people do a lot of things before owning a car:
  • 81% graduate from high school
  • 27% graduate from college
  • 20% get married
  • 18% own a home
  • 14% have at least one child
Only 5% of Boomers bought their first home before owning a car. Compare that to 26% of Gen Xers, 23% of millennials, and 18% of Gen Zers. 

Men vs Women Drivers

Men and women have differing views on driving, car purchasing, and other factors discussed above. Let’s take a closer look at how these two genders see the world of car ownership. Note: All our respondents self-identified as male or female.

Cars as Gifts: Yay or Yikes?

Every holiday season, there's at least one car commercial showing someone getting a car as a gift from a loved one. It usually has a big bow on top and the recipient always seems pleased. So, it must be a great idea…right?U.S. car owners say: "Yikes!"The number of cars given as gifts in the media doesn't line up with the car ownership statistics we found. Though those ribbon-bearing cars are common in fiction, nearly 70% of people don't know anyone who has had this happen. There may be a good reason: 60% of respondents don't think it's a good idea to buy someone a car as a surprise. However, the perceptions differ by gender: 52% of men are all for it, while 70% of women are against it.

Driving Enjoyment and Behavior

Just as behavior around car ownership can vary by age, the same holds for gender.

Driving Enjoyment: What Does the Car Ownership Data Say?

Men report enjoying driving more than women do. Women were most likely to give driving a score of 4 (“Like it”), followed by a three (“It’s okay”). Men, however, were more likely to give a score of 5 (“Love it”) followed by a 4 (“Like it").Interestingly, our car ownership statistics showed people generally enjoyed driving more if they had children than if they did not. So perhaps there's something a bit more fun about hitting the open road with kiddos in tow — or possibly it’s that driving is more fun when it’s the only time you’re alone. 

Car Ownership Data vs. Other Milestone Stats

Men and women hit different milestones before purchasing their first cars.While about 87% of women graduated from high school before getting their first car, only 21% earned their college degree. Meanwhile, 76% of men had graduated from high school, but 32% had finished college. This is interesting because 74 men receive bachelor's degrees for every 100 women who do, and only at the doctoral level do the numbers balance out. Otherwise, men receive fewer college degrees than women.Men were also more likely to have gotten married or bought a house or apartment before getting their first car. On the other hand, women were only slightly more likely to have had a child before getting a vehicle but more often bought a car before marriage or homeownership.

You Can’t Hide Your Lyin’ Drives

Some people just want a car that gets them from Point A to Point B. And some people want something that’s more of a statement, but may not be able to afford it yet. That doesn’t mean they can’t dream — or lie — about the car they’d love to own. Our study found that nearly 30% of men have lied about the type of car they drive, compared to only 9% of women. Perhaps the men who lied about the cars they own read the 2014 Insure.com study saying women found men who drive pickup trucks the most attractive — meaning even more than those who drive sports cars.

Overall Car Ownership Statistics

Now let’s take a look at some general trends in car purchasing and ownership in the United States. Here are some fast facts from our survey data, showing which answers a majority of respondents chose:
  • Number of Cars Owned: One (57%)
  • How Long They've Owned Cars: One to five years (36%)
  • Where Cars Were Purchased: Dealer with a test drive (52%)
  • Was the Car a Great Deal? Yes (59%)
  • Feelings About the Auto Loan Process: Satisfied (55%)
  • Feelings About Loan Refinancing: Interested (32%)
  • Age at First Car: 16 (14%)
  • Named Your Car? Yes (56%)
  • Drive More or Less as a Result of COVID? No change (48%)
Let's dig into a few of these car ownership statistics.

US Car Owners' Buying Methods

Though more than half of the respondents bought their newest vehicle at a dealership with a test drive, nearly 20% used online-only car buying services, where the vehicle was delivered right to their front door. Of those who purchased their car via an online service, a whopping 80% said they felt they got a great deal. However, only 60% of those who got their cars from private sellers felt this way, and an even smaller 50% felt this way about cars from dealerships. In fact, the car ownership statistics show people still primarily buy from dealerships, but they also feel the most ripped off by them!

Feelings About the Auto Loan Application Process

Over half of respondents used an auto loan to purchase their most recent vehicles. Most people reported positive feelings about the auto loan shopping and application process. See below for the breakdown of their responses.The likelier respondents were to have gotten a car loan before, the more likely they were to feel positive about the experience. Experience seems to be key.

Do People Name Their Cars?

Most of our respondents, 56%, have named at least one of their cars. This data from car owners show names beginning with the letter "B," particularly "Betsy" (with variations on the spelling), were most common. But…why Betsy?It turns out "Betsy" has been a popular name for cars for years, to the point where people have asked this very question.In 2015, Yahoo! reported there isn't a universal answer, but several people said it was because of the novel ”The Betsy,” which became a film in 1978. That movie was about a failing mom-and-pop car company hoping for a car called Betsy to save their business.Perhaps the name stuck as cars were passed down from parents or grandparents to younger generations.Reddit has also asked this question as recently as 2021. One person argued that it's because "Betsy" is a common name for cows, which can be big, slow, and bulky like some older car models.We may never know why Betsy is such a popular car name. But we know do it’s just one of many wacky names people have bestowed upon their vehicle. Other notable names that came out of the survey include:
  • Betty White
  • Garth Vader [“Wayne’s World” and “Star Wars” mashup]
  • Green Jellybean
  • Mrs. Buzz
  • The Three-Eyed Flying Llama
The likely reason U.S. car owners name their vehicles? People form strong, emotional connections with their cars. It makes sense when you think about how much time we spend in our cars and how many memories are made with and because of them. 

Free as a T-Bird

There are few things as liberating as hitting the open road. Driving can act as the temporary escape that many of us need here and there — and our survey results confirm it.We asked respondents to use one word to describe how driving makes them feel. The most common response was "free." Other popular answers were “relaxed,” “happy,” and “independent.”The most common negative feeling? Anxiety. But, it's worth noting this car ownership data point came largely from Gen Z-ers, who have been driving for the shortest amount of time. As Boomers were the most likely to say "free," it doesn't seem like a leap to say the anxiety may fade over time.

Car Financing and Refinancing: How People Pay

While everyone wishes they could snap their fingers and have a brand new car appear in front of their homes, the simple truth is that cars cost money. 

How Much Are Cars and How Are People Buying Them?

As of mid-2021, the average cost of a new vehicle in the U.S. was $42,258. This is the most expensive new cars have ever been on average.Of course, there are ways to save money. For example, you could get a used vehicle from a used car dealer, buy from an individual online seller, or get a "hand me down" car from a friend. While used cars from reputable dealers can be fantastic, the average cost is still over $25,000. This is significantly cheaper than new vehicles, of course, but many people don't have this amount in cash and may still need to take out a loan.Most people in our study got a loan for their most recent vehicle. Gen Z-ers were the only ones to have mostly paid cash or in full, which is likely because many younger people get their first car as a hand-me-down from a friend or family member, or their parents assist them when purchasing their first vehicle. 

How Do People Feel About Auto Loan Refinancing?

When asked how they felt about auto loan refinancing (ALR), the answers differed among different age groups.ALR is, at its core, taking out a new loan to pay off your existing car loan. Many people do this when they realize they can get better terms or rates, either because their financial circumstances have changed or the overall lending environment has changed.Our data from car owners show that millennials are the most likely to be interested in ALR, while boomers are made the most nervous by the idea. Perhaps this is because millennials may have gotten their cars while building credit for the first time, so they ended up with high interest rates or poor terms. Now they've had a few years to improve their financial situation and realize they may now qualify for a better loan and choose to refinance.

Car Ownership in the US: A Summary

For many Americans, owning a car means more than just getting where you need to go. We have cars because we like them.Regardless of generational or gender differences, driving can be a freeing experience — and even applying for a car loan can be satisfying.If you had a less-than-satisfying experience with your first auto loan, Lantern by SoFi is here to help. See what auto loan refinance rates you qualify for today.
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About the Author

Sarah Mattie

Sarah Mattie

Sarah Mattie is a researcher and writer with an education background. She's passionate about teaching others about financial issues and has written extensively for a variety of degree sites and financial institutions. Her writing covers credit cards, lending products, and paying for college, among other economic topics.
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