Sunscreen, fire pits, Yeti coolers, superyachts, RVs, e-bikes. Name a thing that people use for leisure or recreation and it’s a safe bet that sales boomed during the pandemic.
Golf carts are no exception. “The pandemic exploded our business,” said John Evans, who has been running Mission Golf Cars in San Antonio for 40 years. Sales are up 30% since the pandemic began, he said.
Now his big problem is getting enough product from manufacturers.
Total retail sales for personal transportation vehicles—or PTVs, as golf cart-type vehicles are known—were more than $1.5 billion in 2020, a 12% gain over the previous year, according to Stephen Metzger, who runs the research shop Small Vehicle Resource.
Metzger estimates sales could hit $1.8 billion this year, despite continued problems meeting demand.
The buyers driving this surge aren’t traditional golf cart customers—retirees looking for a way to get from tee to tee—but rather a new, younger clientele who are using their carts for neighborhood trips.
And the vehicles they’re buying aren’t their grandparents’ golf carts.
Many sit more than half-a-foot off the ground, with seating for up to six, peak horsepower approaching 30, and a price tag often north of $15,000.
An increasing number also come with lithium-ion batteries like those found in full-size electric cars.
Together, the arrival of lithium and the rise of off-course uses are transforming the golf cart industry from a niche supplier of a sport in decline to a growing part of the micro-mobility revolution.
“Of our total business, maybe ten percent of it is selling golf cars to golfers,” said Evans.
At Club Car, a leading golf cart manufacturer based in Augusta, Georgia, consumer sales have roughly doubled since the pandemic began, according to Jeff Tyminski, vice president of marketing and product management.
Half, he said, are to customers who will never take the car on a golf course.
“The pandemic accelerated this rise in the younger families who don’t play golf and are just using it as a lifestyle vehicle,” he said.
“People are realizing that owning a golf car is a lot of fun. It’s easier and more fun to take your golf car up to the pool, as opposed to loading up your SUV.”
Club Car began offering lithium-ion carts to its fleet customers in 2018 and added a retail version the following year.
Now its flagship personal transport vehicle, the Onward, comes in four flavors: gas, two varieties of traditional lead-acid battery, and lithium-ion.
The price for a four-seater ranges from around $11,000 to more than $14,000.
The lithium option is most expensive, but that hasn’t stopped customers from flocking to it. In some warm weather regions, lithium now accounts for as much as 70% of Club Car’s sales to golf courses.
Roughly a quarter of the company’s online retail sales are lithium. The rate is about the same industry wide, according to Small Vehicle Resource, with lithium now accounting for 20-25% of all PTV sales.
“It’s on a more aggressive adoption curve than you would typically expect with a new technology,” said Tyminski, who adds that he wouldn’t be surprised to see lead acid disappear entirely.
And good riddance. Lead acid batteries are heavy, dirty, and a hassle to maintain.
They need to be watered regularly, and, like potted plants, will die if they get either too much or too little. (Many golf course owners have battery horror stories.)
They also need to be replaced every three to four years, at a cost of around $1,000 each time.
While the upfront expense for lithium carts is higher, they last longer, are easier to maintain, and, perhaps most importantly, are more fun to drive, with better acceleration and more power for going over hills.
As range improves, lithium is also becoming a more attractive option for Club Car’s commercial fleet customers—colleges, hotels, and corporations buying vehicles for security and maintenance crews.
These buyers, said Tyminski, are increasingly looking for alternatives to pick-up trucks in order to help meet sustainability targets. While the numbers are still small, he said, PTVs are beginning to eat into trips once taken in Ford F-150s.
“We think this category can be a pretty meaningful part of the sustainability conversation,” said Tyminski.
“You start to replace those short-trip automobile miles with small-wheel electric vehicles, there’s a pretty large sustainability benefit to go along with that.”