Electric Car Sales Are Suddenly Taking Off in Europe

After meager growth in 2016, this year is starting strong thanks to a new Renault.

It’s no secret that Americans are embracing electric cars. But new data show that increasingly Europeans are too.

Sales of battery-powered cars soared 38 percent in the first quarter after models including Renault SA’s improved Zoe won buyers in Germany and Spain. That compares with a gain of 2.9 percent for all of last year.

New registrations—a proxy for sales—for battery-powered cars increased in the first quarter to 32,627 from 23,703 in the EU, Norway and Switzerland, the Brussels-based European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association said Thursday in a statement. That surge still couldn’t match demand in America, where electric car sales jumped 49 percent to 40,700 units in the period, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. (The U.S. car market is some 16 percent larger than Europe’s.)

Manufacturers including Germany’s Volkswagen AG, BMW AG and Daimler AG are racing to widen their line-ups of electric cars to meet tougher emissions rules and provide an alternative to polluting diesels tarnished by the VW scandal. But so far sales have missed industry targets due to customer concerns about vehicle-battery range and high prices. Governments in response have introduced incentives and pledged big investments in charging technology.

The battery-powered Zoe city car, manufactured by Renault SA.

The battery-powered Zoe city car, manufactured by Renault SA.

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

“European countries are putting a lot into building fast-charging infrastructure,” said Aleksandra Rybczynska, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Among Europe’s top five car markets, battery-powered vehicle sales growth was strongest in Germany, where registrations more than doubled to 5,060 from 2,332; the U.K., with a gain of 47 percent; and Spain, with 45 percent. While demand for battery-powered vehicles grew four times faster than the overall European auto market in the quarter, the models amounted to less than 1 percent of the region’s sales. 

French carmaker Renault is rolling out a version of its Zoe city car, priced at 23,600 euros ($26,000), that can travel as far as 400 kilometers (250 miles) on a single charge, compared with 240 km for the earlier model.

Regional sales of all alternative-fuel models, which also include hybrid vehicles and cars powered by natural gas or liquefied petroleum gas, rose 36 percent in the quarter to 235,438 vehicles, according to the ACEA. Figures include registrations from 23 of the 28 European Union countries plus Switzerland and Norway.

(Removes erroneous Tesla comparison in the seventh paragraph.)
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