Auto execs focus on downsizing hybrids Shun EVs

The Nissan Leaf was Europe’s top-selling electric car with a volume of 5,341 units, which was well below the company’s 2012 target of 9,000. Optimism about electric cars is fading as manufacturers scale back investment in response to weak sales.

Just 8 percent of auto executives said their companies would invest in pure battery technologies over the next five years. Most will use their r&d cash for downsizing gasoline engines followed by hybrids, according to a global survey of 200 auto executives done by accounting firm KPMG.

The executives in the survey, expressed increased pessimism about how long it would take electric cars to offer the greatest potential to become a main player in the market for clean, efficient engines.

The majority of respondents in the survey said the time frame is six to 10 years. In the previous year’s survey, most respondents said it would take one to six years.

“The results show an increasing realization that the electric vehicle is not quite the savior many had hoped for,” KMPG’s report concluded.

Nissan, Europe’s top-selling electric car, the Leaf sales volume in 2012 was just 5,341 units, according to the company. As late as June last year, Nissan executives told Automotive News Europe they projected to sell 9,000 units of the EV compact in 2012.

As of October last year, just 15,272 electric cars were sold in the EU, according to data from the European Association for Battery, Hybrid & Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (Avere). Despite thousands of euros in government incentives, electric cars are still much more expensive than comparably sized gasoline- or diesel-powered cars.

In the UK, which Avere ranks as the fourth-largest market for electric cars in Europe, the Leaf costs 23,490 pounds (27,960 euros) after a 5,000-pound government-funded discount. By comparison, a similar-sized Nissan Qashqai starts at 16,595 pounds.

Some automakers are cutting or scaling back EV model programs. Opel said last year it had axed the electric version of its Adam minicar, citing high costs. At the other end of the price scale, Audi has pulled back from offering customers an all-electric, E-tron version of its R8 supercar.

“Ten vehicles have been assembled, and these are primarily intended for internal purposes,” a spokesman said.

The company had promised production versions for sale at the end of last year. The first E-tron Audi will now be a plug-in hybrid version of its A3 compact, due 2014.

Another hindrance to the uptake of EVs is the lack of recharging facilities across Europe. “It will be nearly impossible to persuade consumers of the merits of the actual e-vehicles if there is nowhere to plug them in,” Ivan Hodac, secretary general of European auto industry group ACEA, said in a statement last month.

Carmakers argue that if you have the right infrastructure and the right incentives, demand for electric cars will take off. One country that has proved this is Norway.

According to Avere, Norway has Europe’s second-largest EV market after France. Nissan’s figures show that the Scandinavian country accounted for more than half of all Leaf sales in Europe last year.

“The infrastructure is strong, the government supports it and the people are very environmentally friendly,” Nissan Executive Vice President Colin Dodge said at the Paris auto show last year.

To overcome the high initial cost and to calm European consumer fears about short battery life, Nissan has said it may offer the same battery-lease option as alliance partner Renault.

The subcompact Renault Zoe EV starts at 13,700 euros in France after a 7,000-euro government subsidy, with battery leasing rates starting at 79 euros a month. A similar leasing plan is offered by Smart for the battery-powered version of the ForTwo minicar, which has a UK starting price of 12,275 pounds and a monthly lease rate of 55 pounds.

Nissan has already lowered the price of the Leaf across Europe last month, ahead of the launch of the UK-built version in the summer.