2013 Renault Zoe electric carEnlarge Photo
Europe has been the source of some excitement over electric cars in recent months, as several new models have all hit the market in quick succession.
The third-generation Smart Electric Drive arrived at the end of last year, and the last few months have seen the new Renault Zoe and 2013 Nissan Leaf debut in Europe too.
But is Europe's upturn in electric car sales--3,785 vehicles in January and February, compared to 2,723 over the same period in 2012--mostly down to rental fleets?
Neil Winton, writing in The Detroit News, seems to think so. But we're not so sure.
It's true that electric car sales in Europe haven't been so impressive, thus far.
While many countries offer hefty tax breaks and other incentives towards the purchase of electric vehicles, plug-in cars still make up only 0.23 percent of total car sales in Europe.
Buyers in Europe have the same concerns as many U.S. consumers--range, availability of public charging, and relatively high purchase prices despite discounts.
Winton suggests that European manufacturers are "dumping" hard-to-sell electric cars into rental fleets to make up for poor sales, and that the practice skews the meaning of the sales figures reported.
Regrettably, Winton doesn't really provide many solid examples of this "dumping". Only Citroen is mentioned with any conviction: An undisclosed number of its C-Zero (Mitsubishi i-MiEV) electric cars have gone into European city rental schemes.
Smart's Fortwo Electric Drive, of which Mercedes-Benz intends to produce 6,000 this year, "might" be going into Daimler's car2go rental schemes.
"Might" isn't really evidence to us, and Daimler suggests European demand is increasing--one reason why the U.S. will only get a limited number of Electric Drives in 2013.
Of France's 648 electric car sales in February, 440 were Renault Zoes, all of them press or dealer demonstrators. No rental "dumping" there either, unless we're missing something.
The bottom line is, as usual, that it's rather too early to tell exactly where Europe's electric cars are going.
Sales have been relatively slow, but the aforementioned 2013 Leaf, Renault Zoe and Smart Electric drive are fairly recent additions to the market.
All are now offered for temptingly low prices in Europe, thanks to battery rental programs--matching many of their more traditionally-powered competitors on purchase price.
For the Zoe and new Leaf in particular, neither car has been on the market long enough to get a true impression of its contribution to European sales.
The message here: Electric cars are still fairly young to the market.
Frustrating as it is, it'll be a few years before we can see where they truly stand in the broader market.