While hybrid cars have had a good 10-year run in North America as the most fuel-efficient alternative, Europe never warmed to hybrid-electric powertrains.

With roughly half the passenger cars sold in the European Union being powered by more efficient diesel engines, the difference between hybrid and diesel economy figures was much lower than in the U.S.

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While the industry consensus even five years ago was that all makers would have to offer hybrids in notable volumes to achieve carbon-reduction and fuel-efficiency goals, that appears to have changed.

An article in trade journal Automotive News Europe notes that in just four years, European buyers are likely to purchase more plug-in hybrids than conventional (non-plug-in) gasoline-electric vehicles.

2016 Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine plug-in hybrid

2016 Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine plug-in hybrid

Japan's Toyota still owns more than half of the world's total hybrid market, led by its instantly recognizable and well-known Prius lineup.

In order, the next high-volume hybrid makers are Honda and Ford, followed by Korea's Hyundai-Kia and a number of vastly smaller players.

Among those smaller players are virtually all European makers, who have issued small numbers of hybrid variants, only to cancel many of them after only a few years.

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Those include hybrid versions of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, starting in 2009, followed by the BMW 7-Series and then the BMW X6 and Mercedes-Benz ML-Class SUVs.

Today, the only European hybrid model on the U.S. market is the Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid, which sells in far lower numbers than its diesel-engined TDI counterparts in the lineup.

Instead, both European makers and their buyers seem to have concluded that the advantages of plug-in hybrids are far greater.

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, production version road test, San Diego, CA, Jan 2012

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, production version road test, San Diego, CA, Jan 2012

After all, a vehicle that not only gets good fuel economy when it's running its engine but can run some distance--however limited--on battery power alone is an introduction to electric drive.

And their ability to drive at least some distance--however limited--with no tailpipe emissions at all has led regulators in many European countries to provide heavy incentives for plug-in hybrids as well as battery-electric vehicles, which have zero emissions at all times.

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Plug-in hybrid SUVs are now on the market or soon to arrive from Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Volvo--and there will likely be more to follow.

As the saying among electric-car advocates goes, "plug-in hybrids are the gateway drug to electric cars."

It just appears that Europeans are coming to that conclusion without the intermediate step of driving hybrids first.


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