Sales of electric cars in Europe overtook diesel models for the first time in December, preliminary estimates have shown, as drivers continued to choose subsidised emissions-free vehicles over those reliant on a fuel that was tarnished by the 2015 Volkswagen emissions scandal.
More than a fifth of new cars sold across 18 European markets, including the UK, were powered by batteries, according to data compiled for the Financial Times by independent auto analyst Matthias Schmidt, while diesel cars accounted for less than 19 per cent of sales.
Thanks to generous government subsidies in Germany and elsewhere, as well as strict regulations introduced in 2020 that force EU manufacturers to sell more low-emissions vehicles, electric sales have been rising steadily.
The trend accelerated in the final quarter last year, as Tesla proved to be better able than rivals to adapt to bottlenecks in semiconductor supply chains by delivering a record 309,000 electric cars.
European carmakers also pushed sales of electric vehicles in December to reduce their fleet-wide carbon footprint and avoid fines from Brussels, after prioritising the production of the most profitable models — mainly heavily polluting SUVs — during the supply chain crisis.
As a result, 176,000 battery electric vehicles were sold in western Europe during that month — an all-time record — and more than 6 per cent higher than the number sold in December 2020. By comparison, nearly 160,000 diesels were sold in the last month of 2021.
Sales of diesel cars have been in steady decline since Volkswagen was found to have cheated emissions tests for diesel engines installed in 11m vehicles. At the time, diesel models accounted for well above half the vehicles delivered in the 18 European countries surveyed.
“The diesel death march has been playing on repeat since September 2015 when ‘Dieselgate’ was first unveiled — causing VW to draw up the first plans of the ID.3 within 30 days of the scandal coming to light,” said Schmidt, referring to Volkswagen’s flagship electric vehicle, which has been on sale since 2020.
Volkswagen itself maintained its position as the leading electric vehicle producer in western Europe last year, selling more than 310,000 battery-powered models in the region in 2021, out of 3.5m in total.
While a number of new electric models enticed new customers, bans for older diesel vehicles in some cities and increased taxes for diesel in key markets had further harmed sales of diesel cars, Schmidt added.
The resale value of diesel vehicles in Germany — Europe’s largest car market — is also uncertain, as the new coalition government has signalled its intention to revisit tax credits for the fuel, which currently makes diesel roughly 14 cents per litre cheaper than premium petrol.