Renault might have to be as patient in trying to establish electric cars on the market as Toyota was over the introduction of hybrids, a top executive said.

"You only have to look at sales of the Prius in the beginning," Beatrice Foucher, head of the automaker's electric vehicle programme said.

"It took eight years to show any volume."

Renault has 50% of the European electric vehicle market although there is currently only a handful of competitors and the company's cumulative EV sales, since introducing the first of four models 18 months ago, are still only 29,000.

But Foucher believes EVs will start to gain more credibility this autumn when the Germans enter the market through BMW [i3] and Volkswagen and Ford [Focus Electric] also join the fray.

She is also encouraged by the early success of the Zoe, which has notched up 6,000 sales in its first three months on the market - almost two-thirds in France - and is now available in 11 countries.

"In France, everything coming from the customers is positive," she said. "The key word they are saying is 'refined'. They say they are buying the car for driving pleasure and design - the same words they are using for a car with an internal combustion engine."

The Zoe brings down the cost of EV ownership because it has been designed to use the same components as the new Clio where possible, and to go down the same production line at the Flins factory to the west of Paris.

In several countries there are also sizeable government handouts to encourage take-up. France offers buyers EUR7,000, while in the UK there is a GBP5,000 grant which brings the start point of the range down to GBP13,995. The Scandinavian countries are also helping to boost EV sales.

"When technology is new it is more expensive. The battery is expensive, the motor is expensive and the charger is expensive," said Foucher. "We need to have bonuses otherwise we cannot sell at a competitive price."

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