|Many auto executives were not that enthusiastic about battery-powered cars at their outset, and now that sales of electric vehicles made by Tesla and Renault have been disappointing, some carmakers are playing down the technology.
Martin Winterkorn, the chief executive of Volkswagen, said last week, on the eve of the Paris Motor Show, that the company would instead focus on plug-in hybrids, which can travel short distances on battery power alone and switch to gasoline or diesel fuel for longer trips.
“We had a realistic view of the technology all along,” Mr. Winterkorn said at a company event held here last week in conjunction with the motor show, which runs through Oct. 14. “There will be, for a long time to come, no alternative to the internal combustion engine.”
Volkswagen is the largest carmaker in Europe by far, so its decisions about technology are likely to greatly influence the industry’s direction. While VW has not completely scrapped plans to introduce all-electric cars, Mr. Winterkorn and other executives made it clear that they expected plug-in hybrids to be the more realistic way to reduce automobile emissions.
Renault, which bet heavily on electric vehicles along with its partner Nissan, said it had not given up on battery power. But the company concedes that sales have been below expectations, reaching about 15,000 units so far.
“You are always disappointed when you fix a big ambition and you don’t meet it,” said Jérôme Stoll, executive vice president for sales and marketing at Renault.
He said that Renault was the market leader in electric vehicles, but added, “I am not happy about the size of the market.”
Battery-powered cars offer some advantages over those with gasoline or diesel engines, including very fast acceleration, quiet rides and lower operating costs. But so far these advantages have been overshadowed by the high upfront cost and the limited range that battery-powered cars can travel before they require hours of recharging.
Plug-in hybrids can travel short distances on battery power alone, while solving the range problems. But they have disadvantages, too. They must carry two motors, one electric and one powered by gasoline or diesel, plus batteries and fuel. That adds weight, takes up more space and cancels out some of the gain in efficiency.
The development of small but powerful gasoline engines is making plug-ins more feasible, however, by freeing up space in the engine compartment for electric motors.
Volkswagen will not be the first to market with plug-in hybrids by any means.
Volvo is already taking orders for a diesel hybrid version of its V60, with a price in Europe of 56,000 euros, or $72,000. Volvo says the car can travel about 40 to 45 kilometers, or 24 to 27 miles, on battery power, and also accelerate from zero to 100 kilometers an hour, or 60 miles an hour, in 6.2 seconds, thanks to the physics of electric motors. Unlike internal combustion engines, electric motors achieve maximum torque almost instantly.
Volkswagen, however, will be in a position to make plug-in hybrids a mass-market product, particularly in Europe as well as in markets like China and Brazil, where it is also strong.
The company plans to introduce a plug-in hybrid version of its best-selling Golf in 2014.
Because of a modular manufacturing system being introduced by Volkswagen, which allows its different brands and models to share the same collection of components, it would be a simple matter to install plug-in hybrid systems in other cars made by the company, Ulrich Hackenberg, the chief of development at VW, said in Paris.
Volkswagen also makes passenger cars under the Audi, Seat and Skoda brands. Even Porsche, the newest member of the Volkswagen Group, is planning hybrids, as are other sports car makers, including Ferrari.
“It’s not a fantasy, but soon a reality on the streets,” said Mr. Winterkorn, the Volkswagen chief executive.