PARIS — Europe's overall diesel sales captured a 35.9% market share in 2001, but fourth-quarter sales were even hotter, at 39.8%. The fourth quarter historically has been a good indicator of the coming year's trend, says auto analyst Peter Schmidt, who collected the figures.

Schmidt's AID consultant group, which does an annual study of the diesel market, predicts diesels will outsell gasoline engines before 2007. France's Renault SA analysts say it could happen by 2005.

Europeans in 2001 bought 5.3 million diesel cars, while sales of gasoline-powered vehicles declined. The French auto makers' association, CCFA, says diesel cars accounted for 13.9% of Europe's market in 1990, 22.1% in 1995 and 32.1% in 2000.

Last year, when Switzerland's overall vehicle sales were virtually static, diesel sales rose to 13.3%, double their share two years ago. And in the U.K., diesel sales rose nearly four times faster than the buoyant overall market, reaching 436,600 units or 17.8% of the total. Fourth quarter diesel car share was 21.5%.

Diesel sales so far this year are booming in Italy, where leaded fuel recently was banned. Many small Italian service stations have only two pumps, and diesel now is the choice for the second, says Colin Couchman, an analyst for DRI-WEFA in London. Diesels were 10% of the Italian market in 1995 and more than 35% in 2001.