Special Coverage

Auto Show

PARIS – For Renault SA, the electric car is both the long- and short-term future.

At the auto show here, it is exhibiting the new Latitude, a large 4-door sedan made by its Renault Samsung Motor Co. Ltd. subsidiary in South Korea and a tuned-for-Europe remake of the Korean SM5.

Renault doesn’t plan on selling many in Western Europe, although the car is considered a key offering in Russia, Asia and the Middle East.

But from now until the Clio IV arrives in 2012, Renault won’t have any volume cars to introduce. While some projects for regular vehicles were put on hold, Renault and its partner Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. continued to invest €4 billion ($5.5 billion) in electric cars.

So if volumes are low for the Kangoo ZE and Fluence ZE in 2011 and the Twizy and Zoe in 2012, they will be getting a lot of attention from Renault.

Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn speaks at least four times at the auto show on the future of electric vehicles, taking part in roundtable discussions with the International Energy Agency and another with French President Nicholas Sarkozy, and announcing his cars and a new agreement with the French electric company EDF.

Although the Latitude is the new production car shown, the heroes of Renault’s press conference were the Zoe Preview, the latest iteration of what will be the brand’s volume passenger vehicle, and the DeZir concept, an electric car and styling exercise that introduced the front face that Renaults will have starting with the Clio IV.

The Latitude is larger than the Laguna, at 194.0 ins. (488.7 cm) long on a 109.7-in. (276.2-cm) wheelbase. It goes on sale before the end of the year in Russia and will then be marketed in another 50 countries around the world.

While it replaces the Vel Satis at the top of Renault’s range, the Latitude arrives with none of the fanfare of the Vel Satis, and none of the daring. It had its world premier a month earlier at the Moscow auto show.

The DeZir is the first concept car designed by Laurens van den Acker, the new head of Renault’s design studio. The car is powered by a 150-hp (110 kW) electric motor getting its energy from a 24 kWh lithium-ion battery.

Renault intends a series of concept cars between now and 2012, based on different moments in the human lifecycle. It starts with falling in love, represented by the DeZir (read “desire”). The series will continues with cars representing how one discovers the world, starts a family, works, has fun and achieves wisdom.

The exhibition halls are filled with EVs, but nowhere is electricity more in the air than around Renault at its home auto show.

“Today, a decisive chapter in our history is beginning,” Ghosn tells the media, “with the presentation of our range of electric vehicles, commercialized at the price of the internal-combustion equivalents.”

The union of automotive passion with zero emissions, he says, is “an essential condition for the automobile to be seen again as a progress for humanity and the planet.”

Keeping costs to customers equal to those of current cars is at the heart of Renault’s ambition.

With France offering a €5,000 ($6,800) bonus for an electric car, the selling price of the Renaults will be equal to their internal-combustion equivalents, the auto maker says. Batteries will be leased for €79 ($108) a month. Electricity will cost €1-€2 ($1.37-$2.74) for 93 miles (150 km).

People driving 1,240 miles (2,000 km) per month will end up paying about €99 ($136) a month for the battery and its electricity. If they were driving a Renault Clio diesel with an efficiency of 53 mpg (4.4 L/100 km), they would have spent about €104 ($142) for 20 gallons (88 L) of fuel.

The Fluence ZE will be Renault’s first on the market, debuting in Israel and Denmark. Produced in Bursa, Turkey, it will be priced in France at €21,300 ($29,000), the same as a diesel-powered Fluence.

The Kangoo ZE light-utility vehicle will cost €15,000 ($20,500) in France, again after the EV subsidy, with a battery leasing cost of €72 ($99) per month.

The Twizy ZE, which seats two people fore and aft as on a motorcycle, will be priced to compete with 3-wheeled scooters, generally between €3,500 and €5,000 ($4,800-$6,800). It will be built in Spain and is scheduled to arrive in early 2012.

The Zoe is Renault’s volume model. Ghosn says it will account for two-thirds of its EV sales. The Zoe Preview, he says, is 90% the same as the production model. It will go into production in Flins, France, in 2012, where Renault also has invested in a battery factory. Pricing has not been announced.

Renault has signed dozens of deals with cities and countries around the world to prepare an infrastructure for EVs. Ghosn says there will be 20,000 public recharging stations in Europe by the end of the year.

In France, where the government is solidly behind the EV industry, officials expect to have more than 40,000 charging points in 20 urban areas that will cover 50% of the population.

And Ghosn says that in the near future, Renault will sign an accord with the French nuclear energy agency to develop the next-generation of lithium-ion batteries, for introduction after 2015, which will be lighter and less expensive.

“The finer details of warranties and battery-leasing costs are vital for customers to make a real-world assessment of lifetime cost of running one of Renault's EVs and whether it makes economic and practical sense in the comparison to a conventional powertrain car,” writes IHS Automotive analyst Tim Urquhart.

“With the launch of the first Renault EV coming in 2011, government subsidies and how long they are maintained will be the biggest factor in determining the short-term success of Renault's strategy.”

IHS Automotive predicts global production of EVs to be 80,000 units in 2015.

Ghosn expects EVs to achieve 10% of global production, or about 8 million vehicles, in 2020. PriceWaterhouseCoopers anticipates 1.5 million vehicles then.

Eurotax, a company that specializes in understanding depreciation and resale values of cars, predicts the market share for EVs, including those with range extenders such as the Opel Ampera, will be 9%-13% by 2020 in France, the U.K., Germany, Italy and Spain, the five markets that account for about 80% of West Europe sales.