The Electric-Vehicle Company That Charged Too Early

In the U.S., Tesla has sold more electric vehicles than any other car maker. In the much larger European EV market, that prize still goes to the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, but Volkswagen outsold it last year and Tesla is closing in.

The failure of Renault and Nissan (Mitsubishi joined the team later) to parlay their early lead in plug-in cars like the Nissan Leaf into strong growth prospects looks like one of the great missed opportunities of automotive history.

On Thursday, Renault followed Nissan in laying out a “new beginning” after a rocky few years. The company has some lingering advantages in EVs, but its turnaround is more reliant on old-fashioned virtues such as cost control and selling larger cars.

Chief executive Luca de Meo, a marketing man who joined Renault last year from Volkswagen, wants to turn the page on the relentless pursuit of sales and scale encouraged by his predecessor Carlos Ghosn. Costs climbed and returns plummeted as Mr. Ghosn pushed small cars into far-flung emerging markets. Just like Nissan in the U.S., Renault now has to find savings at the same time as coming up with more attractive products that can fetch higher prices.

It will take time. Until 2023, the company’s main focus will be on margins and cash, and even for that year, it is targeting a minimum operating margin of just 3%.


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