Demand for electric vehicles soared in the European Union last year as buyers took advantage of government subsidies for clean cars aimed at helping manufacturers weather the unprecedented hit from the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is according to the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA) today. 

A total of 538,772 fully electric cars were sold across the bloc, up 117% from 2019, while sales of plug-in hybrids more than tripled, to 507,059 from 139,954. 

Overall, sales of alternatively-powered cars - including fuels like ethanol or natural gas - made up one-fourth (24.5%) of the market last year, a figure that climbed to 34% for the fourth quarter alone.  

Renault's Zoe hatchback took poll position thanks to strong sales in France and Germany in particular, with nearly 100,000 sold last year on 23 key European markets, according to industry analysis group Jato Dynamics. 

Tesla's Model 3 came in second with some 86,000 sold while Volkswagen's ID3 took third place with nearly 56,000, despite launching only last autumn. 

Jato expects the ID3 to surpass both rivals this year as VW also rolls out an electric SUV dubbed the ID4 as well as an ID5 coupe. 

Petrol and diesel car sales plunged by contrast as recessions prompted by coronavirus lockdowns and travel restrictions compounded declines prompted by stricter European pollution limits. 

Carmakers are shifting en masse to electric and hybrid models in order to bring average fleet emissions under the EU limit of 95 grammes of carbon dioxide per kilometre, or face heavy penalties. 

Diesel sales continued to slump, falling 32% over the year to 2.8 million, while petrol-powered cars fared even worse, down 37% to 4.7 million. 

The total European car market contracted by nearly 24% last year. 

But the ACEA said that it expected auto sales to rebound 10% this year as the pandemic is brought under control, with electric vehicles leading the way.