The first electric car was built in 1837, predating the Benz gasoline automobile by half a century. Ever since, carmakers have tried — and largely failed — to persuade customers to buy them. Electrics and “plug-in hybrids” accounted for less than 0.5 per cent of global car sales in 2014.

Customers tend to view them as expensive, short on range, inconvenient to recharge and oddly quiet. They often look a bit like spaceships, cutting a dash in Palo Alto but sticking out in the English Cotswolds.

But one company might have found the answer. Not Tesla, not Nissan, but unfancied Mitsubishi. The Japanese manufacturer’s Outlander PHEV has silently crept up on the competition.

This month, for instance, it overtook the Nissan Leaf as the all-time best-selling battery-powered vehicle in the UK, despite having been on sale for just nine months. How did Mitsubishi find the sweet spot?

First, it paired its dual electric motors with a petrol engine, alleviating range anxiety. The battery has the potential to do more than 30 miles — not a lot, but more than the average daily mileage in the UK.

Mitsubishi then gave its hybrid a desirable shell. The Outlander is the world’s first plug-in sport utility vehicle, the 4x4 style currently in hot demand, and it looks exactly the same as the diesel variant. “We want to get away from the image that electric cars are kooky,” says Lance Bradley, head of Mitsubishi’s UK business.

The PHEV, which is profitable, he says, is also priced at the same level as its diesel sibling, starting at £28,000 after a £5,000 grant from the government. That is about the same as the average retail price of a new car in the UK.

Company car drivers, who pay much lower tax on low-emission vehicles, have snapped up two-thirds of the Outlanders sold in the UK so far. With Britain’s salarymen seemingly converted, the electric car might finally stand a chance.

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