The Ultra-Low Emissions Zone, or ULEZ as it’s known, is an area covering central London that older diesel and petrol cars must pay to enter. The ULEZ charge is applicable seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and the only way to get around the £12.50 charge (or £100 for lorries, buses and coaches) is with ULEZ-exempt cars. The fee period resets at midnight each night, so if you enter with an older car at 23.50 and leave at 00.15 the next day, you’ll be charged £25.
Not all cars are subject to the ULEZ charge. Any petrol car that conforms to Euro 4 emissions standards (or later), which became a legal requirement on petrol cars built from 2006 onwards, are exempt. Diesels, however, have to comply with Euro 6 emissions ratings, which were only made obligatory on new cars from September 2015. If you fancy a classic car, then there’s an interesting loophole where all cars registered in 1972 or earlier go free, too.
The ULEZ currently covers the same area as the London Congestion Charge, or ‘C-Charge’, which is a separate charge of £11.50 that is applicable to any car producing over 75g/km of CO2 that enter the city between 7am and 6pm Monday to Friday. However, as of October 2021, the ULEZ zone is expanding to cover the whole area within London’s North and South circular roads.
The easiest way to find out if your car is exempt from the ULEZ is to check your registration number on the TFL site.
If you’re thinking of changing your car and you regularly travel into London, here’s our pick of the ULEZ-exempt cars, including our pick of the efficient and affordable, and the mad but fun:
The tight budget option:
Audi A2 1.4 SE – Price: £700 – £5000
The Audi A2 is a gem of a used car. Some might not like the boxy shape, while some rate it a cult classic. It was designed to offer maximum interior space in a very compact car – ideal for city commuting. It’s light and precise to drive, super cheap to buy and cheap to run. It’s one of the best ULEZ-exempt cars on the market.
The only downside is that bodywork can be expensive to repair if it’s damaged, as the aluminium panels (and aluminium spaceframe that it sits on) aren’t easy to fix. Provided you have two kids or less, this doubles up as a great family runaround, but if you want something newer and less avantgarde to look at, how about the BMW i3 which is one of the greenest cars you can buy?
The sensible family car option:
Mk6 Volkswagen Golf 1.4 TSI SE – Price: £4000 – £8000
It doesn’t get more ubiquitous than the VW Golf, but it deserves its popularity. It’s a sweet, natural drive with a solid, roomy and pleasant-feeling interior. It’s fun but comfortable, affordable yet classless, practical yet not dowdy. And used ones are everywhere and absolutely brilliant family cars.
The Mk6 arrived in 2009 and was replaced in 2013, and the 1.4 TSI is definitely the engine to go for. It’s quiet and cheerfully willing whether you go for the manual or dual-clutch ‘DSG’ automatic. Just go for SE trim or up, as the S was pretty basic. And, of course, it’s reliable, safe, cheap to run (expect around 40mpg) and maintain. This ULEZ exempt car option is great for families with older kids or more than two little ones.
The ‘life’s too short’ ULEZ-Exempt option:
Vauxhall VXR8 6.0 V8 – Price: £11,000 – £20,000+
You drive into London and you want fun – lots of it. You refuse to sell your soul to the sensible and you’ve got the budget and the motivation to dabble in the joyfully mad options that are ULEZ exempt.
In our books, London traffic demands comfy seats and a radio to make the traffic bearable, so forget about Lotus’ (many of which are also ULEZ exempt). You want a big, cushy muscle car that screams rebellion from every one of its four exhausts and eight cylinders. And few are better than the mighty, lazy-but-lairy Vauxhall VXR8. You’ll have to shift gears yourself, but you won’t mind because this car is addictively naughty and noisy. This unstressed engine and simple but endlessly lovable car is also quite reliable, but do budget for eye-watering fuel and tyre costs.