Best Congestion Charge-exempt cars

Dodge the fees to drive in central London with a Congestion Charge-exempt car

John Evans
Jun 14, 2018

If you drive into central London on weekdays, then the Congestion Charge is likely to land you with hefty bills.

Costing £11.50 a day (or £10.50 if you set up an Auto Pay account), it adds up to more than £50 a week, or around £2,500 in a working year.

That makes Congestion-Charge exempt cars enormously attractive if you’re commuting into the capital Monday to Friday between 7am and 6pm when charging operates. All of the cars below are petrol-powered, so you don't have to worry about any future diesel surcharges.

You shouldn't have to worry about the T-Charge either. The T-Charge is Britain’s first low emissions zone for vehicles, and came into force on October 23 2017. It only affects London, and only applies to you if you drive an old, more polluting vehicle. If yours does fall into this category, you will need to pay a £10 fee for driving into the affected area. If you don't pay, there's a fine of £130.

This environmental levy is in addition to the Congestion Charge. This means that you could have to pay £21.50 to drive into London on weekdays. It affects:

  • Most older vehicles (those over 11 years old). Vehicles classed as historic do not have to pay the fee 
  • The charge is applicable from Monday - Friday, 7am - 6pm
  • The charge covers the same area as the Congestion Zone
  • Payment can be made online or via telephone

London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, introduced the fee in a bid to improve air quality in the capital. The levy isn’t applied during evenings and weekends.The T-Charge will be replaced by the tougher Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) in April 2019. 

To get a car that can be driven into central London free of charge, you’ll need to opt for one of the cleanest models on the road, which are mainly made up of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, which can run on battery power for several miles, but also have a petrol or diesel engine for longer journeys.

Here’s what you need to qualify for Congestion Charge exemption, which is known as the 100% Ultra Low Emission Discount (ULED).

  • An electric car
  • OR an vehicle with an official carbon dioxide emission figure less than 75g/km
  • OR a plug-in hybrid that’s classified as an Ultra Low Emission Vehicle). Most of these have emissions of under 75g/km CO2, so are likely to qualify anyway
  • AND your car must meet recent emissions standards (either Euro 5 or Euro 6), which includes every car registered since 2011.
  • You’ll also need to register for the discount with Transport for London, which manages the scheme, otherwise you’ll be fined for driving in central London.
  • A £10 fee, which is payable annually.

Most Congestion-Charge exempt cars will also qualify for a government plug-in car grant towards their cost if you’re buying new. This is worth £4,500 for most electric cars and £2,500 for many plug-in hybrids. However, plug-in cars costing more than £60,000 do not qualify.

   

Best Congestion Charge-exempt cars

Best Congestion Charge-exempt electric car

Renault Zoe

Our pick Renault Zoe Dynamique Nav Quick Charge CO2 emissions 0g/km

Compact, comfortable and nimble, the Renault Zoe was made for London’s congested and broken roads. It looks good, too, where some other electric cars shout ‘eco-warrior’ with their unconventional styling.

Because it was designed as an electric car from the start, the engineers were able to place the battery packs low down, freeing up more interior space and making the car feel light and airy.

The Zoe has just been updated with a more powerful 80kW motor intended to boost the car’s overtaking performance. More importantly for city drivers, the facelifted Zoe still boasts an impressive 186-mile real-world driving range, the best of any mainstream electric car, meaning you can drive around town for longer between charges.

The more expensive Q90 version comes with a rapid charge facility that recharges the battery to 80% in just over one hour when plugged into a 43kW public charging point.

But just remember that some versions require you to lease the battery separately. Depending on your mileage and how long you plan to keep the car, it might be better to pay more and buy a Zoe with the battery included.
Read more in the Renault Zoe buying guide

Best Congestion Charge-exempt estate car

Volkswagen Passat Estate

Our pick VW Passat Estate GTE DSG CO2 emissions 39g/km

With its CO2 emissions of just 33g/km and an official electric-only range of 38 miles, we were tempted to recommend the Kia Optima Sportwagon PHEV in this category. It’s certainly good value, costing £32,645 before discounts, including the £2500 government plug-in grant. However, its batteries eat into loadspace and it’s not that much fun to drive when you get away from the city.

Not so, the VW Passat GTE. This is a classy and comfortable car that’s good to drive. Not only that, but its boot is also much larger than the Optima’s, and when you’re considering an estate, load space is surely a priority.

The Passat is not without its downsides though. Its battery-only range is less than the Optima’s at 31 miles, although in reality both models are only likely to go about 20 miles or so. It emits more CO2, as well, but both attract the same low road tax (just £10 in their first year) and are in the same low company car tax bracket.

The Passat GTE is around £4,000 more expensive than the Optima Sportwagon PHEV, although discounts close this gap to around £3,000. If that’s still a problem, consider a nearly-new VW Passat GTE at prices below £30,00
Read the VW Passat buying guide

Best Congestion Charge-exempt SUV

Mitsubishi Outlander

Our pick Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV 2.0 GX3h auto CO2 emissions 42g/km

There aren’t many affordable sport utility vehicles (SUVs) that can claim Congestion Charge-free status, which is why the Outlander Plug-in Hybrid (PHEV) has been such a hit for Mitsubishi.

With low CO2 emissions that put it into the lowest company car tax bracket, it’s ideal for business users, but you’ll have to put up with the loss of two of the seven seats that are available with the rest of the Outlander range: the car’s extra batteries only leave enough space for five.

As with other vehicles of this type, fuel economy is best on shorter journeys where the electric motor is used for the majority of the time. Relying on petrol power for long-distance journeys means the Outlander can be thirsty.
Read the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV buying guide    

Best Congestion Charge-exempt seven-seat SUV

Volvo XC90 T8


 
Our pick
Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine CO2 emissions 49g/km

The Volvo XC90 is the only plug-in hybrid SUV with seven seats. If you don’t need seven seats, then perhaps that’s rather academic, but a major part of the appeal of a large SUV is its versatility, and the XC90 has it in spades plus a high level of safety.

With CO2 emissions of 49g/km the T8 can enter the congestion charge zone for free. While there, and assuming it’s fully charged, it can drive around emitting zero CO2 for up to 28 miles, or around 20 miles in real-world motoring.

Downsides? Because it costs more than £60,000 it doesn’t qualify for the government’s £2,500 plug-in grant. Being more than £40,000 it also attracts higher car tax (£310 in addition to the standard rate for five years).

If you’re an infrequent visitor to London, that could undermine your attempts to save money on the charge. If, on the other hand, you regularly drive in London and you want a seven-seat SUV that can enter the congestion charge zone for free, it’s the only answer.
Read the Volvo XC90 T8 buying guide

Best Congestion Charge-exempt small family car

Nissan Leaf

Our pick Nissan Leaf Acenta 110kW 40kWh CO2 emissions 0g/km

This second-generation Nissan Leaf is a big improvement on its predecessor and just about makes the case for electric cars.

Like the smaller Renault Zoe, being totally electric and costing less than £40,000 means the Leaf qualifies for every type of financial assistance going: zero road tax, the lowest rate of company car tax and, of course, free entry to the congestion charge zone.

Once there, it can do a claimed 186 miles, although real-world experience suggests it's more like 150 miles. So, as with the Zoe, it’s perfect for the driver on a typical London commute from the Home Counties with only home charging available to them at night.

It’s 148bhp motor offers a decent turn of speed but it’s in the city that the Leaf comes into its own. Not only is it quiet and comfortable riding, but it also has a so-called e-Pedal that almost dispenses with the need for a traditional brake pedal by automatically braking the car smoothly as you lift off the accelerator. Together with the engine’s prompt acceleration out of junctions, it makes the Leaf the perfect city runabout.
Read the Nissan Leaf buying guide

Best Congestion Charge-exempt family saloon car

BMW 3 Series

Our pick BMW 330e SE auto CO2 emissions 44g/km

The BMW 330e is that rare thing: a sporty premium saloon that will save you money.

It has all the hallmarks of a standard 3 Series: a beautifully made and designed interior, strong performance with engaging handling and one of the best entertainment systems on the market.
But it also has an electric motor and batteries that help reduce its CO2 emissions to 44g/km, while giving a potential electric-only range of 25 miles on a full charge, although expect that to be nearer 10 miles in real-world driving.

These figures mean the 330e can not only enter the congestion charge zone for free but it qualifies for the government’s £2,500 plug-in grant. In addition, because it costs less than £40,000, road tax is charged at the standard rate of £140 from the second year onwards (it’s just £10 in the first year). 
Read the BMW 3 Series buying guide

Best Congestion Charge-exempt executive car

Mercedes E-class

Our pick Mercedes E 350e SE saloon CO2 emissions 49g/km

The plug-in hybrid version of the Mercedes E-Class is probably the most comfortable Congestion-Charge exempt car you can buy, thanks to its ability to remain steady over the most potholed streets.

The new price, which starts at more than £40,000 isn’t cheap, but it is helped by scraping in (by 1g/km CO2) to the lowest company car tax band, not to mention the Congestion Charge exemption.

In fact, the car is proving popular in its limited market, which means that used prices are high, although you can get a higher specification nearly-new car for the price of a basic brand new one.
Read the Mercedes E Class buying guide

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