As you read this, London’s ultra-low emission zone, or ULEZ, has expanded to include all areas within the city’s North and South Circular roads. Any car not exempt from the regulations driving inside the zone will be subject to a £12.50 daily charge to combat its effect on air quality, in addition to the Congestion Charge of £17.50 a day. The surprise, however, is that a wide range of interesting cars are available that qualify for exemption status.
Those exemptions include any vehicle more than 40 years old (which, while being more polluting in theory, are both uncommon and infrequently used), or any modern vehicle with official emissions below a certain level – for petrol-powered cars, that’s anything post-Euro 4, and for diesels, it’s post-Euro 6.
Euro 4 became a legal requirement in 2005, which means that a large number of modern classics actually remain ULEZ exempt. While that’s unlikely to last for ever – an increasing focus on air quality is likely move those goalposts over time – it does keep an extra expense at bay for the time being.
A word of warning before we start: ULEZ can be confusing, apparently even for those operating the system, and in our search we found several vehicles where official Euro emissions levels and exemption conflicted. It’s a subject that Hagerty reported on in June, and put to Transport for London. As such, drivers should use Transport for London (TfL)’s registration plate checker with care, and ensure that any car or other vehicle they are thinking of buying through is exempt from ULEZ.
To help inspire those that live or drive in London, below are nine intriguing modern classics, from bona-fide city cars to luxury GTs, that sidestep the ULEZ charge… for now.
Audi TT Mk1 (2004-on)
You’ll get a sharper drive from some of the original Audi TT’s rivals, but you’ll struggle to find anything quite as sculptural. An instant icon at launch and now a true modern classic, the TT looks as natural on a twisty mountain road as it does parked outside a trendy pavement café. But that’s not all. Its cabin is a masterpiece, with bold design details, robust quality and the general impression that you’re in something far more exclusive and expensive than a Golf-based coupé.
However, before you start scanning the classifieds and arranging used TTs by colour, bodystyle and price, do check the government website. The data we’ve found lists many first-gen TTs as being Euro 3 with only late 190PS cars and V6s as Euro 4, but cars as early as 2001 are coming up exempt on TfL’s checker. To be on the safe side though, buy as late a car as you can find.
Bentley Continental GT (all)
Whether your inclination is to make a mockery of ULEZ or merely skirt it to enjoy a modern classic, the Bentley Continental GT introduced in 2003 is a fairly good way of doing either. This is a twin-turbocharged, 6-litre W12-engined grand tourer that is no more accountable to ULEZ charges than a brand new Volkswagen ID3 electric car from elsewhere within the sprawling Volkswagen Group.
They’re rather fabulous to drive, too. That W12 engine hauls like the Orient Express on steroids and the sure-footed, four-wheel drive chassis ensures that the power delivery is dispatched with the poise of a waiter mastering silver service in the dining carriage. Admittedly it’s something of a squeeze on the streets and in the parking bays of our capital, thanks to considerable girth (more than 1.9 metres), but plenty of people living within the ULEZ boundaries wish to head out of them occasionally, and as a long-distance tourer it’s up there with the Jaguar XJ elsewhere on our list.
BMW M3 (E46)
Live in the city but don’t want to lose access to one of the best naturally-aspirated engines ever made available at sensible money? You’ll be pleased to learn then that the E46-generation BMW M3 – probably the best M3 of all – meets Euro 4 emissions standards, and is therefore ULEZ exempt.
We shouldn’t need to extol the virtues of the E46 M3 by now (and Hagerty editor James Mills needs no convincing either) but it’s actually quite impressive that BMW managed to construct a 3.2-litre inline six, breathing through six throttle bodies, and still produce lower emissions than family hatchbacks from a few years prior. Just don’t dwell too long on its 323g/km CO2 figure…
Ford Focus Mk1 (2002-on)
One of last year’s Hagerty Bull Market stars, the Mk1 Ford Focus is quickly becoming appreciated as a modern classic, and it’s among the most affordable vehicles on the roads – at least until they’re so rare that demand for tidy examples exceeds supply. It’s also, provided you pick the right model, ULEZ exempt.
Things are a little confusing, with some consumer websites listing Mk1 Focuses as Euro 3, but after running a few numberplates, most post-2002 petrol models seem to slip through unscathed. If you’re interested in a Focus – and you should be, as they’re good looking, easy to maintain and have a fantastic ride and handling balance – then you’d better run the ‘plate through TfL’s checker before you hand over the grand or two that gets a good one.
Jaguar XJ (X350)
Like a couple of other cars on this list the X350-generation Jaguar XJ was sold through the crossover between Euro 3 and Euro 4 emissions standards. As such, some websites list certain X350s as Euro 3, but we’ve checked a few cars currently on sale on the TfL site, and discovered they show as being exempt. We’d recommend a similar check before you pull the trigger on a used XJ, many of which are now available for just £3000-£4000.
Why an X350? It’s the last traditionally-styled XJ, for a start. It’s light for its size, thanks to an aluminium structure, but while it won’t turn to Swiss cheese like some previous XJs, the aluminium is still subject to corrosion. XJs ride and handle beautifully and performance is good too – just avoid the diesel, which despite its frugality, falls foul of the ULEZ regulations.
Mazda RX-8 (all)
Anyone who has ever owned one of Mazda’s rotary-engined machines will be having a good chuckle right now, but it’s true: the Mazda RX-8 is resolutely a Euro 4-compatible vehicle, and thus escapes the additional ULEZ fee that a sensible Euro 3 supermini capable of twice the fuel economy does not.
In the RX-8’s defence, it’s a surprisingly smooth and easy car to drive around town, and with four proper seats, practical too. It’s better still on the open road (provided you extend that rotary engine to the red line), so at least getting there from the centre of London (and other upcoming ULEZ environments) won’t add another £12.50 a day to your bills for fuel and oil.
Mini One/Cooper/S (all, in theory…)
Other than when they were brand new and deeply fashionable, there’ll never be a better time to pick up an R50 Mini One, Cooper, or Cooper S. Not only is the Mini’s handling just as entertaining as it was 20 years ago at launch, but pricing is currently incredibly affordable too – and to top it all, it’s Euro 4 compatible.
You’ll want to avoid the diesel-powered One D, frugal though it might be, as ULEZ requires Euro 6-compatible emissions for diesels. But all the petrols we ran through TfL’s checker are Euro 4. With excellent visibility and nimble handling the first BMW Minis are as fun in the city as they are out of it, and prices start at just a grand for Ones and Coopers. Make ours a Cooper on 15-inch wheels for the best ride and handling balance.
Smart City Coupé/Fortwo (apart from 0.6-litre cars)
Live in a city, buy a city car. Makes sense, doesn’t it? And as you might expect, low emissions and low fuel consumption were a high priority when Daimler and partner Swatch were designing the original Smart. The tiny two-seater has other benefits too, such as being about the easiest vehicle in the world to park, so it’s a natural within ultra-low emissions zones. City driving is rarely fun, and the Smart Fortwo’s dynamics are far from perfect, but combine the two and you’d be surprised how entertaining it can be.
If you want to avoid the daily charge though, steer clear of the very early 0.6-litre cars when the smallest Smart was still badged City Coupé. These are Euro 3, so fall foul of the ULEZ fee. 0.7-litre models, so later City Coupé/Convertibles, plus Fortwo-badged cars (and Smart Roadsters for that matter) are all Euro 4.
Suzuki Jimny (VVT, 2005-on)
Here’s a 4×4 that’s a doddle to drive in a city, and just as capable when you feel the need to get as far from a city as possible. Not only will the Suzuki Jimny get further into the wilderness than larger, more expensive 4x4s, it’s also better-sized for tight parking, narrow streets and width restrictors (at 3675mm long and only 1600mm wide).
However, if you live in an ultra-low emission zone and don’t want to pay £12.50 every time you turn a wheel, keep an eye out for Jimnys with variable valve timing, introduced in 2005. Prior to this, the model was only Euro 3, but took the step up to Euro 4 with the VVT engine. And that low cost we mentioned? Good ULEZ-compatible examples start around the £3500 mark.