The London Ultra Low Emissions Zone expands on August 29 2023, so here are some of the best ULEZ compliant cars you can buy second-hand.
Now, before we begin, we need to cover some ground rules. To be ULEZ compliant, petrol cars must comply to ‘Euro 4’ emissions standards, while diesels must have a rating of ‘Euro 6’ or higher. We won’t get into the complexities of that here, but ultimately those international regulations have been in place since 2005 and 2015 respectively, meaning that every new performance car on sale today will have no trouble passing through London legally.
However, it would make for a bit of a rubbish read if we simply just reeled off all the latest performance models on the market. So, we’re going to do things a little bit differently. For the purpose of this article, we’re interested in the older, cheaper, more surprising ULEZ heroes floating about on the secondhand market. So, if you’re based in the capital but still want a characterful old motor to be proud of, then look no further. Here’s our rundown of the top 10 best ULEZ compliant cars that might surprise you.
Top 10 Best ULEZ Compliant Cars
Ford Focus ST170
Nothing says ‘fun’ more than a hot hatch, and thankfully there’s still plenty of early-to-mid-noughties gems out there that comply with ULEZ standards and won’t blow your budget either. On this occasion, we’ve opted for a potential future classic – the Ford Focus ST170.
Even in its common or garden grocery-getter guise, the Mk1 Focus was a brilliantly capable little car. As a result, when Ford decided to throw several engine upgrades at it, including forged pistons and a new cylinder head, it responded very well to its new 170PS (168hp) power output and 144lb ft of torque. Offering precise, well-weighted steering and a genuinely rewarding chassis, the ST170 is a relatively cost-effective route into fun ULEZ-friendly motoring – if you can find a decent one for sale these days.
That said, the ST170 perhaps lacks the outright punch that you’d expect from other full-fat hot hatches. The Mk1 RS is the answer to that particular problem, though prices for those are already on the up. Happily though, if 170PS just simply isn’t enough oomph for you, there’s a number of alternatives out there that still creep under the ULEZ threshold. The Honda Civic Type R EP3 is perhaps the most obvious choice, while the Mk5 Golf GTI, R53 MINI Cooper S, and Renaultsport cars of the same era are all still deemed eco-friendly enough to avoid the ULEZ charge. Hooray!
Alfa Romeo 156 GTA
As a general rule, it’s often said that petrol cars built after 2005 will meet the ULEZ threshold, as that’s when those golden Euro 4 standards came into law. However, as this borderline retro Alfa Romeo – and the Focus above – point out, sometimes you can get away with going older.
Cars with Euro 4-compliant emissions tech have been around since 2001, so if you’re willing to do the relevant checks, you can unearth some pleasant surprises. The 156 GTA is one of those. As a fun quirk, the only ULEZ compliant variant of the 156 is the top-of-the-line GTA sports saloon, and by association, the same goes for the 147 hatch that it shares its powertrain with.
Admittedly, we all know that these cars have flaws, and therefore have the potential to burn a pretty sizeable hole into your wallet. But come on, can you really say that you aren’t charmed by the exhaust note of Alfa’s busso V6?
Oh, and if the 156 and 147 GTAs don’t float your boat, perhaps consider the slightly newer Brera, or GT, which offer a bit more sporting flair alongside that tree-hugging 3.2-litre V6.
The B7 generation Audi RS4 is *the* fast Audi saloon in most people’s eyes – though, there are estate and cabriolet variants that you can choose from as well.
Over the past few decades, the Ingolstadt marque has sought to rival its Bavarian neighbours in the sporty executive sector, but for the most part, has come up just a little bit short. However, if there was ever going to be a time when Audi trumped BMW, it would’ve been when they released the B7-generation RS4. Its soulful 4.2-litre naturally-aspirated V8 matched up beautifully to a very un-Audi like, engaging set of handling traits.
Unfortunately for Audi, they reached their arguable peak during a time when everybody was still drooling over the near-perfect E46 M3, which, by the way, is also ULEZ compliant. So, take your pick, I guess…
Aston Martin V8 Vantage
Yeah, we’re really beginning to push the boundaries of what you might consider to be an environmentally responsible car now. But, as the ULEZ standards only take NOx emissions into account, rather than carbon dioxide, there are plenty of unexpected models that slip through the cracks.
As far as its looks go, I really do think that the Aston Martin V8 Vantage is getting better with age. Compared to the modern stuff, it’s unfussy and elegant in a way that won’t impress influencers or crypto-bros, but for those of us with a better grasp of taste, it does the trick rather nicely indeed.
By most accounts, that V8 powertrain is just as addictive as you’d imagine it to be, and if you’re worried about reliability concerns – don’t be. Well, not too much, anyway. Astons that came before it such as the DB7 did have a habit of devolving into utter dogs as time passed by, but for the most part, similar grumbles about the V8 Vantage have so far been the exception, rather than the rule. There’s more good news too. These days, a V8 Vantage will cost you roughly the same amount of money as the B7 RS4/E46 M3 duo mentioned above, which is a bit mental when you think about it. In fact, occasionally we’ve spotted clean ones go for lesser sums, even with lower mileage!
If you want a convertible that’s a genuinely competent sports car, the Honda S2000 is a brilliant shout. From the offset, Honda’s engineers designed this car as a soft top, and that means it lacks the performance-sapping compromises that you get with coupe-derived convertibles.
We could rave about the way it handles all day, but let’s be real, the S2000’s party piece is its engine. Honda’s F20C naturally aspirated inline 4-cylinder was bespoke to this car, but it wasn’t just its exclusivity that made it special. Instead, it’s the 9000rpm redline that sets it apart from its rivals. What’s more, this engine wasn’t just all noise either. In fact, European market examples produce 237PS from the 2.0-litre block, and JDM-spec S2000s even managed to crack 250PS. In other words, at one point the F20C had the highest power output per litre of any engine in the world, until the Ferrari 458 came along at the start of the 2010s.
Prices for these cars are beginning to climb as they enter ‘modern classic’ status, and rightfully so to be honest. So, if you want to pick one up now as a fun ULEZ compliant runabout, you’ll have to strike fast. You’ll need to be careful which example you choose as well. Earlier models will fall foul of the ULEZ requirements, but examples built in 2002 or later will avoid the charge.
Let’s lower the budget again for a moment though, because there’s lots of ULEZ-friendly gems out there that won’t cost you five figures to buy. A great example of that is the Lexus IS200 – a semi-executive saloon that just seems to get more desirable with age.
Effectively a rebadged Toyota Altezza, the IS200 offers rear-wheel drive and a 150PS straight-six motor in a super affordable package, making them popular with drifters. You can pick up rougher examples for about £2500 or less, but a really nice one shouldn’t set you back more than £4000-£6000 in the current market. Sure, that’s more than they were worth a few years ago, but you could say that about pretty much every used car at the moment.
Manual IS200s are rarer, and dearer, but those are the ones you’ll want if you to plan to go skidding in it. If not, we’d suggest that the more common auto ‘box is actually the spec to go for, as the IS200 is really a cruiser at heart. So, if you’re looking amongst the pool of fun ULEZ compliant cars for your next cheap daily driver, this could well be it. Be attentive though, as like the Honda S2000, the earliest IS200s won’t pass ULEZ standards. In this case, you’ll want a post-2000 car to avoid paying the charge.
Toyota Celica or Toyota MR2
Sticking with the theme of low-budget motoring, Lexus’ parent brand Toyota is a great place to look for cheap, ULEZ-friendly sports cars. The final generation of Toyota Celica admittedly isn’t all that heralded in the grand scheme of Japanese hero cars, but that’s not to say it isn’t a worthy entry-level option.
With front-wheel drive, the Mk7 Celica provides hot hatch-esque handling in a sleeker package. And, while it won’t be the fastest car on your block, it does come with an interesting choice of engines. The standard 140PS VVTi model will perhaps feel a little uninspiring to those seeking the biggest thrills, but in 190PS VVTLi form, the Celica springs into life thanks to a power delivery spike around the 6500rpm-mark. In fact, Lotus even deemed the 2ZZ-GE block good enough for its Elise.
However, if the Celica platform just doesn’t interest you, the Mk3 MR2 roadster might. Like the Celica, it too is arguably the relative runt of its lineage, but, unlike its larger coupe counterpart, the Mk3 MR2 offers rear-wheel drive, a soft top, and even a mid-engined layout. On paper, that’s a brilliant recipe for a driver’s car – it’s just a shame the MR2 only got the 140PS 1ZZ motor, rather than the full fat 190. Anyway, good examples of both of these cars can be picked up today for as little as £3000. So, if you’re working with a tight budget, these are amongst some of the best fun ULEZ compliant cars around.
Any Vehicle Built More Than 40 Years Ago
Another quirk of the ULEZ regulations is that if your car is deemed ‘historic’, it’s exempt from the charge, no matter what its emission levels are. TfL deem ‘historic vehicles’ to be any car, van, or truck built more than 40 years ago, so by the time London’s ULEZ expands in August, your car will be completely exempt to charges if it was built in 1982 or earlier. Then, obviously, as every year passes, that threshold raises by a year to 1983 and so on…
So, if you’re after fun ULEZ compliant cars, the classic motoring scene is – weirdly – full of them! For some inspiration, head over to our sister site, Classics World.
Subaru Impreza WRX STI
The Subaru Impreza WRX STI seems to be going out of fashion these days. Perhaps due to concerns about the reliability of the EJ engines, perhaps just because car culture has moved on. Either way, I think that’s a bit of a shame, because there’s no doubting the fact that there’s bundles of character bursting out of these cars.
The blue paint/gold rim combo and burbly boxer exhaust note is one of the things that drew me into the automotive world in the first place, and no doubt, the rally-bred variants of Impreza will go down in history as some of the most iconic cars of the 2000s. So, if you find yourself compelled to recapture your love for Subaru, you’ll be glad to hear that every single generation of WRX STI – and WRX, for that matter – complies with ULEZ regulations.
The news isn’t quite so good though, if your heart lies with the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo instead. The Impreza’s age-old rallying rival doesn’t fare quite so well in this regard. Only the Evo 9 and Evo X fully pass ULEZ standards, though you could also nab an Evo 8, so long as it’s a lesser 260 or 280 model, rather than any of the FQs.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the phrase, ‘Ultra Low Emissions Zone’? Chances are, it won’t be a maniacal V8 muscle car, yet, if you’re intent on commuting around London in one – you can!
The muscle car genre never really took off here in the UK, but the Holden-based Vauxhall Monaro has retained a corner of niche prestige ever since its arrival on our shores in 2004. After all, it’s hard to dislike a brutishly styled coupe that comes packing a 5.7-litre Corvette engine. As you’d expect from any car brandished with the ‘muscle’ banner, it’s not exactly the sharpest vehicle around a track. But, for simply getting from A to B, it performs well in the smiles per mile department.
Of course, there were no shortage of slightly insane Vauxhall models in the 2000s. Pretty much everything got a VXR badge slapped onto it at some point, and all of those boisterous creations meet ULEZ standards. So, whether you want to tackle B-roads with an Astra VXR, or scare the kids with a Zafira VXR, you can do so without having to worry about the wrath of TfL.
Want to learn more about London’s ULEZ? Read our comprehensive guide.