Congestion Zone changes – get set for the summer

24 December 2012

Honda Civic Hybrid in front of a wall of grafitti

Come the New Year, I’ll need to keep reminding myself that my Honda Civic Hybrid is no longer exempt from the London Congestion Charge. I live about a mile from the edge of the zone, so being able to nip in and out without paying has been rather handy. Alas, it will be £10 a pop from now on.

I bought my Honda in August 2009, when hybrid cars could avoid the charge by registering for the Alternative Fuel Discount. I never understood the logic – my hybrid runs entirely on petrol, which is not exactly an alternative fuel – but I wasn’t about to quibble.

Of course I didn’t choose my car solely to duck the Congestion Charge. I bought it because I wanted to experience hybrid ownership, and because the Civic was both cheaper and nicer to steer than a contemporary Toyota Prius. Hybrid car insurance also seemed pleasantly cheap compared with my old Alfa Romeo. Congestion exemption simply dropped a final cherry on the cake.

I haven’t regretted my choice, even if the Civic’s exempt status was snatched away in January 2011. Fortunately, existing registrations were honoured for an extra two years after the hybrid exemption was withdrawn – which is why I’m only now having to face up to the change.

Starting in January 2011, a different regime – the Greener Vehicle Discount – came into force. It gave a full waiver to cars meeting the Euro 5 air-quality standard with a CO2 rating of 100g/km or less.

My 109g/km Honda, the 104g/km Mk2 Prius, and lots of Lexus hybrids all failed to make the grade. The third-generation Prius, the Lexus CT200h, plus a variety of small diesels, did meet the new criteria when it arrived. Since then, they have been joined by a host of modestly sized petrol and diesel cars – indeed most mainstream manufacturers now offer an option or two below 100g/km. Around 17,500 cars have been registered for the current exemption, according to official figures, roughly equal to the number of cars registered under the old scheme when it was withdrawn.

Around 400,000 vehicles drive into the zone every day, so the proportion of exempt cars is significant. The ballpark estimate of lost charging revenue stands at about £200,000 per week, steadily increasing. As a result, another round of upheaval is inevitable. Last month, London’s Mayor began public consultations on replacing the 100g/km limit with a much tougher measure.


The proposed new Ultra Low Emission Discount will apply to cars or vans with CO2 emissions of 75g/km of less. If all goes to plan, the new regime will come into force from 1 July 2013. You can voice you own opinion about the proposals through the Transport for London website.

At present, the only vehicles able to meet the 75g/km threshold come with a charging cable and a plug. The Toyota Prius Plug-in, Vauxhall Ampera, Chevrolet Volt and various zero-emissions electric cars like the Nissan Leaf will all qualify, but nothing without a cable can currently cut the mustard. The best CO2 score for a car without a charging cable, as far as I can tell, is the 79g/km earned by Toyota’s Yaris Hybrid.

Yaris Hybrid side view

That score is pretty close, of course – perhaps close enough for Toyota’s engineers to find 4g/km with a mild update. But few other cars currently lie within striking distance. The next best result is 84g/km, claimed by Hyundai’s i20 1.1 CRDi Blue.

No doubt a range of car manufacturers will bring qualifying cars onto the market in short order, even if they won’t necessarily be wonderful to drive. If the proposals go ahead without change, the bar will have been set challengingly low. To limbo cleanly under it in the short term, something reasonably important will probably need to be sacrificed – such as engine power or sensible gearing.

Whatever changes may come, there will be another two years of grace for anyone already registered under the current 100g/km rules. So if you have a qualifying car, live vaguely close to the capital but haven’t registered for your discount yet, I would advise sending in the paperwork before July. If you drive just a couple of time in the Congestion Zone between now and the middle of 2015, the effort will have been worth it.

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