Is a hybrid car exempt from the London Congestion Charge?

A reader wants to know which hybrid car is best and which qualify for a discount on the capital's Congestion Charge...

BMW 330e

I’m thinking of buying a new car soon and am attracted by the good fuel economy and low emissions of a hybrid. The BMW 330e, Lexus IS 300h and Mercedes-Benz C300de are on my shortlist. Which of these do you think is the best? 

I will occasionally need to drive the car into central London. Will I have to pay the Congestion Charge for doing this or is a hybrid car green enough to be exempt? 

Howard James

What Car? says…

Our favourite car on your shortlist is the 330e plug-in hybrid. We’ve recently driven the latest version on UK roads for the first time and concluded that it has plenty of power and is fun to punt along a twisty country road, even though its batteries make it heavier than a conventionally powered 3 Series variant.

It’s powered by an electric motor and a 2.0-litre petrol engine and has twice as much range as the previous 330e - around 35 miles officially, although it managed only 26 miles in our Real Range test. It has an electric mode that can be used for driving in low-emissions zones, and if you drive it gently, it will stick to electric power most of the time until the batteries are depleted. 

Mercedes C-Class driving

Mercedes' take on the plug-in hybrid executive car, the C300de, is unusual in having a diesel engine rather than a petrol one. Its official electric-only range is similar to the that of the 330e, at 30 miles. It’s comfortable but not as involving to drive as the BMW, and its engine gets vocal if you work it hard. 

The IS 300h is the least appealing car on your shortlist, because its 2.5-litre petrol engine isn’t man enough to provide swift acceleration and its CVT automatic gearbox whines loudly when you put your foot down. 

Lexus IS

It officially emits more than the German pair, too: 104g/km of CO2, compared with 44g/km for the 330e and 41g/km for the C300de. That's because it's not a plug-in hybrid; instead, it uses its electric motor to aid the petrol engine, switching between the two to get the best economy. It does have a pure electric mode, but this offers nothing like the range of the 330e or C300de. 

Only electric cars and plug-in hybrids that meet set criteria qualify for the cleaner vehicle discount from the London Congestion Charge. To qualify for exemption, a plug-in hybrid has to have CO2 emissions of no more than 75g/km and an electric-only range of at least 20 miles. You'll therefore be able to claim this with the 330e or C300de.

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Best hybrid cars and the ones to avoid

Not so long ago, hybrid cars were the reserve of environmentally conscious school run parents, people living or working in London's Congestion Charge zone and minicab drivers looking to save a bit of money on fuel.

However, with an ever-growing number of hybrids on the market, they're increasingly becoming a mainstream alternative to conventional petrol and diesel models, with many preferring them to fully electric cars because there's no range anxiety.

The thing is, though, knowing which to consider and which to avoid can make the difference between a fuel-sipping investment and a costly mistake. So, here we count down the top 10 – and reveal the hybrid that's best steered clear of.

2016 Toyota Yaris Hybrid review

Like all Yaris models, the hybrid has light controls and a tight turning circle, so parking or negotiating narrow city streets is a doddle. However, thanks to bespoke suspension it's more comfortable than conventional petrol variants, soaking up bumps and controlling body movements well. To top it all off, the Yaris Hybrid has the best town True MPG figure of any car we’ve tested. This makes the scratchy plastics and dated infotainment system easier to forgive.

9. BMW i8

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BMW i8 main

While most of the models in this list are practical choices, the BMW i8 shows that hybrids can also be fun to drive and hugely desirable. It's a high-performance plug-in hybrid sports car that uses a range of cutting-edge technologies to deliver serious pace and low emissions. Think of the i8 as an efficient alternative to models such as the Audi R8 and Porsche 911.

Toyota RAV4

Its ride and handling may be ordinary, but the RAV4 is a large and practical SUV that comes very well equipped and benefits from Toyota's stellar reliability record. What's more, it makes plenty of financial sense if you're a company car driver, thanks to its low CO2 emissions.