Volvo has claimed the changes announced to the congestion charge by London mayor Boris Johnson recently are a victory in its year long campaign to address an 'unfair' charging structure.
The new system will be introduced in the New Year, and cars emitting less than 100g/km CO2 and meeting strict Euro 5 emissions regulations will now qualify for free entry to the congestion zone. Where hybrids previously enjoyed blanket qualification they too will now have to meet the new standards to get free access.
Motorists can register for what's called the 'greener vehicle discount' from 4 January 2011, subject to a £10 annual fee. This replaces the alternative fuel discount which is currently in place.
Perhaps controversially, owners of the current Honda Civic and previous-generation Toyota Priuses will find themselves having to pay the charge like everyone else because their cars do not meet the new standards.
They have time to change their cars if the congestion charge exemption is a big factor, however, as the hybrid exemption will be phased out over two years rather than taken away immediately.
There were more than 40 cars currently on sale with emissions lower than 100g/km CO2 when the Vehicle Certification Agency last published its official list of fuel consumption and emissions in May this year.
The lowest emissions on the list belonged to the Smart fortwo CDI cabriolet, which emits 86g/km CO2. Volvo's S40 and V50 DRIVe models are currently the two biggest cars you can drive for free in the congestion zone without resorting to exploiting a loophole which allows 9-seater vehicles exemption.
Using that method you could buy a Land Rover Defender 110 to access central London without paying the charge for the same nominal £10 a year registration fee as drivers of low-emission cars.
Volvo has said that its campaign was designed to address what it saw as an unfair charging structure under the old rules, which enabled drivers of alternative fuel and hybrid vehicles such as the Lexus RX450h to avoid the £8 entry charge despite emitting more CO2 than many conventional petrol or diesel engine cars.
It wrote to Boris Johnson in June 2009 to raise the issue of what it saw as a false incentive to produce certain types of car rather than genuinely cleaner models.
Volvo UK managing director, Peter Rask, said: "This decision recognises the huge progress made by manufacturers in reducing the emissions of conventional petrol and diesel engines to levels that are, in some cases, cleaner than those of hybrid vehicles.
"It levels the playing field for drivers seeking a true low-emission vehicle and is a genuine victory for Volvo and emissions equality in the UK."
Volvo currently has three vehicles – the C30, S40 and V50 DRIVe models – that emit just 99g/km CO2 using weight- and fuel-saving modifications rather than any trick technology. The Swedish manufacturer does have plans to introduce fully-electric vehicles to its line-up in the next two years.
Around 13,000 people took part in the mayor of London's consultation on the future of the congestion charge, which will also see the western extension through Knightsbridge and Kensington scrapped in the New Year. There will be a further rise in the daily congestion charge fee at the same time, from £8 to £9.
Whilst no-one can argue that the changes aren't a good thing for the environment, you do have to question the point of the congestion zone, especially when the new rules will allow more cars than ever before to access the centre of London for free since the scheme was introduced.
Perhaps the scheme should be renamed the emissions charge?