The best ULEZ-exempt sports cars for less than £5,000

For a driver’s roadster with a premium badge, try the BMW Z4
For a driver’s roadster with a premium badge, try the BMW Z4

If you live in an area that’s about to become, or is already, subject to a clean air zone (CAZ) or part of the London Ultra-Low Emission Zone (Ulez), it can feel a bit doom-and-gloom at the moment. With stricter controls on the type of cars that can be driven in these zones, you might feel the idea of owning a cheap, fun car has gone out of the window.

Happily, that isn’t the case. There are still quite a few sports cars you can buy for bargain prices that are ULEZ- and CAZ-exempt. To prove it, we’ve gathered together five of the best that £5,000 will buy you. But before we introduce them to you, here are a few tips on what to look for when buying a cheap, ULEZ-friendly sports car.

Kick the tyres

Actually, don’t kick them, but check them. It’s doubly important here, as most sports cars are driven hard, so you want the tyres to be up to the job. You’re looking for good, well-known brands that match from one side to the other (while the front and rear tyres can be different makes, cars should always have the same make and type of tyre and similar tread depth across an axle). Cheap tyres that don’t match will deliver unpredictable handling; what’s more, they’re a potential sign of a previous owner who’s been stingy – and that could be the case for other areas of maintenance, too.

Make time for the timing belt

Check whether the car you’re planning to buy has a rubber timing belt or a metal timing chain. As a rule, belts need changing roughly every 80,000 miles (this can vary depending on the car), while chains should last the life of a car. Changing a belt can be reasonably pricey, so if you’re buying a belt-equipped car, it’s a good idea to find out when it was last done – and price in a change if it’s needed.

Don’t be hood-winked

With any convertible, but particularly with cars at this budget, it’s important to check the roof doesn’t leak. Bring along a large bottle of water, put the roof up, and pour it all over the roof, paying particular attention to the seals where the roof meets the windscreen and windows. Better still, bring a friend along and get them to do this while you sit inside, looking for drips and dribbles making their way through. Don’t forget to check the carpet for moisture, too, in case water is making its way through where you can’t see.

History lessons

It’s important to get as much service history as you can with any car – but with a sports car, it’s all the more so. Quite apart from verifying that the correct maintenance has been carried out, both on time and on mileage, it also suggests that the car has been owned by someone who’s cherished it and looked after it well. If that’s the case, then it’s more likely it’ll have been warmed up before being driven hard, that parts that have failed have been replaced, and that repairs have been carried out to a high standard. You’re looking for invoices or stamps in the book that show servicing at least once a year, or more often on higher-mileage cars. If you can find a car where the work has been carried out by a marque specialist, then so much the better.

Is it compliant?

The rules for the London ULEZ (and, by extension, most other CAZs that target private cars) are simple: petrol cars whose emissions are lower than those dictated by the Euro 4 emissions standards brought in in 2005 are exempt from paying the charge. That means petrol cars registered under the Euro 4, 5 and 6 regimes are eligible.

But that’s not the end of the story because, in London at least, some cars registered before the Euro 4 regime came in were clean enough to comply with the later standard anyway. Many of these cars are also exempt –and some even date back as far as 2001 or 2002. The best way to know for sure if a car is compliant is to put its registration into TfL’s ULEZ payment portal and simulate paying. If it asks you for payment, the car is not exempt; if the option to pay the ULEZ is greyed out, you’re in the clear.

What to buy?

So, you’ve decided you want your own slice of ULEZ-friendly fun in the sun. Good for you. Now go and buy one of these top five fun car for less than £5,000.

Mazda MX-5 Mk3 (2005-2015)

Mazda MX-5 Mk3
Comfort-oriented and reliable: Mazda MX-5 Mk3

It’s the go-to sports car for many people, and no wonder – the MX-5’s mix of affordability, involvement, ease of use and reliability have made it a bit of an icon. This third-generation is perhaps the most comfort-oriented of all, with plenty of mod cons, but it’s still tremendous fun, and even gives you the option of an electrically powered folding metal roof (although we’d stick with the fabric roof as it’s lighter, less prone to failure, and makes the car more agile).

We found: 2008 2.0i, 82,000 miles, full service history, £4,990

Watch out for: Rumbly 1.8-litre engines, blue smoke from exhaust, knocking anti-roll bar drop links, sticky brake calipers, slow/sticky folding metal roofs, rust

Toyota MR2 (1999-2007)

Toyota MR2
The little Mazda’s biggest rival: Toyota MR2

If an MX-5 is just a little too obvious for you, why not try this instead? The Toyota MR2 was, in its day, the little Mazda’s biggest rival. Granted, it was less practical – you don’t even get a proper boot, just a cubby behind the seats – but it was edgier and more rewarding to drive thanks to its mid-engined layout. And while that engine had been lifted almost wholesale from the dull Avensis family car, in the light MR2 it gave more than enough grunt to be great fun.

We found: 2006 1.8 VVT-i, 60,000 miles, full service history, £5,000

Watch out for: Disintegrating catalytic converters, smoky engines, rusting sills and subframes, engine management lights, seized calipers

Audi TT Mk2 (2006-2014)

The first-generation TT might have been a case of style over substance, but by the time this Mk2 came along Audi was wary of making the same mistake. As a result, it drove much more tightly. The 2.0-litre versions were powered by the lusty turbo engine from the Mk5 Golf GTI, and with an interior that was just as classy as before, and that had similarly fashionable looks, the second-generation TT sold in the thousands. Today, it looks like great value, but be careful not to buy one that’s been used and abused.

We found: 2009 2.0 TFSI, 89,000 miles, full service history, £4,990

Watch out for: Modified examples with ride-ruining big wheels, cambelt changes every 5y/75k, costly failures on DSG automatics, damp boot floors

BMW Z4 (2003-2008)

Beautifully made interior: BMW Z4

If you really want a driver’s roadster with a premium badge, the rear-wheel-drive, BMW Z4 has to be the one to go for. Styling won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but it’s certainly distinctive, and the interior is just as eye-catching and beautifully made. There’s a catch, and it’s that the Z4 feels firm over bumps, so go for the smaller-wheeled and softer SE version. 2.2-, 2.5- and 3.0-litre six-cylinder cars are the most exciting, though four-cylinders are still fun.

We found: 2004 Z4 2.2i SE, 58,000 miles, full service history, £4,999

Watch out for: Dicky soft-tops, rusty rear arches, glitching electronics, damp carpets, snapped rear springs

MG Midget (1961-1979)

MG Midget
Great fun to drive: MG Midget - Alamy

If the above suggestions all feel a little bit… well, new, then why not come at the exemption the other way? Cars eligible for the historic tax class – which means anything at least 40 years old at the start of each year – are exempt, too. That means you can buy yourself a nice little MG Midget and enjoy traditional British roadster motoring within the ULEZ to your heart’s content. There are plenty around, every garage will be able to repair it when it goes wrong, and Midgets are great fun to drive – though be warned: they do feel tiny on the road, especially next to modern SUVs.

We found: 1979 1500, 67,000 miles, recent respray, £5,000

Watch out for: Grumbling crankshafts on 1500s, rust throughout, loose-feeling steering and suspension, seized brake calipers, noisy differentials, mouldy carpets