How to Choose New-Car Trim Levels and Options
Not all new-car shoppers want the same features. For some, a backup camera may be essential. For others, leather seats and a sunroof are must-haves. That's why automakers typically offer several trim choices, options packages or stand-alone options for each model. These let you configure a new vehicle to suit your needs and desires.
Trim levels (or grades, as they're sometimes called) are simply different versions of the same model with different features and equipment. For models that use several trim choices, automakers usually offer three or four versions. For example, the 2013 Toyota RAV4 comes in three versions: LE, XLE and Limited. The RAV4 LE is the base model; it includes the fewest features and has the lowest price of the three. The XLE is in the middle of the range in both price and equipment, and the Limited is the most luxurious and feature-rich version.
In addition to various trim choices, automakers also may offer options and options packages to give buyers more choices. An option is a single feature that buyers can add to a vehicle, usually at an extra cost. Options packages are just groups of options bundled together and offered at a single price.
Some models only use options and options packages instead of multiple trim levels. Luxury cars are often marketed in a single trim, with several available options packages. Each package is listed separately on the window sticker and includes the features in the package and the package price. Similarly, some models use only stand-alone options that shoppers can choose individually.
All models are offered in a base version, even though the term doesn't always mean the same thing. In the RAV4, for example, base trim includes a backup camera, which could be optional on another model. Even luxury vehicles are available in base trim, but those may include features such as leather or a sunroof even on the most affordable version.
Beyond the base model, additional trim choices are the most common way of letting shoppers choose the features they want. The new-car window sticker for a model such as the RAV4 will show the specifics for that trim level. It will not list prices for the included features separately. Options and options packages, by contrast, are listed and priced separately on the window sticker, building on the price and equipment of the base model.
So how do new-car shoppers navigate this confusing arrangement? Here are a few tips that can help you get the features you want while still getting the best price possible.
Compare the Right Models
First, you can shop only base trim models. This allows you to compare standard features of one model to standard features of another. The major drawback of this strategy is you may leave out models that lack a feature you want -- a backup camera, for example -- just because it's not included on the base model. Comparing base models is the simplest way to deal with trim choices and options packages, but it's probably best only for those who don't need a lot of features and want to car-shop quickly.
Drivers who want the latest technology without a big investment of time in research may prefer the opposite approach. Comparing only top-trim models such as the RAV4 Limited (or "loaded" models for those with packaged or stand-alone options) will be quicker and easier than trying to find a vehicle with everything you want and nothing you don't. Of course, you could end up paying more for features you'll never use.
Most new-car shoppers should spend the time to find the trim level or options that are right for them. It may take a little longer, but for most it's the wiser way to shop. And if you've already narrowed your choices to a few models, it should be relatively easy. The result makes it worthwhile, too. You'll get all the features you want at the best possible price.
First, make a list of features that you must have. These don't have to be necessities; it's okay to add navigation to your list, even though it's a luxury feature to some. Also, make a list of features that you'd like to have but aren't deal breakers. For example, your must-have list may include automatic transmission, a backup camera and/or navigation. For like-to-have items, you might list a sunroof, automatic climate control and leather seats.
For the RAV4, an automatic transmission and a backup camera are standard on the base LE model. But navigation is optional, and it's only available on the XLE and Limited. Moving up to the XLE not only allows you to opt for navigation, it also adds two items from the like-to-have list: a sunroof and automatic climate control. The RAV4 XLE with optional navigation is the best choice in this example.
For each vehicle you're considering, determine the most affordable price for that model with all the features on your must-have list. Which trim do you require? Which, if any, stand-alone options or options packages do you need? What's the suggested retail price for that model, including your preferred trim and options choices? You can use the Compare Cars feature on AutoTrader.com to choose trim and options and determine pricing.
Repeat this for each vehicle you're considering. When you're done, you'll have a list of several models -- with trim and options specified -- plus the prices for each. That gives you an apples-to-apples features comparison to use in decision making. This exercise alone may help you choose the best car for you. Or you may be ready to test drive some vehicles. Whether you head to a dealership ready to make a deal or just to take a test drive, you'll know exactly what you're looking for.