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How to Choose New Car Trim Levels and Options


So, you are on the hunt for a new car. However, the problem is with so many possibilities out there, how do you narrow the choices to just one pick? Good question. Lucky for you, the carmakers have baked a feature into the car-buying cake to simplify your task. That feature is trim levels, also called “grades.”

“How does that help?” you may ask yourself. Trim levels are really the key. Once you’ve decided on a midsize sedan, a compact SUV, a full-size pickup truck, or whatever, every other decision will be driven by trim levels.

In most instances, a trim level will determine the cost and the features of the vehicle you purchase. Therefore, picking the ideal trim level for your budget and needs is easily the most important part of the new-car shopping process.

Here’s what you need to know about trim levels to make the best buying decision possible.

What Are Car Trims?

Car trims are really levels of standard content for a particular model. The 2021 Ford Escape, for example, has four trim levels: S, SE, SEL, and Titanium. Generally, as you move up through the grades, the standard features grow in number and some of them in quality.

Adaptive cruise control isn’t available in the Escape S, for example. It is optional in the SE and SEL. And, it’s standard in the Titanium grade. The S has 17-inch steel wheels. The SE has nicer 17-inch aluminum wheels. Standard on the SEL is 18-inch aluminum wheels, and Titanium comes with 19-inch aluminum wheels.

Adding to the role trim levels play in buying a new car, each step up in content is reflected by a bump in the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP). For example, the 2021 Escape S begins at $25,555, while the SE has a base price of $27,035.

The trim level determines any new car’s standard features and base price (before options, incentives, and fees).

What is the Difference Between Model, Style, and Trim?

The differences are pretty simple. Style identifies a type of vehicle. Sedan, coupe, convertible, SUV, and hatchback are all styles.

Sometimes called a nameplate, a model is a vehicle sold by a carmaker (make or brand). Ford sells the Escape. Toyota sells the Camry. And, Jeep sells the Wrangler.

Trim is a division within a model determined by the level of content and price.

What Should I Look for When Comparing Trims?

Think of trim levels as tools in your quest for that ideal car. Then, be prepared to compromise. For the most part, a trim level is one size fits all. That is, the carmaker bundles the features into a trim level based on popularity and price. It’s a mixture of what a buyer is likely to want, balanced by what content will fit into the carmaker’s target price for that trim.

No matter the grade, chances are, either you aren’t going to get everything you want, or you could pay more than your budget allows. You can make up some of the shortfall in content by adding an option or two. But, you may still not be 100% satisfied.

Make a List

Actually, make two lists. One should be your must-have features. These are features you can’t do without. Your list might contain:

Then make a second list of wants. You know, those features that you want, but, in the end, you can live without. That list might include:

  • Head-up display
  • High-end surround-sound audio system
  • Remote start
  • Wi-Fi
  • Leather seating
  • All-wheel drive

As you consider different models and trim levels, check their standard features against your lists. If you can afford the Ford Escape SE, but adaptive cruise control is on your must-have list, can you afford to add it as an option?

At the end of the day, you may have to look at several brands to find the model and trim that best fits your budget and includes most of your must-have features.

How Do I Determine Which Car Trim Offers the Best Value?

Getting the best value for your buck is always a fine goal. But, the dollar-and-cents value may not be real value to you. Even if a trim with all the bells and whistles costs $1,000 more than the trim with just the bells, why spend the money if you don’t care about the whistles? Even if the whistles cost $1,500 as options on the “bells” grade, are you really saving money by moving up a trim level for $1,000? Why supersize if you aren’t going to eat the extra fries?

Value is not being stampeded into paying more for a higher trim full of features you don’t care about. If you do your homework before stepping on the dealer’s lot, you are much less likely to pay for stuff you don’t really care about.

There are always some exceptions, however. Spending $1,200 to move up from the entry-level Honda CR-V LX to the new CR-V Special Edition gains you Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front seats, remote start, a larger touchscreen, upgraded audio system with more speakers, and other goodies. Now that’s some bang for your buck. If you live in Arizona, you may not care about the heated seats (and heated outboard mirrors), but it’s still a good deal.

What Are Packages and How Do I Choose?

Not all carmakers offer option packages. Honda, for instance, doesn’t. But manufacturers that do will bundle options into packages they calculate people will pay extra for when buying cars. Sometimes the package features are related, such as an all-weather package with heated seats, a heated steering wheel, and heated windshield washer nozzles. Other times, the relationship among a package’s features is tough to spot.

Choosing to buy or not buy a package is fairly cut and dry. But, do you need or want the options in the package, and can you afford the cost of adding it to the bottom line?

Note: Once you wade into the options and option packages, they can really add up. This is particularly true of higher-end imports.

Are Options and Packages the Same?

Yes and no. Sometimes you can cherry-pick the features in an options package from a list of stand-alone options. That is, you may be able to add heated seats as a stand-alone option without taking the heated steering wheel and heated washer nozzles also found in the all-weather package. Usually, the package price will be less than adding all the items individually.

Do Accessories Come in Packages?

As we use the term here, accessories are those extras installed by the dealer and not the factory. They include things like locking lug nuts, floor mats, and customizing pieces. If you see a Mini Cooper with a British Union Jack or a checkerboard pattern on the roof, that’s a dealer accessory. A dealer may choose to bundle some accessories together into a package, but generally, accessories are priced individually.

How Can I Determine What Trim and Packages My Car Has?

Knowing your car’s trim level and options comes in handy when you sell or trade in your car. To determine the estimated value of your used car, it’s key to know the year, make, model, trim level, and major options. If you lack any of this information, take the time to research it.

You can find your car’s trim level in several places. It is on the sales invoice, original window sticker, and should be on the vehicle itself. Check under the hood and on the driver’s-side door frame for a metal plate. Often the trim level is listed there. If all else fails, you can use your car’s VIN. This is the vehicle identification number that is unique to your car. You can find it on a metal plate on the dashboard at the bottom of the windshield on the driver’s side.

Into your browser, type the carmaker’s name (Ford, Honda, and so forth) followed by “VIN lookup” or “VIN decoder.” This will bring up a page with a space to enter the VIN. This should bring up your vehicle’s model and trim information. If not, head to the parts department at a dealership for your car’s brand. Using the VIN, they should be able to provide all the information you need on the trim and the options.

How Can I Find Out What My Current Car Is Worth?

We suggest researching the price of your used car using this valuation tool that helps car owners understand what vehicles are worth.

More Car Buying Related Articles:

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated for accuracy since it was originally published. Russ Heaps contributed to this report.

FAQ

How do I Find the Trim Level on My Car?

When looking for the trim level of your car, you should first check your manual to see what your trim level is. If it’s not in your manual, you can look on the rear end of your vehicle as there is typically a decal stating which trim level your car is.

Do I Need Options on My Car?

When it is time to choose if you want options on your car, it can be confusing. Before going to the dealership, you should decide what you want on your vehicle and what you do not. Options like a tow hitch will be available to add to your car, but it is unnecessary if you do not plan on towing.

How Many Trim Levels are Available on a Car?

The depends on the car and the manufacturer. However, most cars have about three or four trim levels.

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