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What Are Car Trims Levels - Everything You Need to Know

By Evan Walton | October 12, 2021

What is Car Trim?

A car trim is another version of the same car model. The trim, or grade, usually specifies a base model's level of performance, features, options, and extras. The differences may be in the vehicle's interior styling, upholstery, transmission, engine type, comfort conveniences, additional safety features, or exterior design components.

Upgrades to a base model such as leather seats, climate control, all-wheel drive (AWD), and trim molding are typical elements of car trim packages in vehicles by makers such as Honda, Toyota, Chevrolet, and Ford. Car trim can also dictate the body style of the vehicle as some vehicles are offered as both sedans and coupes. The Honda Civic is a perfect example of this as the coupe and sedan body styles are both offered and have their specific trim levels.

When you are shopping for a new car, car trims provide a wider variety of vehicle selections. The process of choosing the correct trim level for you may be confusing at first, but do not let the range of features and prices curb your car-buying enthusiasm. Learn all you can about base models, different trim levels, and options before stepping into the dealer showroom. Knowledge of all trim levels offered on your vehicle of interest will provide you with confidence and help you get the upper hand when it is time to make a deal.

What "Base Model" Means

A car manufacturer's base model trim level is the plainest version of the new vehicle. A base model represents the least expensive model variation of the vehicle the automaker offers. The trim level of a base model might not have a specific name, but the same model car might have several trim levels. One great example of this is the Nissan Altima which is an unnamed base model but has additional trim levels: S, SR, SV, and SL. On the other hand, the Toyota Camry LE is a base model with a named trim level. The SE, XSE, and XLE are additional Toyota Camry trim packages.

Base models may lack the optional features you desire in a specific vehicle. Purchasing a higher trim level provides multiple safety, technology, and driver-assisted features not available in lower trim levels.

Understanding Car Trim Names

Automakers, including Nissan, Honda, and Ford, use pairs of letters such as LX, SE, or GT to specify the different trim levels in a model of the vehicle offered. LX stands for luxury, SE for either special edition or sports edition, and GT for grand touring.

Some automotive manufacturers, including Chevrolet and BMW, use a combination of letters and numbers, such as the Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 and Z71 Tahoe and Suburban. BMW's 3 Series includes the 320i, 330i, 330e, and 340i. In earlier decades, some car makers used words to describe their trim levels. The Nissan Gloria and Cedric carried the designation "Brougham" as their top trim level in the 1970s and 1980s.

In 2021, Cadillac continues the tradition of using words as trim names. Cadillac Escalade features five trim levels: Luxury (base trim), Premium Luxury, Sport, Luxury Platinum, and Sport Platinum. Starting at a manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) of $76,195, Luxury trim offers a 6.2-liter V-8 engine with 420 horsepower, and Magnetic Ride Control, an intelligent damping system. Sport Platinum and Luxury Platinum, the highest trim levels, feature a high-quality interior covered in premium leather and suede microfiber. Options such as Super Cruise and night vision can be found at this trim level as well as a center console refrigerator and freezer for an additional $700 on top of a base MSRP of $100,595.

How Car Trim Levels Make a Difference in Price

Car trim levels raise the cost of a vehicle from its base price. As ConsumerReports.org observes, auto manufacturers and dealerships have been offering higher trim levels for decades. However, the organization's car experts have calculated that for some models, including the Mercedes-Benz C-class sedan, the Honda CR-V, and the Ford F-150 pickup truck, trim levels have doubled during the past 20 years. Manufacturers generally reap more profits from higher trim levels, the organization notes.

Car buyers may experience "sticker shock" when comparing the prices of a base model and a top trim level vehicle. An extreme example of this is the 2021 Ford Mustang which at a base level starts at $27,205. When compared to the top trim mustang which starts at $70,300 it seems as if the top trim would almost have to be a completely different car to justify the difference in pricing.

If you hear people refer to a car as a "stripped-down model," they are referring to a base model version of the vehicle. If they talk about a vehicle that is "fully loaded," they are referring to the highest trim level available. A vehicle’s Monroney sticker shows the trim information of each trim package and the amount increased from the base model price. New car dealers must attach a Monroney sticker to each car they offer for sale.

Reading the Monroney Sticker

The Monroney sticker is named for Almer Stillwell "Mike" Monroney, the United States Congressman and Senator from Oklahoma who wrote the 1958 Automobile Information Disclosure Act. Under this federal law, a new car must have a sticker attached to its window, showing car buyers important information. The window sticker shows a vehicle's base price, its MSRP, fuel economy information, and standard features, such as anti-lock brakes, a radio, cruise control, and airbags.

A Monroney sticker also shows a vehicle's optional features, such as an interior trim package and a GPS navigation system, along with the MSRP for the options listed. Pricing and options information from the Monroney sticker help you compare features and costs between vehicles and among dealers. If you are buying a used car, get the vehicle identification number (VIN) and use it on MonroneyLabels.com and you can obtain the information that was on the vehicle's original Monroney sticker.

Options Packages Offer Variety

When shopping for a new car, look for deals in discounted options packages, a similar class of options bundled together. If you desire strong towing capability, a towing package equips your vehicle with revised axle gearing, a heavy-duty radiator, bigger cooling fans, and more ability to cool the transmission.

Car buyers wanting sports performance packages look for bundles with upgraded engines, handling, and brakes, and a dynamic front spoiler or rear wing. When looks matter, trim appearance packages provide extras, such as high-quality interior trim pieces made of chrome or mahogany wood, unique exterior paint jobs, decals, or vehicle bodies and bumpers in matching colors.

If safety and handling are one of your top priorities, you could search for a discounted safety bundle that might include electronic stability control, a collision-avoidance system, adaptive headlights, additional airbags, and seat belt pre-tensioners.

An off-roading focused package would offer stiffer shock absorbers, anti-roll bars, and springs, as well as high-grip tires or lightweight wheels that offer high-quality handling for a lower price than buying every option separately.

In unfamiliar territory, a navigation package that provides turn-by-turn instructions via satellite might keep you from getting lost or not arriving at your destination on time. Navigation packages usually are bundled with technology such as upgraded stereo, touchscreen infotainment, and steering wheel controls.

Car Trim Shopping Tips

It is easy to get glassy-eyed from looking at all the car trims, features, options, and add-ons when you are in the car-buying mood. Changes in new car technology over the past several years make vehicle shopping more of a challenge. Begin your search with a set budget and write a list of "must-have" items for your new car. Air conditioning, a six-cylinder engine, an automatic transmission, and Apple CarPlay connectivity might be on your list.

With your "must-haves," in one column, make another column for your wants. You might desire heated leather seats, automatic emergency braking (AEB), a navigation system, or a high-quality infotainment package. Searching online with your list as a guide helps you narrow your vehicle choices in private, without pressure from sales personnel. Try to stick to your list when selecting vehicles and ensure that they provide the essentials on your list and also have the ability to add trim packages or options to include your wants.

Car Trims Make a Difference in Resale Value

A few years down the road, if you plan to sell your new car or trade it in for another new vehicle, you may wonder whether certain car trim and option packages deliver more in resale dollars. Air conditioning and sunroofs are usually worth spending the extra money on, especially in warm climates. Leather seats add a touch of luxury and offer durability.

However, keep in mind that vehicles loaded with high-end trim levels and options typically depreciate more and faster than vehicles with fewer bells and whistles. The decline in car value starts when you drive your new car off of the lot. New cars lose as much as 20% of their value in the first 30 days. Also, used car buyers are not as focused on high-tech advances and premium perks as are new car buyers.

Buy the car that meets your needs and makes you happy. If you are concerned about maintaining resale value, look for vehicle makes and models that have a history of dependable service and low maintenance costs such as Subaru and Land Rover which have some of the lowest depreciation rates in the nation.

Spending more money upfront on safety features such as pedestrian detection or automatic emergency braking (AEB) might avoid a severe accident or even save a life. Some buyers may also be seeking a used car with additional safety features over luxury or other convenience packages.

Simple vs. Complex Car Trim Choices

Some car manufacturers offer option-free trim levels for selected vehicles, but Honda and Acura, Honda's luxury brand, are the only ones that do so for their complete roster of vehicles. If you are seeking simplicity in car buying, consider these brands and their option-free trim-level vehicles.

At the opposite end of the car shopping spectrum, Mercedes, Porsche, and Mini Cooper encourage personalizing almost every aspect of your vehicle. From a variety of colors of leather for seats to detailed bodywork and exterior decorations, these car manufactures encourage customization. If a custom order is in line with your plan, these automakers are ready to cater to you. Visit their showroom to view typical combinations before you order. The trip might help you decide on what's right for you.

Subaru's car trim choices fall in between Honda's simplicity and Porsche's complexity. The 2021 Forester offers five trim levels, ten option packages, and 64 Subaru accessories include a side cargo net for $73 and a remote engine starter for just under $500. A Subaru Forester offers 19 possible configurations, depending on which trim, transmission, and option package you choose. Prices range from $22,795 to more than $40,000.

With all of the choices in vehicle models, trim levels, and additional options, there is a perfect combination for everyone's needs, wants, and budget. Prepare for car buying by setting goals, making lists, and researching online to narrow the scope of your selection. When you are ready to visit the dealership, you will have the information you need to make wise decisions and negotiate from a position of strength.