Car specs: choosing the right trim level

Know your SE from your Sport Nav: how to make sure your car comes with the equipment you want

BuyaCar team
May 31, 2018

Once you’ve decided the car that you want, the decisions aren’t over. Your next task is to pick the engine and trim level that’s right for you, getting everything you want without feeling like you’ve been overcharged.

Here’s our guide to trim and how to choose it

What is trim?

Trim describes the different levels of luxury within a car maker’s model range. It shouldn’t be confused with options which are individually priced extras you can add to a car.


How do you tell what trim level a car is?

By its name, although this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. The problem is, car makers have different naming conventions for their trims. Kia’s is among the simplest, its trim levels being identified by numbers, typically ‘1’ to ‘3’. Other car makers such as Volkswagen favour a mix of letters and words. For example, the Golf comes in S, Match, Bluemotion and GT trims. Meanwhile, the Citroen C4 comes in Touch, Feel and Flair.

The point is, unlike engine sizes, power outputs or fuel consumption there is no standard language for expressing trim level, so unless you do your homework on what’s what, you could choose the wrong one.


What about Nav and Sport trim levels?

True, you do see some trims followed by the word Nav (as in Mazda CX-5 SE-L Nav). It couldn’t be clearer and simply means the trim has a sat nav.

Likewise, where you see the word Sport, the car is likely to have firmer suspension, sportier seats and dials, extra body mouldings and special alloy wheels. It may be more powerful but probably isn’t.


Why are trim levels useful?

Because they bring a lot of extra features to a car which, if purchased individually, would cost a lot more. Also, they’re created by marketing people who know what combination of features people expect for a certain price.

But the fact that there’s no universal trim ‘language’ can be very confusing. For example, Audi and BMW regard SE trim as their basic level on A4 and 3 series. However, on the Vauxhall Insignia, SE is mid-level trim while on the VW Passat it’s one up from basic S.

Not all trims are available with all engines. This can be very annoying. You set your heart on a particular engine and trim only to find out you can’t have them together. One of the worst offenders in this respect is VW. High-power versions of the Passat are available only in expensive GT and R-Line trims. 


How do trim levels compare, typically?

A basic trim on a mainstream car, as distinct from a premium model (see ‘What’s a bad trim level’, below) might have all the essentials and a few luxuries, but lack the features buyers really crave.

For example, the Ford Focus Style looks attractive at first glance with its body-coloured wing mirrors, electric front windows, air conditioning and voice control. However, it’s only when you compare it with Zetec, the next trim, which brings, among a host of things, alloy wheels, an eight-inch touchscreen with digital radio, sports seats, a Quickclear heated windscreen and driver’s lumbar adjustment all for just £1000 more, that you realise how dull Style actually is.

ST Line brings sportier features but nothing more valuable than Zetec. Likewise, Titanium has a smattering of useful things (Active City Stop – which should be on Zetec – and rear parking sensors) but costs £1750 more than Zetec. The only useful things top-spec Titanium X adds is Active Park Assist. It has many luxuries including a powered driver’s seat but at £3750 more than Zetec, it’s hard to recommend.


What’s a good trim level?

Simply, one that is good value for money. For example, features appropriate to a family car that’s going to be used by busy parents in need of practical assistance are a split-fold rear seat, remote central locking, a comprehensive package of advanced safety features, a sat nav and height-adjustable front seats. A few luxuries such as attractive upholstery, a good infotainment system with voice control, Bluetooth and a USB socket, and smart alloy wheels are welcome, too.

So equipped, the finished trim should sit roughly between the cheapest and most expensive, and cost much less than a more basic car fitted with the same features as options.


What’s a bad a trim level?

Generally speaking, the extremes of trim levels are bad. On mainstream cars, basic trims are cheap but they lack that essential mix of practical, convenience and luxury features, and look dreary, too.

The exception is premium cars from the likes of Mercedes, Jaguar, BMW and Audi. Their basic trims – generally called SE – come with most of things the average buyer requires and are often the best buys. For example, in Audi’s case, the suspension fitted to SE models is a no-cost option on more expensive, sportier versions, it’s that good.

At the other extreme, top-spec trims are often so laden with luxuries that they price the car out of its natural market. For example, no Vauxhall Adam has a right costing £19,355 (the S 1.4i Turbo 150PS). The consequence will be high depreciation as the car finds its natural price level.


What’s wrong with buying a basic car and fitting options to it?

Generally speaking, the difference in price between a basic car and the next, and probably the best, trim is likely to be around £1000. Buying two or three extras and adding them to a basic model could easily cost that much. They’ll probably be a very personal choice, too, and of no value to the next owner.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that trim names differ between car makers, by and large, most people know what they mean and value them accordingly. Your options will be ignored and the car valued according to its trim level.


What’s better, an option pack or a trim level?

Increasingly, car makers bundle single but related options into packs to sell at a big saving. It’s a good way of getting extra safety or driver-assist features but is no substitute for a well-chosen trim level.

A pack may add something special but the car will fetch no more money on the used market since it is ‘invisible’ compared with a trim level. Only consider an option pack if you’re adding it to an already appealing trim.


Are trim-based special editions any good?

Sometimes car makers will try to boost sales by adding extras to a trim level to create an enhanced trim. For example, the Ford Focus is available in ST-Line trim but also ST-Line Red Edition. They’re worth looking out for because they can bring useful extras for not much more than the trim they’re based on.

One such is the Suzuki Swift SZ-L. It’s based on mid-level SZ3 spec and adds cruise control, a sat nav, a digital radio, a rear spoiler and gloss black alloy wheels for just £400 more.


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