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

Simon Ostler
Sep 20, 2021

It may take many hours of research and a few too many afternoons spent traipsing around dealerships, but you’ll get to a point where you’ve finally decided which make and model of car you’d like to drive next. Let’s say you’ve been looking for a spacious family hatchback, and settle on the Ford Focus ahead of its many rivals.

But that’s not quite the end of the story, as different versions of the Ford Focus are available. There’s a fairly basic one with an attractive price, sporty ones, luxurious ones and even rugged-looking ones. All these different versions have different price tags and equipment levels, so you need to make sure you’re getting the specification that best suits your wants and needs.

If you’re the type of person who just wants to get in the car and drive, then the cheapest model will likely suffice. But for other people, who perhaps want the nicer-looking wheels or improved technology, it’s worth spending the extra money on a better-equipped trim level.

What is a trim?

Almost universally, there is not just one version of a particular car. Whether it's a Ford Focus, a Smart ForTwo, or a Lamborghini Aventador, virtually every car on the market is offered in more than one form. These different variants of a model are called trim levels, and they basically offer slight differences in design features, interior materials and the equipment that's included.

There will almost be a most basic option, which represents the entry level for a car in terms of price, but offers relatively little in terms of quality and equipment, and then a number of levels above that which incrementally add more tech, better equipment and higher quality materials. In some cases, there will be a 'sporty' version of a car that features bolder styling and other tweaks to deliver a more performance-focused driving experience.

In the case of the Ford Focus, the entry-level trim is Zetec; this has the most basic styling and equipment. After that, you have the sport-orientated ST-Line and ST Line-X, along with the luxury-inclined Titanium and Titanium X, which add more equipment and styling tweaks for higher prices. There is a high-performance Focus ST, which comes with a more powerful engine and sporty tweaks such as stiffer suspension. Just to muddy the waters further, Ford also sells 4x4-inspired Focus Active and super-luxurious Focus Vignale models.

The most important thing to take from this is that every Ford Focus on we've just listed is effectively a different car. If your wish list includes heated seats and dual-zone climate control, a Ford Focus in Zetec trim will disappoint you, but a Titanium or ST-Line X model will tick those boxes. So it is worth exploring the options if you're worried your top pick isn't what you're looking for at first glance.

Most manufacturers offer a similar structure, with a basic model joined by a sporty-looking version and high-spec models that focus on luxury and comfort. Vauxhall uses SE, SRi and Elite in its range; Peugeot has Active, GT and Allure; SEAT has SE, FR and Xcellence, and so on. Not all cars by a manufacturer will use the same trim levels, but generally, they will follow the same structure - a Zetec model of any Ford will be on the lower end of the price and equipment scale.

How do you tell what trim level a car is?

The simple answer is 'by its name'. And this is the answer, but understanding a car's name can be anything but simple. The trouble is, every manufacturer has different names for its trim levels, and where some are obvious, others can be horribly cryptic. Our BuyaCar search tool can help you here, though, as it handily gives you the option of searching for cars by trim level, so there can be no doubt.

Many manufacturers no longer advertise the trim level with a special badge, unless it’s a performance model. In fact, there is no universally consistent method that will help you to identify every single car on the road today.

It would be slightly easier if manufacturers stuck to the same trim levels, but even these are subject to change. The Volkswagen Golf is a prime example; the S, Match and R-Line trims of the previous generation have been replaced for the new model by 'Life' and 'Style' variants.

The best way to identify for yourself is to do some research, and double-check any queries before you complete a purchase.

What does Nav or Sport mean?

You'll often see some trim names followed by the suffix 'Nav' (as in Mazda CX-5 SE-L Nav). Thankfully, this is a simple one, and it refers to the presence of sat-nav on a particular model. However, this again is not universal, and many manufacturers prefer to keep their inclusion of sat-nav a secret - the Ford Focus Titanium for example has a built-in sat-nav. But these days, if you have a smartphone and a sufficient amount of data, you can just use your phone’s map and music apps through Apple CarPlay or Android Auto anyway - so a dedicated sat-nav system isn’t so essential.

Likewise, the addition of 'Sport', will often indicate that this model has firmer suspension than the base model, while it is also likely to include sport seats, additional interior details and snappy styling. Some of these will come with a more powerful engine, but many are only sporty by virtue of their looks and actually offer no performance gains. These are very popular in the UK, giving the eye-catching looks but with no real loss of fuel economy.

What makes a good trim level?

Much like the differences between manufacturers and their models, a good trim level will be identifiable by its value for money. It's all well and good filling a car with all of the latest tech and using only the highest quality materials, but if it doubles the cost of the car then it's unlikely to be a car you'd want to buy.

So, whenever you're looking at which trim level to go for, it's always worth seeing what prices other competitors are offering for similar models with similar specifications. Other aspects such as engines and optional extras can also play a part here, as a higher trim level could open the door to that all-important heated-steering wheel, or an engine with much more horsepower.

A good trim level will be one that ticks the boxes for you without blowing a huge hole in your bank account.

If you’re planning to take out a PCP finance deal to pay for the car (as most buyers of new cars do), it may not pay to stick to the cheapest model. A higher-spec model may be more desirable when you come to sell it on and, due to the way PCPs work, the difference in monthly payments may be minimal.

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

Increasingly, car manufacturers bundle related options into packs to sell at a big saving. This can be a good way of getting extra safety or driver-assist features added to an otherwise entry-level car, but it's no substitute for spending the money on a slightly more expensive but better equipped trim level.

A pack may well add something more to the car, but if you come to sell it on the used market those additions will not fetch the same price that a superior trim level will. Only consider an option pack if you’re adding it to an already appealing trim (if you're concerned about resale values).

Are trim-based special editions any good?

Sometimes manufacturers 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 at reduced prices.

The Suzuki Swift SZ-L is another example. It’s based on mid-level SZ3 spec, but it adds cruise control, sat-nav, digital radio, a rear spoiler and gloss black alloy wheels for just £400 more. We would call that a worthy investment.


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