Trim levels are spoken of in almost every car review, but it may not always be clear what a car trim is. We explain all
In simple terms, a car trim is a collection of features bundled together into a package that is then named as a ‘trim level’, before being marketed and sold as an upgrade over a car in standard, or ‘base’ form.
Many car trims are unique to a manufacturer, and are often sold across various different models of car from one car maker’s range – BMW’s M Sport, which is available on almost every BMW, is a good example of this.
One key thing to bear in mind is that trim levels do not include an engine upgrade: that is a separate feature that can be improved, for a separate fee. It is also worth highlighting that some higher trim levels are only available with better engines, though, while some more simple trim levels are only available for more basic engines.
This means that if there’s a specific engine you want, you may need to upgrade the trim level as well in order to get it, while if there’s a specific trim level you want, you may need to choose a different engine from the one you were originally after. Some trim levels are also only offered with automatic gearboxes, while are trims are bespoke to high-performance cars, or plug-in hybrids.
In terms of how many trims a car is offered in, this will vary from model to model, but most cars tend to be available in three trims, with two, four, or five not unusual.
What is an ‘entry-level’ trim on a car?
An entry-level trim describes the bundle of equipment that a car will come with as standard from the factory.
Some years ago, entry-level trims, or ‘base-model cars’, included very little equipment, with an entry-level car often not even having a radio, for example.
Things have moved on somewhat, though, with entry-level trims on affordable runabouts today including things like touchscreen infotainment systems, electric windows, air-conditioning and LED headlights.
While car makers’ names will change from brand to brand, ‘SE’ (or a derivative thereof, such as ‘SE Connected’) is a common name for an entry-level trim.
What’s included in a higher trim level?
Some trim levels have a specific focus: they might make a car look sportier or more performance-orientated, for example, or they might bring lots of luxury equipment, or see a car fitted with the latest connectivity technology.
Compartmentalising the various aspects a trim upgrade will bring is not easy: is a panoramic sunroof an exterior or interior feature, for example? In short, though, trim levels will bring upgrades in three areas:
A higher trim level will often bring styling enhancements to the outside. Many trim levels – like BMW’s M Sport, Audi’s S line and Volkswagen’s R-Line, are geared around making a car look more like a performance model such as a BMW M5, an Audi RS3, or a Volkswagen Golf R.
That means a car with a sporty trim level may have redesigned front and rear bumpers that make the car look more muscular; they may also see black, instead of silver trim fitted around the windows, or they may have two exhaust pipes, rather than one.
Aside from sporty trims, an upgraded trim level will often bring larger alloy wheels compared to an entry-level car, while tinted rear windows are another common feature. A trim with a luxury focus, meanwhile, may bring a panoramic sunroof, a power-operated bootlid, power-fold wing mirrors, or chrome surrounds for the windows and radiator grille.
Some of the exterior upgrades trim levels may sound minor on paper – ‘gloss-black b-pillars’ are a relatively small detail, for example – but those b-pillars (a b-pillar is the vertical line between the front and rear doors on a car) may also be fitted in conjunction with other exterior upgrades such as a black roof and a black radiator grille, fundamentally altering how a car looks, on the principle the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
The best thing to do to determine whether you like how a car looks in a specific trim level is to look at it side-by-side with a car in a different trim level. This can often be done online, using manufacturer configurators.
There is a huge variety of interior upgrades that different trim levels bring, and listing them all would take a long time (and be rather boring to read).
Here, instead, is a list of some of the areas that an upgraded trim might bring on the inside of a car. As with exterior trim details, some enhancements are best experienced up-close and personal; don’t underestimate how much difference nicer seat fabric makes, for example.
Seats, trim and upholstery
- A higher-quality headliner (the ceiling of the car)
- Nicer dashboard plastics/leather dashboard
- Higher-quality seat upholstery
- Leather (instead of cloth) seats
- Leather (instead of plastic) steering wheel
- Height adjustable front seats
- Power-adjustable front seats
- Heated front seats
- Massage front seats
- Sports seats
- Upgraded stereo (IE more speakers, greater audio quality)
- Larger touchscreen
- Keyless entry
- Wi-fi hotspot
- Head-up display
- Climate control (instead of air-conditioning)
- Heated steering wheel
- Apple CarPlay / Android Auto (these mirror your phone on the car’s screen)
- Insurance-approved alarm system
- Automatic headlights and wipers
- Digital dashboard instruments
- Wireless phone charging
3. Safety and engineering upgrades
We’ve portioned off these aspects both as they’re often overlooked both by dealers and buyers, and because they can fundamentally alter how a car performs.
Many safety features used to be optional extras, but legislation now mandates new cars must have them (although the rules are being phased in over 2022-24).
Autonomous emergency braking (which will apply the brakes if it detects an obstacle you have not taken action to avoid) is now standard on almost all new cars, for example (though upgraded versions that work at higher speeds can be had), while the same goes for emergency lane-keep assist, which steers you back into lane if you drift across white lines without indicating.
Upgraded lane-assist technology
The lane-assist technology mandated by legislation is relatively rudimentary, but more sophisticated systems intervene more gently, keeping you in your lane constantly and with natural steering inputs rather than correcting you if you drift across the lines.
Adaptive cruise control
This uses sensors to detect the speed of a vehicle in front of you, automatically slowing or accelerating the car matches the speed of the car in front based on the desired speed you set. When combined with a sophisticated lane-keep system, these systems can take the strain out of long drives. Some of the latest systems will even check for clear spaces then change lanes for you on the motorway when you indicate. Some adaptive cruise systems have stop-and-go technology, meaning they will take care of all the accelerating and braking for you in heavy traffic.
All-round parking sensors/cameras
Front and rear parking sensors will beep as you near objects when manoeuvring, while cameras will obviously show you your surroundings. Upgraded cameras can provide a top-down view of the car, stitched together from various cameras dotted around the outside of the vehicle.
Sports suspension is often included with sporty trim levels such as S line and M Sport, and will see stiffer springs fitted to the car, making it roll less in corners for a more involving drive. Sports suspension does tend to be less forgiving over potholes and speed bumps, though, while it is sometimes possible to have a sporty trim, but to deselect sports suspension at no extra cost.
Adaptive systems alter the stiffness of the suspension, allowing you to choose from a stiff, sporty ride or a comfortable, softer one.
Driving modes can change how the car behaves on the road by altering how sensitive the steering and accelerator are, as well as how eager an automatic gearbox is to change up and down a gear, while also adjusting the adaptive suspension (if fitted).
How much to higher trim levels cost?
This varies enormously from car to car. It may cost £2,000 to upgrade a small runabout from entry to mid-level trim, but a similar upgrade on a luxury car may be two or three times that amount.
It’s also generally the case that upgrading from a mid-level trim to a top trim level is more expensive than upgrading from an entry-level trim to a mid-level one.
As very, very rough rule of thumb, though, a figure of £2,500 is not an unrealistic one to bear in mind for moving up a trim level.
Trim levels and optional extras – adding and subtracting
As well as being available in a variety of trim levels, cars can be specified with specific optional extras – EG if you’re happy with an entry-level car but really want a reversing camera, you may be able to add this on its own for £300 or so. This doesn’t work the other way around, though – IE if you want a certain trim level but don’t want to pay for the reversing camera it might include, this can’t be removed from the bundle (deselecting sports suspension can be an exception to this rule).
Trim levels typically represent better value for money than ordering the extras they bring individually, but be sure you’re not paying for kit that you don’t want or need.
Also note that the global semiconductor shortage has seen many car makers reduce the number of individual optional extras offered with cars, with trim levels often being more on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis.
It is also generally the case, even in ‘normal’ times, that is is far quicker to get a car with a specific engine and trim level, rather than configuring precisely the options want; the latter is known as a ‘factory order’ and will see a car built to your ideal perfect specification – though you’ll need to wait longer than if had chosen a car as it comes in a specific trim.
Do also note that some car makers offer option ‘packs’ in addition to trim levels. These packs will bundle certain features together under certain themes (EG luxury/technology) and can be specified in addition to a trim level.
For example, a BMW 5 Series M Sport can also be specified with a Technology Pack, which will bring an upgraded stereo, together with a heads-up display and a wi-fi hotspot.
Are higher trim levels always more expensive?
Yes: higher trim levels are almost always more expensive than entry-level cars, unless there is some kind of special edition (IE short-lived, limited run) trim with an offer on it, or if car makers are doing some kind of a deal on specific models.
But, there’s a but: almost all new cars are bought using PCP finance and because a) the monthly repayments on a PCP deal actually pay off a car’s depreciation; b) cars with higher trim levels often depreciate less than cars on a lower trim level; and c) you might be spreading a £2,500 upgrade out over four years, the monthly repayments on a higher trim level are often not that much more than they would be on a base car.
What trim level should I choose?
This is almost as tricky a question to answer as ‘what outfit should I wear today’, as all circumstances and tastes are personal, and your needs and wishes for a new car will be different from the next person’s.
If in doubt, go for the middle trim out of three, though: this will often lift a car pleasantly from a base-level model, without costing the earth.
From a more analytical perspective, while bearing in mind that it’s always helpful to check a car out in person if you’re undecided, look closely at what each trim level comes with, and think about what features you really want or think you’ll need.
Some people find massage seats, for example, are rarely used after the novelty wears off (the fact few of us have massaging armchairs at home suggests this may not be an essential item, for example). A head-up display, on the other hand, could be something you rely on every day, while you may curse not having Apple CarPlay. If in doubt, speak to friends, colleagues and family members who have bought a new car in the last year or two, and ask them what features they use often, and which buttons are gathering dust.
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