Trim Levels 101
Understanding Trims, Options and Packages
Trying to figure out the difference between an LX, SE or SEL with Rapid Spec301A can be overwhelming. Is this a language spoken only by aliens from a distant galaxy? Or maybe a code that's meant to accompany a secret handshake? What do all these designations mean?
But even if you're new to buying cars or are not that familiar with auto industry lingo, the task of sorting through this stuff is not as complicated as it might seem. Here are the basics about trim levels, options, packages and accessories. Knowing these terms will increase your overall car knowledge and make the buying process a bit easier.
Make and Model: Before we get to trim levels, let's start with the basics of a car's identity. Make describes the company that made the car: Chevrolet, Ford, Honda or Toyota, for example. The models are the cars the automaker sells: Malibu, Focus, Accord or — in the case of the luxury brands — alphanumeric names such as ES 350, 335i or TSX.
Trim Levels: Trim levels further identify a vehicle by its particular set of special features. Higher trim levels either will add to the features of the "base" (entry-level model), or replace them with something else. Trim levels are where you'll come across terms such as EX, LTZ, Touring and Grand Touring, among countless others.
Though it might seem overwhelming to keep track of trim information, the good news is that every automaker applies a consistent hierarchy of trim levels to its vehicles. In every car that Honda makes, for example, an EX will always be a higher trim than an LX. With Chevrolet vehicles, an LTZ trim level will always be higher than an LS.
A great way to learn the differences between the trims is to read Edmunds model reviews. Find the New Cars section, and once you select the year of a vehicle, scroll down the page and find the section of the model review that notes, "Body Styles, Trim Levels and Options."
Options: Options are features that don't come as standard equipment with the vehicle. These items can range from a sunroof to an upgraded stereo to a larger engine. Most options are installed at the factory. Others are so called "port-installed options," added to a vehicle before it heads out to the dealership on a delivery truck. Other options might even be installed at the dealership itself.
When you're configuring a car, you choose options after you select a trim level. Though an automaker might offer a bewildering array of options, this doesn't mean that every vehicle on a dealer's lot will have them. The dealership orders a selection of vehicles from the manufacturer that is based on what will help the cars sell faster — not to give customers a wide choice of optional equipment. If you want a specific combination of options, you can custom order the vehicle — provided you are willing to wait 8-12 weeks for delivery.
Packages: Packages are groups of options that have been bundled together with a common theme. For example, a technology package might include such options as Bluetooth, navigation, xenon-gas headlights and adaptive cruise control. A cold weather package might have heated seats, headlight washers and all-weather floor mats. Some automakers may give their packages a nondescript name such as the "rapid spec 302A" (Ford), "RL2 package" (Buick) or "Quick Order 27W Heat" (Dodge). In this case, you'll want to click on the details link on Edmunds or the automaker's Web site. Packages are very common in such luxury brands as Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
In some cases, these bundles are labeled "value" packages, and they can present a better deal than if you'd purchased the options separately. But most of the time, the packages are grouped to make it easier for a dealer to order vehicles.
Accessories: Accessories are parts that dealerships sell and install. These items can range from cosmetic parts such as car covers and alloy wheels to performance parts like a cat-back exhaust pipe or suspension kit. If you are interested in these items, make sure you research the price and compare the dealer's price to those of other shops. Dealers routinely mark up the price of accessories to cover the expense of keeping them in stock, and the same pieces can often be found cheaper online or at another dealership. Also, it's often best to buy accessories after you've purchased the car. If you include them in the financed purchase of your car, you could be paying interest on that set of chrome wheels for years to come.
Simplified and Customized
Some automakers have attempted to make the shopping process easier by consolidating potential options into the trim levels. This makes the vehicles cheaper to produce and the savings can be passed along to the consumer. While some automakers have certain vehicles with option-free trim levels, only Honda and Acura (Honda's luxury brand) apply this concept to all their vehicles. With this simplified trim structure, the only things you have to decide upon are the color and trim level. When Acura offers a package, it usually treats it as if it were a different trim level.
While Honda strives to simplify its options offerings, other carmakers take the opposite approach. Mini, Porsche and Scion encourage their customers to personalize their vehicles with everything from seats upholstered in different colors of leather to colorful graphic decals for the bodywork. As a result, these brands have a high percentage of buyers that custom-order their vehicles. But for someone new to the process, shopping for vehicles with a laundry list of options may be a bit overwhelming. In these situations, you might want to visit a dealership, see how the vehicles are commonly configured and either purchase the vehicle as it is set up or make your own choices based on what you've seen.
If you're not careful, options and packages can turn a reasonably priced car into an overly optioned beast that's strayed well outside your price range. One of our editors was interested in a Lexus CT 200h with all the bells and whistles. After he configured the car to his liking, he was shocked to see that the options had added about $10,000 to the base price. He went back to the drawing board.
Once you speak the language of make and model, trim and options, you'll be less likely to make such an expensive mistake on your own.