Car trim levels – they’re baffling, aren’t they? Long gone are the days where you had a simple hierarchy, running L, GL, GLX and then maybe something like Ghia (ahem, we’re not biased to Ford, you understand). Nowadays, every manufacturer has their own convoluted naming structures and equipment levels, making it difficult for leasing customers to choose the right car with the right kit list for them. So here, we try and talk you through the broader strokes of modern-day trim levels, and help you select which will be the correct stock of equipment for you when it comes to choosing your next motor.
What Are Trim Levels?
As has long been the case, within a specific model range of a given manufacturer (e.g., Ford Fiesta), there are different levels of equipment specification, depending on the amount of money you spend. Typically, the base model will come with very little equipment fitted to it and may even have more basic interior design/materials and exterior finishing, while the top-grade car will have almost every toy bolted onto it that is available for the vehicle and the nicest materials/styling possible. Using that Fiesta as an example, it starts as a Trend and runs Titanium, ST-Line, Active, Vignale and, finally, ST.
It doesn’t matter so much what these words mean, or what they translate as in other manufacturers’ product portfolios – all you need to know is that as you move from one to the next, you get more and more equipment fitted to the car as standard, for an increased leasing fee per month. Indeed, specific ‘models’ are now standing as trim grades on their own – in the Fiesta list above, the Active is a ‘sub-line’ of Fiestas with an off-roading theme, while the ST is the high-performance hot-hatch flagship.
What Equipment Should I Expect?
It used to be that base-spec cars were, well, very basic. As in, steel wheels, wind-up windows, no air conditioning and, in some instances, not even the luxury of a radio.
Times have changed, though, and you will find most cars these days – even at the cheaper end of the market – come with a good spread of toys from base specification. Alloy wheels are normally always a given these days, as is air conditioning, remote central locking, Bluetooth, DAB radio, automatic headlights and wipers, and, usually, electric windows all round. Don’t be disappointed if 1 or 2 of these items are missing from a base-model cheap car, mind, but you have every right to be surprised if they’re ALL absent from a car these days. Only Dacia’s stripped-back Access version of the Sandero is denuded of all these items, but then it is the UK’s cheapest new car...
Due to safety legislation, it now follows that most brand-new cars have a series of advanced driver assist safety (ADAS) systems. Euro NCAP, the body which tests the safety of new cars, more simply calls these ADAS technologies ‘crash-avoidance systems’ – rather than ‘crash protection’, which relates to how strong the car’s body is in the event the worst happens and you are involved in an accident.
In order to get the highest Euro NCAP safety rating, cars of all shapes and sizes need to have significant crash-avoidance systems fitted, so you will find autonomous emergency braking (AEB, it goes by other names too) and lane departure warning should be fitted across the board. After that, the democratisation of safety kit varies from manufacturer to manufacturer – Nissan, for instance, on its 3rd-generation Qashqai, fits nearly all the key crash-avoidance technologies it can to every model in the range as standard, but for some other carmakers items like blind spot warning, a driver alertness monitor and lane keeping assist are either cost options, parts of safety-tech bundles or only fitted to higher-spec cars.
Infotainment is the last big change in modern cars and these days, most vehicles have some form of touchscreen in the centre of their dashboards that controls the audio system, satellite navigation (if fitted), smartphone communications and various in-car settings. This can include the heating and air conditioning, in some instances. Having a large display like that in the middle of the fascia means that reversing cameras are far more commonplace in the present day than they used to be, as they present their view of what’s behind the car onto the infotainment screen, although front and rear parking sensors are not standard on every car; and you’ll normally get rear parking sensors fitted on a lower trim grade before front parking sensors become standard kit higher up the tree.
Lately, the smartphone-mirroring Apple CarPlay and Android Auto apps have become far more desirable to buyers than manufacturer-developed satnav systems – people use CarPlay or Auto to make the car’s infotainment screen look like the familiar tiles and touchscreens of their phones. This also allows you to use proprietary mapping software like Google Maps, for instance, while travelling in the car. Some manufacturers have responded to this trend for customers using their smartphones and will no longer offer their own satnav systems at all – Subaru is a good example of this, only providing Apple CarPlay and Android Auto across all its models. Think of it as a ‘bring your own satnav’ party, if you will.
Linked to the infotainment system, another recent development is the digital instrument cluster, which comes under a variety of names – Audi’s Virtual Cockpit is one of the most well-known, as it was one of the first examples of its kind. This glitzy technology is usually only reserved for mid-spec models of larger cars and above, although it is filtering into smaller crossovers and superminis at some levels now.
What Are Some Of The Higher-Specification Items I Might Find?
One of the most common upgrades or ‘rewards’ for going for a higher trim grade of car these days is a powerful sound system. Common names used by various manufacturers include Bose, Bang & Olufsen, Harman Kardon, Burmester, JBL and others.
Leather upholstery is still seen as a luxury item and will either only be fitted to top-spec cars, or will be a pricey cost option. However, a rise in veganism has seen leather as a less-desirable extra these days and so many carmakers will offer buyers man-made leather – often known as synthetic leather or by various tradenames, like Mercedes’ Artico material – or other artificial fibres like Alcantara or Dinamica.
Adaptive, active or radar cruise control (sometimes called ACC) used to be the preserve of high-spec cars, although it is increasingly becoming a ‘USP’ for more everyday cars; every 8th-generation Volkswagen Golf, for instance, now has ACC as standard, from the base-spec Life upwards.
Adaptive or dynamic dampers, which can be switched from a more comfort-oriented setting to a firmer, sportier mode on the move, or even full air suspension are toys still usually only found on high-spec and/or high-power vehicles. Indeed, air suspension as standard seems to be reserved for top-end SUVs and electric vehicles, while adaptive dampers are normally optioned or provided on high-performance cars.
LED headlights are a biggie, or indeed LED lights anywhere on the outside of the car. Again, LED headlights used to be the preserve of more expensive, executive vehicles but the technology is now filtering down to city cars, superminis and family hatchbacks alike. However, be aware that ‘plain’ LED headlights are very different to the clever adaptive LED systems, which can blank out bits of their high-beam field at night to prevent dazzling other road users. These adaptive set-ups are normally only fitted to the top-grade cars in any line-up, where they’re sometimes known as ‘matrix’ technology, and on cheaper cars adaptive LED headlights are not even offered at all.
Ventilated seats, massaging seats, heated seats in the rear, night-vision technology, cameras instead of door mirrors, and a full-length panoramic sunroof are all items which are considered top-end stuff, even for manufacturers like Hyundai which like to provide as much equipment as possible at every trim level – you need Ultimate model Hyundais to enjoy heated seats in the rear, for instance.
What Are ‘-Line’ Models?
You might have seen various vehicles listed as ST-Line (Ford), S line (Audi), AMG Line (Mercedes), Sportline (Skoda) and so on; there are slight variations on this theme, with both BMW (M Sport) and Lexus (F Sport) opting for the suffix ‘Sport’ rather than Line, while Jaguar Land Rover (R-Dynamic) and Volvo (R-Design) instead go with an ‘R-’ prefix.
In all instances, however, the principle here is exactly the same – these are high-ranking trim grades with sporty body kits, jazzed-up interiors and (mostly) firmer suspension, but they are not out-and-out performance models with upgraded engines. Instead, they seek to mimic each manufacturer’s ‘true’ performance cars (BMW M, Mercedes AMG, Ford ST etc) in looks, if not the way they drive. You might think this is a case of ‘all mouth and no trousers’, but these sporty specifications are typically the most popular among UK car buyers in any given model range. S line Audis, for instance, far outsell lowlier SE and Sport versions of the same cars.
Which Trim Level Should I Aim For?
Depends on what you do for the bulk of your driving and what your budget is, really. If you’re often only pootling about in a city and you know where you’re going, having an all-singing, all-dancing SUV with massaging, ventilated seats, intelligent satnav and radar cruise control is probably not strictly necessary. On the flipside of the coin, if you regularly do thousands of motorway miles every month, you are not going to want a bog-basic supermini with a tinny sound system, no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, and a notable lack of cruise control.
Manufacturers respond to where the most customer demand has been in the past and, as a result, the middle of any car’s range today is normally the sweet spot for technology, in all truth. These vehicles will typically have heated seats (and a steering wheel, the ultimate bonus), some form of cruise control (either passive or active), most likely dual-zone climate control, a strong stocklist of crash-avoidance (ADAS) systems including blind spot monitoring and driver alertness monitoring, and possibly a decent sound system plus satellite navigation. You should also be getting LED illumination all round the outside of the car and alloy wheels of something like 18 or 19 inches in diameter – you only need the latter if the vehicle is physically bigger in the first place, such as a 7-seat SUV or similar.