Autotrader: How to choose trim levels and options when buying a new car

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Not all new-car shoppers want the same features. For some, Android Auto or Apple AAPL, +0.79%   CarPlay may be essential. For others, leather seats and a sunroof are must-haves. That’s why automakers typically offer several trim choices, options packages or stand-alone options for each model. These let you configure a new vehicle to suit your needs and desires.

Trim levels (or grades, as they’re sometimes called) are simply different versions of the same model with different features and equipment. For models that use several trim choices, automakers usually offer three or four versions and sometimes even more. For example, the 2020 Chevrolet Equinox comes in four versions: L, LS, LT, and Premier. The Equinox L is the base model; it’s light on equipment, but it’s very affordable. The LS is a step up from the bare-bones base model and throws in features like carpeted rear floor mats, a compass, and several available option packages. Upgrade to the LT and you get more engine options plus a driver information display, a power driver seat, HID headlights, and more available option packages. On the high end there’s the Premier model which is the most expensive but also has the most features like leather seats, an upgraded infotainment system, remote start, and much more.


In addition to various trim choices, automakers also may offer options and options packages to give buyers more choices. An option is a single feature that buyers can add to a vehicle, usually at an extra cost. Options packages are just groups of options bundled together and offered at a single price.

Some models only use options and options packages instead of multiple trim levels. Luxury cars are often marketed in a single trim, with several available options packages. Each package is listed separately on the window sticker and includes the features in the package and the package price. Similarly, some models use only stand-alone options that shoppers can choose individually.

Also read: 10 compact cars with the highest safety ratings in 2019

All models are offered in a base version, even though the term doesn’t always mean the same thing. In the Equinox, for example, base trim includes a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot, which could be optional on another model. Even luxury vehicles are available in base trim, but those may include features such as leather or a sunroof even on the most affordable version.

Beyond the base model, additional trim choices are the most common way of letting shoppers choose the features they want. The new-car window sticker for a model such as the Equinox will show the specifics for that trim level. It will not list prices for the included features separately. Options and options packages, by contrast, are listed and priced separately on the window sticker, building on the price and equipment of the base model.

So how do new-car shoppers navigate this confusing arrangement? Here are a few tips that can help you get the features you want while still getting the best price possible.

Compare the right models

First, you can shop only base trim models. This allows you to compare standard features of one model to standard features of another. The major drawback of this strategy is you may leave out models that lack a feature you want — Apple CarPlay, for example — just because it’s not included on the base model. Comparing base models is the simplest way to deal with trim choices and options packages, but it’s probably best only for those who don’t need a lot of features and want to car-shop quickly.

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Drivers who want the latest technology without a big investment of time in research may prefer the opposite approach. Comparing only top-trim models such as the Equinox Premier (or “loaded” models for those with packaged or stand-alone options) will be quicker and easier than trying to find a vehicle with everything you want and nothing you don’t. Of course, you could end up paying more for features you’ll never use.

Most new-car shoppers should spend the time to find the trim level or options that are right for them. It may take a little longer, but for most it’s the wiser way to shop. And if you’ve already narrowed your choices to a few models, it should be relatively easy. The result makes it worthwhile, too. You’ll get all the features you want at the best possible price.

First, make a list of features that you must have. These don’t have to be necessities; it’s OK to add navigation to your list, even though it’s a luxury feature to some. Also, make a list of features that you’d like to have but aren’t deal breakers. For example, your must-have list may include automatic transmission, a backup camera and/or navigation. For like-to-have items, you might list a sunroof, automatic climate control, and leather seats.

Also read: 6 affordable luxury cars from nonluxury brands

For the Equinox, an automatic transmission and a backup camera are standard on the base L model. But navigation is optional, and it’s only available on the LT and Premier. Moving up to the Premier not only allows you to opt for navigation, it also adds two items from the like-to-have list: a surround vision camera and adaptive cruise control.

For each vehicle you’re considering, determine the most affordable price for that model with all the features on your must-have list. Which trim do you require? Which, if any, stand-alone options or options packages do you need? What’s the suggested retail price for that model, including your preferred trim and options choices? You can use the Compare Cars feature on to choose trim and options and determine pricing.

Repeat this for each vehicle you’re considering. When you’re done, you’ll have a list of several models — with trim and options specified — plus the prices for each. That gives you an apples-to-apples features comparison to use in decision making. This exercise alone may help you choose the best car for you. Or you may be ready to test drive some vehicles. Whether you head to a dealership ready to make a deal or just to take a test drive, you’ll know exactly what you’re looking for.

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