Aaron Widmar
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What Is a Vehicle Trim Level?

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An understandable definition of this oft-used but rarely understood automotive term

2020 Kia Forte GT
Pictured: 2020 Kia Forte with GT trim
Photo: Kia

If you’re like most car buyers, you’ve spent a substantial amount of time deciding which model you want to buy, and in your research, you’ve come across information on “trims” for that vehicle — whatever that means.

The term “trim” is frequently used by automotive websites and salespeople but is rarely explained to the average shopper. Here’s what you need to know to make an educated decision on your next car purchase.

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A simple explanation of trim levels

A trim level (also sometimes referred to as a trim package) is a version of a vehicle model that comes equipped with a combination of features preselected by the manufacturer. Higher trim levels come with more/better features at a higher price, while an entry-level trim comes with just the basics at a lower overall cost.

To differentiate trim levels, each package is given a moniker that follows the model name (example: the Chevrolet Corvette 3LT). You can often find this designation emblazoned on the vehicle’s rear end, near where the model name is displayed.

Every model you buy has a trim level, even if it’s the basic, bare-bones one with no special name attached to it.

While in the past, trim packages typically used to be purely aesthetic changes — only adding non-functional touches like chrome accents and upholstery stitching — most automakers today actually include sets of higher-end technology features and/or performance upgrades in trim packages, which sometimes results in as many as 6-10 different trim levels offered for a given model year.

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Differences between a trim package vs. accessory package

Trims are different from accessory packages in a couple of ways. First, accessories are sometimes offered a la carte, while trims are set packages that cannot be modified. Second, most accessory packages can be added to a model regardless of what trim level it is.

The biggest difference is that the trim level is determined when the vehicle is manufactured; once the vehicle comes off the assembly line and is shipped to a dealership, the trim isn’t going to change. What it is on the dealership lot is what you’re going to get.

Accessories, however, can typically be added after the fact when the vehicle is purchased, involving a simple aftermarket installation rather than reupholstering seats or tearing out the current motor.

Hopefully this information will make your next car-buying experience far less confusing.