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What do car model designations mean?

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Updated 11 Oct 2019

Lindsay Saunders

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Henry Ford famously said you could have your Model T in any colour, as long as it was black.

Not only that, but a Model T was a Model T was a Model T.

Today, virtually every vehicle on the road comes in multiple versions, often with an alphabet soup of letter combinations to denote the vehicle’s level of features, powerplants, the fuel it uses and a variety of other reasons.

From about the end of World War II, with the rise of consumerism and the beginnings of the baby boom, motor vehicle manufacturers in the Western World have steadily increased the range and variety of features and creature comforts in an ever-expanding effort to meet customers’ needs, wants and whims, and to match and harness technology as it emerges.

Forget the days when your Holden was the base model, Special or Premier, today you can pick from a bewildering line up of just the one model of car.

A prime example is one of the world’s best sellers, the Toyota Corolla.

If you’re in the market for Toyota’s mid-sized marvel, you can pick from L, LE, LE Eco, SE, SE 6MT, XLE or XSE.

Each of these denote a different level of trim and features, ranging from the no-frills to the fancy schmancy.

Across the manufacturers, these levels of trim can include such items as seat coverings, from fabric all the way up to leather; sound systems, from a couple of speakers and a basic CD player to surround sound, a gob-smacking number of speakers and a quality of sound any audiophile would kill for; to safety equipment starting with seatbelts and two airbags to the level of protection an F1 driver would be happy with.

It also takes in the vehicle’s performance.

Basic models come with (wait for it) the most basic engine/transmission packages and steadily get better (that is, higher performance and levels of tech) as you move up the grades.

Even paint choices can be dictated by the trim level.

Expect the basic matt colours (white, anyone?) at the lower end and metallic finishes on top-end models that are so jazzy people walk into poles while looking.

While the denotations for models vary wildly across makers, it’s a (somewhat) safe bet that the more letters and/or numbers and/or words a model has, the higher it is up the automotive food chain.

And that makes sense. You’re unlikely to pay more for a model denoted as an L compared to one bearing badges saying XLE Turbo, right?

Because, you guessed it, money is what it’s all about.

The manufacturers want as many dollars as they can extract from you so are more than happy to add whistles, bells and other attractions to take the price up - and your desire for all those features along for the ride too.

They also recognise not everyone’s going to want the same thing, nor be able to afford it so, for the big makers at least, a variety of trims means they’ll sell more of basically the same car, just that some have nicer carpet, among other things.

The upside for you with all that choice is you should be able to find the model that best suits your needs and budget.

There’s also other room to move so, for example, if you want model X but with model Y’s cruise control, many manufacturers will have a way to make you happy . . . and get your custom.

Just don’t try too hard to make sense of all those letters, OK?

They’re not from the minds of engineers, but from marketing gurus.

And trying to work out what their thinking is the road to madness.

No matter what model you choose to purchase, AutoGuru is the best place to get your car serviced or repaired and still maintain your manufacturer's warranty!

Search, compare and book from a wide range of local, high-quality service providers who can keep your car running smoothly.

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Written By

Lindsay Saunders

Lindsay Saunders has been writing, editing and producing words and photos for more than three decades, starting back when he drove a 1971 VW Type 3 fastback.

Now he’s got a Hyundai I30 diesel, a 1999 LWB Hi-Ace (camper project) and wishes his wife’s EJ Holden station wagon was actually his.