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Are Base Model Cars Worth It?

Hanna Kielar5-minute read
March 29, 2022

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When you’re buying a car, part of the process is figuring out which trim level is right for you.

You may be stuck between two similar makes and models and aren’t sure if the price difference is worth the upgraded trim level. You may even just want the cheapest possible option, positioning you to opt for the base model.

From resale value to valuable safety technology, there are some significant considerations when deciding if a base model car is worth it for you.

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What Does “Base Model Car” Mean?

The term “base model car” refers to the most basic, no-frills trim level of a particular car model and is always the lowest price of that model. Car manufacturers often come out with several versions of each car model they sell. These packages, also called trim levels, have a suite of optional features meant to appeal to different types of buyers.

For example, a premium performance trim might be available with tight suspension and an extra peppy engine, while the luxury trim level may opt for leather seats and an upgraded sound system.

The base model is the least-ornamented trim level offered for that model year. Buyers often choose base models because of its  affordability, while fully loaded cars appeal to drivers with more specific needs or wants.

Where To Look For A Vehicle Trim Level List

Most manufacturers list trim levels for each of their models on their website. They usually keep these pages updated for the current model year. Each successive package is not necessarily just loaded with more optional features—but are geared toward different customers and what they most value in a car. Pricing generally goes up with each level, and often the difference between a base model and the highest premium trim package can easily exceed $10,000. Customers can also add optional features to any package a la carte. All additional features are priced individually and added to the price of the car.

The Pros And Cons Of Buying A Base Model

There are a lot of advantages to buying a base model, of course. Base model vehicles are generally less expensive than their fully loaded counterparts. You're usually giving up a few features to save on the purchase price, but depending on your needs, this can be a trade-off worth making.

Here are some of the pros and cons to think about if you wonder whether base models are worth it:

Pros

Base model cars are usually less expensive to buy. Base model cars come without any of the bells and whistles of the higher trim packages, and that can save you money. Remember that you have to pay for every premium upgrade that goes into your car, and unless it's a feature you really want, you may be better off skipping it and saving the difference.

Minimal aftermarket upgrades can be less expensive than included factory features. If you absolutely must have a feature, such as a backup camera or steel tire rims, you could save money by buying the base model and adding those options later, either yourself or through an aftermarket retailer.

Lower trim levels are easier to customize compared to premium models. Speaking of upgrades, if you’re interested in tuning a car, some of the best cars to modify are base model trims. That’s because it can be easier to upgrade a base model than to tear down and rebuild a premium package.

Base model cars are usually simpler. Even if you make no upgrades at all, the bones of the vehicle still remain resilient. Base model trims rarely come with trendy technology that fades out quickly. Often, the tech that’s included will remain a necessity when it’s time to resell.

Cons

The resale value is often lower on a base model. If you bought a base model car because it came with a low price tag, remember that you'll sell it with a low price tag too. The person or dealer who winds up buying your base model vehicle when you're ready to move on might offer you a lower price for the trade because it might be more difficult for them to re-sell.

Base model cars have less capability. The defining characteristic of base model cars is how basic they really are. You may be satisfied with a stick shift, manual-crank windows and cloth seats, but you might find yourself wishing you had heated seats when cold weather hits. You should be driving the car you want to drive, and if you give up a feature you like to save money, then you will have to accept the annoyance of not having that feature when you need it.

Aftermarket upgrades don’t retain value. On the other side of the coin, it may not be worth it in the long run to make significant upgrades to a base model car. Potential buyers will see more credibility and value in a factory trim level than a non-branded set of aftermarket features. The factory does have experience installing the car's premium features, after all, and may offer discounts. Aftermarket installers may not be able to match the factory for quality or price.

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When Base Models Are Worth It

Now that you have an idea of what a base model car is and what it offers, you can make a more informed decision about whether this is the way to go for your next car. Your base model car might be harder to sell down the road. A 2019 study by Edmunds found that Americans are opting for higher trim levels and costlier option packages. However, if you don’t have immediate plans to outgrow or sell the car, resale value may not be as important to you.

Ultimately, when you consider trim level, you’re really considering the varying set of features associated with each trim level. This varies so widely across makes and models, that the choice becomes uniquely personal. Also know that the dealer will gladly add features to any package a la carte.

If your budget is consistent with the base model price and you plan to keep the car beyond its normal depreciation period, there isn’t much reason to avoid a base model trim.

The Bottom Line: Lightly Used Base Models Are Worth It

If you are in the market for a lightly used car and you have a tight budget, a base model could easily be the right choice for you.

Start by thinking about features you absolutely must have, such as Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, or active safety technology. Only get the base model if those must-have features come standard across the whole model line. That said, if a base model is missing a much-needed back up camera, weigh the cost of an after-market install with the price difference for another trim level.

If budget is top of mind for you, consider checking out our top-rated best cheap cars on the used market.

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Hanna Kielar

Hanna Kielar is a Section Editor for Rocket Auto℠, RocketHQ℠, and Rocket Loans® with a focus on personal finance, automotive, and personal loans. She has a B.A. in Professional Writing from Michigan State University.