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Cultural differences: The joy of trim levels

Chris Haining October 30, 2017 All Things Hoon, Terrible Ideas 15 Comments

It’s only natural that a manufacturer should offer several variants of each car it makes. There needs to be a basic ‘I can just about afford to get into one of these’ model, and a, ‘look, my car’s got e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g” grade. And, likely as not, there’ll be an ‘it’s got everything I need, I don’t like to show off” version for those kindly, modest folk in the middle.

In Europe, though, three well-spaced specification grades and an abundant pile of optional extras simply won’t do. We like our cars to wear a badge that denotes precisely how much we’ve paid (or borrowed) for our whip. These things matter a whole lot, particularly when we’ve bought a car from the lower reaches of the range but not, repeat not, an entry-level model. Oh no.

A great example is the Ford Contour and its progenitor, the Ford Mondeo. In North America you could choose from the rental-fleet special GL, the day-to-day workable LX, or ‘enthusiast’s choice’ SE. Each could be motivated by a (superb) 2.5-litre Duratec V6, though it was mandatory in the SE, which had the 15-inch alloy wheels, sports seats and colour-keyed rear spoiler to go with them. The GL, meanwhile, forwent front foglights, a full-length centre console, leather-wrapped steering wheel, rev-counter or lumbar support adjustment.

It seems remarkable, too, that unless “preferred equipment package 2” was ordered, even the big-engined SE came without air-con, heated mirror and a rear screen heater. Power windows were a package option across the range, too, as were power door locks. Compared to how things were done in Europe, this all seems rather strange, because Contour buyers could theoretically combine leather trim with door locks and windows that require manual labour to operate, and no a/c to refresh you after expending such effort. If you were so heroically pro-leather that you actually did spec a car this way, please make yourself known. We really want to meet you.

By comparison, the specification choices on the Mondeo were far more incremental, and even (dare I say it?) quite logical. The basic model was basic, named  Mondeo Aspen for no sensible reason I can think of, and offered only with the diesel engine or meagre 1.6-litre petrol lump, both mills the USA didn’t even bother with. No rev counter, no power windows or central locking, but it did get a full-length centre console. This wasn’t prison, for goodness sake.

Those who preferred a slightly less puritanical approach to car specification could opt for an LX – initials with a rather different meaning this side of the pond. Here it means one rung above bog basic. Those sitting in the front gained a rev counter to look at, there’s a heated front windscreen and power front windows, as well as a tilt ‘n slide sunroof. Those in the back, though, only got a pair of front seatback pockets to show that they’ve not been forgotten. Meanwhile, LX badges, jazzier wheeltrims and side rubbing strips demonstrated to the world that you aren’t as cash-strapped as your Aspen-toting brethren.

And thus it continues throughout the rest of the range. Comfy GLX and sporty SI (and SI 4×4) added such joys as power adjusted and heated mirrors, rear seat head restraints and centre armrest together with more planes of adjustment for the front seats. Thing is, though, virtually all of the Contour’s Group 3 Preferred Equipment Package, was standard on all but poverty-grade Aspen trim. This includes illuminated interior door handles, rear door courtesy light switches and a load compartment light. How on earth wasn’t a load compartment light standard on the Contour?

And then we had the Ghia, and better still, the Ghia X. These went way beyond the scope of the Contour LX, and the name was all important. When asked what you drove, your response would always, always be “a Mondeo Ghia”. In fact, that was trumped only by “a Mondeo 24-valve.” My own father, when occasionally allowed a moment of one-upmanship, would add theatrical pauses and go for the quartet. “Oh, just a Mondeo… Ghia..X… 24-valve”.

That was a full house. The Ghia X brought features that North Americans could only dream of. You guys had to make do with a distinctly proletarian “door ajar” warning, while we got the “graphic information module” that showed exactly which door to be concerned about, as well as outside temperature. A fuel usage computer was included, the glass sunroof went electric and a storage tray appeared beneath the passenger seat. Best of all, the Ghia X teamed the Ford 2007 sound AM/FM RDS cassette stereo system with a separately controlled 10-disc CD changer, blending digital and analogue sound sources in perfect harmony.

And onlookers knew it. A car person could lay their eyes on a Ghia X and knew exactly how many bells and whistles were on board, while a well-optioned Contour LX or SE buyer would have to bill-post a copy of the order form on their car’s flanks if he wanted to show how much he had spent. This tradition is still in full effect even today. The latest Ford Fiesta starts with the Style and runs all the way to the trinkets ‘n baubles Vignale, a trim level beyond the now discarded Ghia designation. Nobody can be in any doubt as to exactly how much you’ve “spent”, desperate dealer discounts notwithstanding.

However. Things are different when you look at cars from premium brands. In Europe, it’s possible to buy a base-model Mercedes CLA, but the brand with the three-pointed star knows that to offer such a think in status-obsessed Britain would be futile. Plus, since these are inevitably sold via PCP, the increased pre-owned desirability of high-spec models mean they’re more cost effective to finance.

It could be, then, that the North American model will ultimately win through. There’ll be a basic, fleet special model for big corporate orders, and a spangly, feature-rich version for those who buy on PCP, and who want to visually distance themselves from the lower orders. And then, perhaps those to whom such things matter could be awarded an extra bootlid badge to denote the extra kit optioned up. I can see it now:

“Ford Mondeo SE Leather Climate Damped Interior Grab Handles Floormats Massage Seats 2.0 EcoBoost”.

  • Slightly off topic. My girlfriend is at a Honda dealership as we speak. Replacing her 2005 Civic with a 2017. Back in the day, the US market trim levels were VP, GX, DX, LX and EX. Now the nomenclature starts at LX. We’ve talked about model bloat but have we addressed trim level bloat? I guess it makes sense because now even the LX comes with equipment unheard of in 2005 but it does seem a little silly to me.

    • Ford introduced the Fairlane in 1955 as the top of the line trim level for their full-sized car, with the Customline below it and the Mainline at the bottom. Over the course of the following decade, the Mainline disappeared, the Customline split into the Custom and the Custom 300, the Fairlane took second billing to the Fairlane 500, then both of those dropped down in rank with the introduction of the Galaxie trim level at the top, then the Fairlane became a smaller, separate car entirely, no longer part of the full-sized lineup at all. Sic transit…

    • Scoutdude

      Ford is the king of letter debasement. At one time the LX was the top model for most of their cars by the end it had dropped off the bottom end, Much the way Galaxie or Bel-Air had years before.

  • “Badge delete” is a cost-neutral option for cars of the upper middle class and above, and shall, if I ever were in the position to decide, be ticked. Nobody else cares that my car has this displacement, that drive train, came with a trim level and was a [embarrassing C celeb] special edition.
    Until then, the tuner car scene invented the fishing line and hot air blowers, so this option is accessible for used cars, too.

    I also dislike the overly eager display of the manufacturer’s logo, Benz-y semis in the 80ies had smaller stars than today’s B-class. (Although a calm symbol still is much nicer than spelling out “THIS IS A P O R S C H E NINE ELEVEN WITH A TURBO AND NO PROPER DOOR HANDLES” ). 911s really deserve a badge delete – for the pseudo hand-scribbled italic “GT3” it’s impossible to look symmetric.

    • I’ve tried the “badge delete” thing but never saw that it made much of a difference.

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/9911259cbd74eb798b1b653f965c4a5c04fa9b3c15383c8fd56bb3edf38ab93b.jpg

      • Was yours a cost-neutral option? Also, the 50 shades of red are interesting, from orange to scarlet to purple to brown. Was the original paint really that purple-y red, or is it just my screen being cheap?

        • One of the pins and a couple of the retaining clips broke, so it wasn’t precisely cost-neutral.

          The original Toreador Red isn’t represented by any part of that image; what’s visible is a decades-old mismatched cheap respray enhanced by the cumulative effects of long-term chemical and biological assault.

  • I had that Contour brochure. It makes me happy to see it again. At the time, I thought they were the most BEAUTIFUL cars, and pointed to the future of all styling. They were probably peak 90’s, an alignment of many stars. Perhaps to be definitive is to be very brief, and they seemed to disappear from the roads very quickly.

    • I have to agree. I really wish the Mondeo had used that design – ours was rather more generic. Sadly, the Mondeo was far better than it needed to be, and it became a consumer durable in short order.

    • Citric

      Every so often I see a Mercury Mystique around here, and the proportions seem slightly odd when parked in the middle of more modern stuff, but it also seems like it’d be very nice to have something with a relatively large amount of glass.

  • Citric

    Ford’s odd option package habits sometimes catch out inattentive dealers, as the local Ford dealer discovered when they accidentally ordered some Focuses without cruise control and nobody wanted to buy them.

    • I probably had one of those (well, probably not) – mk1 wagon with “everything” but cruise control (remember, AC was an extra option back then here), and without proper undercoating.
      It drank a little too much but did nice things at turn-in for a FWD, and all I missed were trailer hitch and a cruise control.

  • outback_ute

    The Australian market had a LX sedan and wagon, then GLX in sedan and hatch form, all with the 2.0L. The LX had power mirrors and central locking with AC and ABS as an option (among other things I assume), then the GLX added better trim, AC, cruise control, power windows and drivers seat, while ABS was still an option. Later they changed the trim levels to Verona and Ghia, and added the ST24.

    “It seems remarkable, too, that unless “preferred equipment package 2”
    was ordered, even the big-engined SE came without air-con, heated mirror
    and a rear screen heater. Power windows were a package option across
    the range, too, as were power door locks. Compared to how things were
    done in Europe, this all seems rather strange, because Contour buyers
    could theoretically combine leather trim with door locks and windows
    that require manual labour to operate, and no a/c to refresh you after
    expending such effort. If you were so heroically pro-leather that you
    actually did spec a car this way, please make yourself known. We really
    want to meet you.”

    Don’t forget that in the US most cars are ordered by the dealer as stock, and bought off the lot. Therefore the dealer would add the ‘normal’ equipment such as AC, but the car could be advertised at a lower price! The Holden Commodore did this until 2008, even though you would have to search very hard to find a car built without AC for 10 years prior to that.

  • Zentropy

    I drove a 1999 Contour SVT for years, and although I loved the engine and suspension in that car, i disliked the gaudy look on the outside. I prefer sleepers to cars that advertise their performance, and seriously considered removing the ground effects and replacing them with standard kit from a lesser model. Removing the SVT badge unfortunately did nothing to hide its loftier trim status.

  • ptschett

    Per the highlighting in my copy of ConsumerGuide’s 1995 Cars I’d have had my Contour as the fancier Mercury MistakeMystique. I’d have taken the lower GS trim (≅Contour GL) with package 372A (2.5L engine & trimmings) with boxes checked for antilock brakes, remote keyless entry, power locks/windows, premium cassette player (?!), floormats and block heater.

    (But, I was 14.)