Tips and Advice

BMW car configurator guide: specifications, options and trim levels explained

Your complete guide to the official online BMW car configurator and the process of building your new BMW car

BMW has a complex and wide-ranging line-up of cars, and the brand's website aims to make it easy to understand the various combinations of bodystyles, engines and optional extras. The idea is that it’s easier for you to choose the car that's right for you but with so many choices, it can still be tricky to know where to start. Our guide to BMW's online car configurator will help you find the perfect specification before you speak to a dealer.

In this feature, we'll look at every model in the BMW range and explore the brand's online car configurator, showing you exactly how to build a BMW to your exact specification. We'll also explain BMW's trim levels and option packages, and explain those mysterious model designations that you might encounter on your BMW-buying journey.

Using the BMW car configurator

BMW's car configurator has more options than many but still manages to simplify the process of choosing your perfect specification. However, the front page of the BMW website doesn't make it immediately obvious where the configurator actually is.

There's an option to "find your perfect BMW" at the top of the page but this doesn't actually open the configurator. You'll find details of this option later in this feature, along with reasons that you might want to use it, but right now, we're going to look at the actual model configurator. To find it, you'll need to highlight the 'new cars' menu and click on the option to "build and buy your BMW".

After this, the first step is to choose your BMW model. The entire BMW range is offered, with a helpful note of the start price for each. As an example, we've chosen the BMW 3 Series Touring estate.

Select that model and you're taken to a list of engine and gearbox options, ranked in order of cost. Simply scroll down the list until the combination of interest is shown – it's helpful that BMW lists the start price and important information such as acceleration, fuel economy and CO2 emissions figures for each engine and gearbox combination offered. We've chosen the 318d SE automatic, and then scrolled down to click on 'confirm engine'.

The configurator then takes you to the exterior menu (the individual process stages are listed in order on the left hand side of the screen). In this menu, the model you chose in the previous step can be seen in each of the colour options available, and you can click on the image to see the car from various angles. We chose Platinum Silver, which added £665 to the car's purchase price.

You can then click on 'alloy wheels' on the menu at the left of the screen. It shows the options available, which can be previewed on the car you have selected so far. Choosing a wheel option will add it to the car and affect the final price. We've selected the 5-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels that come at no extra cost.

The next step is to click on 'interior' in the left hand menu. Again, all available options are shown, and the interior image will change to preview how your chosen interior finish will look. We've chosen 'Oyster Dakota leather with dark Oyster highlight', which has added £1,295 to our car's total cost.

The interior trim finish can be chosen next, after you select that step from the left hand menu. The different options will each be depicted in the main image when you select them, which gives you a simulated view of how your chosen specification will look in reality. Prices for each material choice are only shown after you've selected them. We selected 'fineline anthracite wood with pearl chrome finishers' – adding £330 to the car's price.

The next step on your configurator journey is 'packages' on the left hand menu. This is one way that BMW makes it easy to add the features you want – each package contains a number of themed options, which can save you money over choosing each component separately. For example, the Active Security package provides electric folding mirrors, driving assistant, lane change warning system, dynamic safety, and can be further upgraded with the 'digital cockpit' configurable instrument panel.

Each package has a 'details' option that explains exactly what's included, and each part of the package has its own separate information panel, which is quite clear and thorough. We added the Active Security package, which increased the total price by £1,280.

The penultimate configurator stage is 'options' from the left hand menu. This works in a similar way to the packages section, but with a longer list of extra-cost features that are arranged by type. The categories offered include communications, exterior style and interior comfort, safety and security and technology.

The list of options is bewildering in number, but rest assured you can't add a feature again if it's already included in a package that you've already chosen. Each extra has an expandable 'details' section. We chose to add sliding adjustment to the front armrest, increasing the overall price of our 318d Sport by £45.

Once you've worked to the bottom of the options list, you have now 'built' your BMW. Click 'summary' at the bottom of the left hand menu, and your finished car is displayed, along with a breakdown of the options you have selected.

At the bottom of the page, there's a handy 'download selection' option, which creates a bespoke brochure for your exact model as a PDF.. You can then use that when visiting your BMW showroom. Alternatively, you can select 'buy online' – doing so is discussed below.

The "Find your perfect BMW" option

At the top of the front page on BMW's website, there's an invitation to "find your perfect BMW". This is offered by many manufacturers and differs from the configurator explained above. You don't start by choosing a specific model, instead a car will be recommended according to how you're most likely to use it. This might be of use for those who don't know which models BMW can offer, but some will find the process frustrating.

As soon as you click on the "Start now" button, you're asked where you'll most frequently use your new car. You can click any combination of 'in the city', 'in the country' or 'on the motorway'. For the purpose of this feature, we're going to look for a good all-rounder, and select all three.

Next, you'll be asked how many people usually travel in your car, and whether children or babies will need to be carried. Adding children or babies will set the system's preferences for four and five-door models, with plenty of space inside.

Your next choice concerns luggage. How much, and what form does your luggage usually take? If you indicate that you frequently need to carry long or bulky items, the system will suggest those models with the most versatile load areas. You'll notice that the car suggested by the configurator will change depending on your selections. So far, our selections – we chose bulky items and three or four bags of luggage – have resulted in the BMW 5 Series Touring being recommended.

From this point you can tailor the car more precisely to your taste by selecting those particular attributes that are most important to you. The factors offered – practicality, efficiency, space, luxury, elegance, high performance, uniqueness and sportiness – all have a direct bearing on which car is recommended. Our selection of practicality, efficiency and space – three virtues that a typical family will find of value – resulted in the recommended car changing from a BMW 5 Series 530d to a BMW X1 sDrive18d. Note that the latter is a far less expensive car – at no point does the configurator ask how much you want to spend.

Only by selecting 'adjust your preferences' can you set an actual budget. By default, the budget and CO2 emissions figure sliders are fully open, so neither has any effect on your car choice. We moved the cost slider for the lowest minimum price, and set the maximum to £27,000 – our car recommendation was automatically changed to a BMW 1 Series 118d Sport three-door.

If, at the very beginning, you have a firm budget in mind it seems pointless embarking on this process. Instead, we recommend using the 'build and buy your BMW' option described above.

The BMW Configurator "buy online" option

Once you've 'built' your BMW, you have the option of passing the details directly to your chosen dealer, and beginning the process of actually turning your dream car into a reality.

This part of the process is relatively straightforward – the first step is to nominate a dealer from a map of UK BMW outlets, after which you will be shown the finance options for your chosen specification. The default choice is BMW's SELECT PCP scheme, which enables you to vary your monthly payment by choosing how much to put down as a deposit, as well as the length of the finance arrangement.

Hire purchase and contract hire are also offered – the latter of which doesn't give you the option of owning the car outright. You can also select 'no finance' using a slider above the PCP option. When you have chosen your payment method, 'select and continue' takes you to a page where you can enter your details in order to open a dialogue with the dealer's 'digital sales desk'. It's described as an 'account', and going further will require your consent for BMW to send you personalised marketing material.

Which BMW should I choose?

Here's our quick guide to the BMW model range. We've included information on the model lines, and other unfamiliar terms that you might encounter in the configurator are explained too. With our help, you should be able to find the right BMW for you and your family.

BMW model range

One reason for BMW’s continued popularity is that there are so many different cars available. Many models are offered in a number of bodystyles, and there are SUVs available in many of the most popular sizes. We explain the model structure below – click the links to go to our full review for each model.

Click the links to go to our full review on each model.

Small BMW models

BMW 1 Series hatchbackBMW 2 Series CoupeBMW 2 Series Active TourerBMW X1 SUVBMW X2 SUV

The entry-level BMW is technically the 1 Series three and five-door hatchback. Two-door coupe versions are named 2 Series, and both use a rear-wheel drive layout that makes these sporty models popular among enthusiasts.

The 2 Series Active Tourer is a front-wheel drive model that shares its mechanical package with the MINI hatchback. It offers spacious, MPV-style accomodation for five. The BMW X1 and X2 use a similar mechanical package, but follow the popular SUV format, with the X2 being a more car-like, five-door coupe version.

Medium BMW models

BMW 3 Series saloonBMW 3 Series Touring estateBMW 3 Series GT hatchbackBMW 4 Series CoupeBMW 4 Series ConvertibleBMW 4 Series Gran Coupe hatchbackBMW X3 SUVBMW X4 SUV

The BMW 3 Series saloon is one of the most popular compact executive cars you can buy, and the same is true of its Touring estate stablemate. The GT hatchback is a variation that matches the comfort and performance of the saloon and estate, but adds an extra dimension of practicality thanks to its hatchback shape. The devastatingly quick BMW M3 and its BMW M4 coupe equivalent head the range.

The 4 Series is the name by which the 3 Series' coupe and convertible variants are known, and there's a five door hatchback version of the 4 Series Coupe, which is called the Gran Coupe – it has a more elegant look than the 3 Series GT and places less emphasis on practicality.

There are two SUV options at this point in the price range – the BMW X3 and its coupe-styled X4 sister. Both are comfortable and well equipped, with responsive driving manners and plenty of power.

Large BMW models

BMW 5 Series saloonBMW 5 Series Touring estateBMW 6 Series Gran CoupeBMW 6 Series GT hatchbackBMW 6 Series ConvertibleBMW X5 SUVBMW X6 SUV

The BMW 5 Series Saloon is another perennial favourite, among families and business users alike. It offers a similar blend of comfort and driver appeal to the smaller 3 Series, but adds extra power and luxurious features, with a blisteringly fast BMW M5 model at the top of the range.

The 6 Series is closely related, and the range comprises a sleek four-door Gran Coupe, a more upright five-door GT hatchback, and an eye-catching two-door convertible. The former two-door coupe has now been discontinued.

The BMW X5 and X6 are joint flagships of the BMW's SUV lineup, and are aligned with the 5 Series. The X5 is a conventional SUV with a seven-seat option, while the five-seat X6 trades a little versatility for a more striking coupe-influenced exterior design.

Hybrid and luxury BMW models

BMW i3 hatchbackBMW i8 coupeBMW i8 RoadsterBMW 7 Series saloon

BMW is unique among volume carmakers in offering three models that were designed to be powered by alternative fuel from the very outset – and the BMW i3 really does place its emphasis on electric power. The basic model is all-electric, while the i3 REx has a small petrol engine on board, which is designed specifically to keep the battery at full charge.

The futuristic-looking i8 Coupe combines electric and petrol power, offering supercar speed despite only using a 1.5-litre, three-cylinder petrol engine. If you habitually keep its battery charged, up to 135mpg is achievable. The i8 Roadster adds roof-down fun to the equation.

The BMW range is crowned by the 7 Series saloon, which is among the most high-tech and luxurious cars you can buy at any price. Engine options range from an economical plug-in hybrid to a whisper-quiet V12 petrol that provides massive performance.

BMW trim levels

SE

Most BMW model lines open with the SE model, which historically stands for 'special equipment'. It brings together most of the must-have features that buyers demand today, including climate control, alloy wheels, remote control central locking, automatic wipers and lights, all-round parking sensors and a Bluetooth connectivity system.

Sport

While Sport is a more dynamic equivalent to the SE package – often replacing the parking sensors with more supportive sports seats and a lowered suspension system – some models open with the Sport trim. It's worth remembering that Sport models don't have any more power or performance than their SE stablemates, and miss out on the distinctive body kits and bigger wheels fitted to M Sport models.

M Sport

The M Sport models in BMW's range channel some of the looks of the fearsome 'M' models, such as the M3, M5 and X5M. They stand out thanks to aggressive bodykits that include deep front spoilers and side skirts, while wheels and tyres are bigger. The suspension is also lower and firmer, and some can find M Sport models a little uncomfortable. However, their popularity and ease of sale when second hand mean that M Sport models tend to hold on to their value, and can prove no more costly to finance than an SE. Add their fun-to-drive nature, and M Sport models are a wise choice.

BMW jargon buster

Engines and gearboxes

BMW EfficientDynamics is the blanket name applied to the brand's engineering and design programme that aims to increase fuel-efficiency and reduce exhaust emissions. It includes measures such as eDrive electrified power systems, optimised aerodynamic streamlining to reduce wind resistance, electric power steering and brake energy regeneration – both of which result in reduced energy loss from mechanical drag.

BMW iPerformance is the name given to the power systems fitted to BMW's plug-in hybrid models, which include the BMW 225 XE iPerformance hybrid, BMW 330e iPerformance hybrid and BMW 740e iPerformance hybrid. They combine a compact turbocharged petrol engine with an eDrive electric motor and lithium-ion battery, providing extra power during acceleration and the ability to make short urban journeys on electric power alone.

BMW xDrive is the name of BMW's four-wheel drive system, which is available not just on the brand's SUVs, but on an increasing number of its saloon and estate models, too. It uses sensors to make sure that power is always sent to the set of wheels that are best able to apply it when road and weather conditions get tricky. Its aim is to increase traction – and with it, safety, driving enjoyment and performance.

Safety and Technology

Driving Assistant and Driving Assistant Plus are safety packages that BMW offers, which comprise hazard alert and semi-autonomous driving systems. The Driving Assistant package includes lane departure and lane change warnings, stationary traffic warning and speed limit information with no-overtaking warning – both of which are provided by a traffic sign recognition camera. The Driving Assistant Plus system adds active cruise control with the ability to follow traffic to a halt, automatically restarting the car when the traffic begins to flow again. It also provides steering and lane keeping assistance, as well as warnings for traffic crossing the road ahead.

Parking Assistant: While some BMWs have Park Distance Control (PDC) at the rear only, or all-round in some models, Parking Assistance is the next step forwards. It includes front and rear sensors, a reversing camera and also a self-parking mode that will operate the steering when using parallel and lateral parking spaces. The Parking Assistant Plus upgrade adds a surround view and remote 3D view.

Infotainment and communications

BMW Display Key takes the form of a glossy, lozenge shaped gadget that's similar in shape to the usual BMW key, and its enlarged form allows space for a small colour screen. This can display information such as current fuel level and lock status, and – depending on equipment fitted – allows you to set the interior temperature ahead of a journey. Naturally, it can be used as a conventional key, too.

BMW Connected Drive is the umbrella term for all BMW's connected and online technologies. Every current BMW has access to certain Connected Drive features, including BMW Emergency Call, online services and real time traffic information, as well as support for features unlocked by the BMW Connected+ smartphone app. These can include remote operation of the door locks, headlights and horn from your smartphone, as well as the ability to check your fuel level and find the car easily when parked. You can also connect Amazon Echo products to the system, to allow voice control access to your car from connected devices in your house.

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