Motoring: In-car gifts: sorting the neat from the naff

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THE MOST exciting car accessory gift I ever saw was a police megaphone which a friend's girlfriend had acquired for him by some dubious means. 'Good morning world,' he would bellow at passers-by as he drove along. A less dodgy way of creating an illicit in-car frisson is a car Christmas tree, available this year from Halfords at pounds 5.99. It looks like a laminated toilet brush, and plugs into the cigarette lighter socket - which illuminates its many coloured bulbs. It also comes with a warning: 'Must not be positioned so as to display coloured lights to other vehicles'. But what's the point of having a tree in your car if you can't light it up where you can see it as you drive roguishly along?

The problem with many car accessories as gifts is that they make the heart sink; they bring with them the air of having been bought at a petrol station on Christmas Eve by someone in a state of emotional confusion. Worse, they can cast fearful inadvertent aspersions. Giving an in-car air freshener or a 'Car Pride' cleaning kit is like putting a deodorant in someone's stocking. A gift of a plastic boot tidy carries a heavy judgement of personality. And any of those 'Why has nobody thought of this before?' catalogue items - from blind- spot mirrors, to in-car drinks holders, to burglar alarms disguised as teddy bears - will simply suggest to the recipient that you have gone barking mad.

The trick is to buy something tasteful, perhaps even something that has another function apart from in-car use. I'm thinking of chamois leathers here. Pittards does a marvellous one for around pounds 10 - large, fine, and wonderfully soft . . . Tool kits have the same appeal as old-fashioned hardware stores - full of value-packed, metallic, half-forgotten things. A tasteful, fog-grey 40-piece Cabinet Kit (pronounced cabine, I imagine) costs pounds 17.99 at Halfords. Of similar appeal is the Mag-lite six-cell absolutely gigantic black metal torch with adjustable spotlight (between pounds 24.99 and pounds 29.99, depending on where you buy). Perfect for friends with Jean-Michel Jarre delusions. Also useful as a cosh.

The AA is keen to promote membership as a gift idea - but I think not. It has the same unfestive ring to it as a BBC licence gift voucher. On the other hand, the AA is rather good at in-car books. Short Walks to Country Pubs ( pounds 4.99) would rarely go amiss. The same is true of the 1993 Good Pub Guide (just published by Ebury Press at pounds 12.99). Linguaphone does taped language Travel Packs at pounds 13.99 - ideal for the self- improving driver. And A S Byatt's Possession (Random Century Autobooks pounds 6.99), narrated by Alan Howard, would look impressive left casually on any dashboard.