Good cars, as with everything, are just a collection of small parts. And while the whole is getting more handsome, so the bits are getting more interesting, too.

A rich stream of details is one of the strengths of the new Volkswagen Golf, just on sale in the UK. And while I appreciated them, I got thinking about other details of cars I have driven recently, that have given me pleasure, or increased the car's practicality - or, ideally, both.

Great Golf touches include marvellously damped grab handles, already seen on the new Passat. Grab most grab handles and then let go, and they spring back on your knuckles like the jaws of a mousetrap. Let go of the Golf's, and they elegantly and gently return to base.

I also love the blue backlit instrument lighting at night, which provides far more visual comfort and clarity than the usual meanly-illuminated display. And the "slush" moulded plastic dash instantly elevates the Golf's dashboard up into Mercedes/Jaguar/BMW territory, while maintaining the Ford Escort price.

Still on the subject of interiors, Volvo's integrated rear fold-down child seat is a clever piece of work. The V70 estate I drove a couple of weeks back had one, and what a pleasure it was to use. However, at pounds 260 on the basic S40 (pounds 130 on the V70 estate) it's a pricey alternative to a Mothercare portable.

Think Volvo and you think safety. Yet Renault's ingenious remote radio controls, fitted on column stalks, are at least as big a safety boon as the protective armour fitted to modern Volvos. Instead of searching low on the centre console for tiny, badly sited radio knobs and minuscule buttons, taking your eyes off the road and contorting your body into positions that make driving difficult, you simply tune your radio with easy-to-use controls just a finger stretch from the steering wheel. Most makers are finally copying Renault, with good reason.

Renault also scores with the new Espace's brilliant dashboard - the first car to use a dashboard intelligently. Dashes, as I have pointed out before, are futile throwbacks to the old horse-drawn carriage days when they prevented mud splashing on to passengers. Renault has turned the Espace's dash into a huge glovebox (big enough for a briefcase), has built it nice and low, and has swathed it in attractive fabric rather than the usual plastic.

The Espace's little brother, the Scenic, scores with its brilliant multi- purpose parcel shelf. Parcel shelves, in hatchback or estate boots, act merely as expensive covers to stop prying eyes turning into thieving hands. On the Scenic, the parcel shelf can be positioned at various heights in the boot, allowing you to double-stack goods.

Renault's little Twingo, not sold in Britain, has a fore-aft-adjustable rear seat that allows you to vary rear leg room or boot space. And for similar intelligent use of cabin space, Alfa's 145 has a large dug-out dashboard area in front of the passenger, greatly increasing knee- and legroom. Passengers do not need to sit behind bulky dashboards, unlike the poor driver.

Finally, let's look at roofs. The magic electric folding Mercedes SLK roof is all very well, but the far cheaper Mazda MX-5's ragtop is as cleverly engineered - and you can fold it, or erect it, by hand without getting out of the driver's seat. It's a far cry from the complicated manual manoeuvres necessary to put up, or down, the soft tops of various old British roadsters. Plus, the MX-5's roof doesn't leak when it rains.

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