Buttons on radios are invariably tiny, suitable only for people who have fingers shaped like ET

Of the innumerable design solecisms to be found on cars, none is more repulsive to the eye and more awkward to the hand than the typical radio. And that's before we talk about its sound quality. (In general, car radios - at least those fitted as standard by most manufacturers - sound appalling. This is no wonder. I have it on good authority that one major manufacturer buys its standard-specification radio/cassette players for only pounds 20 - well under a tenth of what the same manufacturer charges for replacement units.)

Their poor sound quality is, arguably, excusable - after all, how many of us notice that they're so bad? But their shoddy appearance and usability are certainly not. In the main, they are just plastic-faced boxes fitted willy-nilly to some convenient (for the manufacturer, not for the user) position on the dash. Their buttons are invariably tiny, suitable only for people who have fingers shaped like ET. And what's more, the buttons have graphics which are incomprehensible to most punters. As an upshot, I'll wager that most buttons on car radios are never pushed, twirled or pulled.

In the old days, car radios tended to have two big round knobs - one for on/off and volume, the other for channel selection. Push buttons helped to locate your pre-programmed channels. This design worked well and looked good. It should never have changed. But it did. We have been confused ever since.

At long last there are signs of improvement. The new Ford Ka has a radio designed to integrate into the dash, rather than merely have a rectangular hole into which some radio manufacturer can insert its latest multi-channel, multi-watt eyesore. The Ka has big knobs and buttons, just like old-fashioned radios, designed to be pushed by fingers not pins. I mastered it in minutes, rather than remaining baffled by it for months.

Other manufacturers are now also making an effort. Most praiseworthy is the new Renault Espace, on sale in the UK next spring. It has no radio visible at all. This clearly deters the hooligan who, judging by the number of car radios stolen, seems to be the only person who understands modern car radios.

In the Espace, the radio's electronics are all hidden under the bonnet. Controls are mounted on satellites either side of the steering wheel. Renault pioneered satellite controls, a major and yet unsung contribution to road safety, now copied by the likes of BMW and Jaguar (on its new XK8 sports car) among many other makers. They allow channels to be changed and the volume to be altered without taking your eye off the road and groping around at the bottom of the dash for those wretched little buttons. The Espace, though, now takes the concept a stage further.

By removing the radio head unit from the dash, Renault has also improved the cabin design. After all, what better way of tidying up the interior than by getting rid of its ugliest feature?

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