Attention to details. It's a revived design theme that will separate new interiors from those of the past several decades. It has been cropping up in concept cars and a few production models for the past few years, and now is creeping into production models in two very different aesthetic approaches, one retro and the other high-tech.

The retro approach uses little touches of sculpture and design details that fascinate and suggest hand craftsmanship; the high-tech approach relies on exotic illumination and visual effects to bedazzle. But each approach borrows a little from the other.

Here's why it's happening: During the next few years it's likely that most cockpits will be functionally equal - and in danger of looking very much alike. They all will have switches that are easy to use and instrument clusters that are well situated and easy to read. Memorable, inviting interiors will have to distinguish themselves with more than mere functionality or top-quality fit and finish.

So innovative designers are resorting to techniques to make new interiors fascinating and beautiful in their own right. You won't just plop down and turn the key; you'll sit for a second and study your interior, like you might savor the details on a fine Swiss watch, or stand in awe in front of an imposing top-end stereo system.

This will be especially noticeable on the dials and gauges of the instrument panel, where pure functionality has been the rule for the past several decades.

At least some of the credit for this interesting change belongs to Carl Olsen, chairman of the Transportation Design Program at Detroit's Center for Creative Studies (CCS), a key training ground for automotive designers.

"We do an interior project each year with the seniors here. I give various homework assignments to make sure students give tender loving care to details. One is the instrument clusters," says Mr. Olsen. "I have them look at Gentleman's Quarterly to see high-quality Swiss watches." Students also study other products that are considered to have important details or are on the leading edge of new design trends.

Borrowing design details from expensive watches, clocks, aircraft interiors and top-end high fidelity equipment, and applying them to vehicle instrument clusters can send powerful messages about performance and quality, Mr. Olsen says.

Trevor Creed, Chrysler Corp.'s director of Interior and Jeep/Truck Design, says Chrysler realized some time ago it had run the gamut on possible design iterations for white-on-black gauges. Designers wanted a distinctive, upscale look for upcoming luxury models, but didn't want the huge cost of new systems in use by some automakers, most notably Lexus.

Instead it took a somewhat nostalgic approach to gauge design - for some upscale models - that suggests premium watches and clocks and is reminiscent of classic cars from the 1930s. However, Mr. Creed is quick to note that some high-tech lighting also is used for the new gauges to ensure they are as readable and functional as more conventional styles.

Chrysler's Atlantic 1996 concept got the ball rolling on the "craftsmanship" approach. It also is exemplified by the instrument cluster on Ford Motor Co.'s Mercury MC4 concept, introduced last year.

Meanwhile, on the high-tech side, Toyota Motor Corp. initiated something of a gauge revolution with its first LS400 sedan in 1990: A highlight of that car's interior was the startling "electroluminescent" interpretation of the standard analog gauge. With the ignition off, the gauge cluster is entirely opaque; powered up, the markings and dials illuminate and needles appear to "float."

It was then - and still is - an incredibly expensive way to do gauges. Knowledgeable industry sources say this original technology, using tiny fluorescent bulbs and light emitting diode (LED) needles costs $200 to $400 per car, an outrageous sum for even high-end producers.

Both concepts have continued to evolve and can be seen on new production vehicles. Chrysler has taken the gauges of the Atlantic concept - inspired by watch faces - and transplanted them in its new LHS luxury sedan. And Lexus engineers advance their electroluminescent technology with a new system dubbed "Opti-tron" for the 1998 Lexus GS. Optitron gauges still employ some of the basic electroluminescent effect, but now the background assumes a soothing greenish hue instead of the black background on the LS 400.

The Optitron primary gauges also are clustered in deep binnacles reminiscent of sporty cars of the 1960s. The difference: Optitron lets the driver see what's going on down in those deep dashboard burrows.

Which is better? It's like asking whether the modern minimalist design of a Movado watch is better than a classic Swiss timepiece. Either way, it's a fascinating new development in interior design.