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Volkswagen Golf 1.4 TSI 140 GT

The latest VW Golf is lighter, roomier and greener than ever before

Price: £22,705. On sale January
Engine: 1,395c, four cylinders, 16 valves, 140bhp
Transmission: Six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 132mph, 0-62 in 8.4sec, 60.1mpg, CO2 109g/km

It seems only the other day that Volkswagen launched the sixth-generation Golf, but it was actually four years ago. Even so, that is the shortest production life of any Golf since the line began in 1974. But then the Golf Mk6 was not really a new car. Rather it was simply a light re-skin of 2003's Mk5.

Not a ground-breaking Golf, then. This time it's different. The Golf Mk7 is slightly longer and wider (shame), a little lower (so visually racier), usefully roomier (good) and up to 100kg lighter (brilliant). So much weight has been lost, thanks to some very intelligent structural design and much use of very strong, heat-treated steel, that Mk7 weighs barely any more than 1992's Mk3. That's proper progress, given how much better-equipped, greener and safer in a crash this Golf is than its 20-year-old forebear.

Despite its sporting stance and ultra-modern detailing, though, it still looks properly Golf-like. Even without the badges it couldn't be mistaken for anything else. Why? Several reasons. Most obvious are the thick rear pillar and the near-vertical tail. Then there are the door handles set above a crease-line along the flanks, instead of on it, and the ledge on the doors just under the side windows. At the front it's the way the headlights project below the grille, and the horizontal bars of that grille. Simple, round wheel arches with an obvious flare play a part, as does a lack of superfluous adornment. This is obviously a car made of metal, and it remains as reassuring an ownership prospect as ever.

Engines – all turbocharged – range from a 1.2-litre petrol unit with 85 or 105bhp and a 1.4-litre with 122 or 140bhp, to a choice of two diesels with 105bhp from 1.6 litres or a lively 150bhp from 2.0 litres. A new GTI arrives later. The most interesting of them all is the more powerful 1.4, which has lost the supercharger that used to augment the turbocharger at this power point (too expensive) but has gained a clever system which deactivates the centre two cylinders when the engine is running gently, and effectively means you get more motion with less pollution.

It's a refined, punchy engine whose supercharger loss has barely affected its eagerness to pull hard from low speeds. You can hear the engine note change to a deep, discreet flutter as the load on the engine eases, signifying two-cylinder operation, but it remains smooth and the sound adds the character that comes from hearing a clever idea – one which helps towards an impressively low CO2 score of 109g/km – in action. The gear change is similarly smooth, and the double-clutch, seven-speed automatic alternative also works well.

Regardless of engine, this Golf steers beautifully (albeit with a mind of its own if you have "lane assist" in action), and with the optional adaptive dampers set to Normal, it also rides very comfortably. Comfort makes it a little loose, Sport a little fidgety, but both have their place and the differences are subtle at best.

Its interior is beautifully made, with mouldings fitting together with remarkable precision and an air of solid quality, and the new sat-nav and safety systems work predictably efficiently.

All that is wrong with this expensive-looking cabin is that it has a hateful electric parking brake. Otherwise, this is the perfect Golf for today's needs, and curiously more likeable than its predecessor. Only a fashion victim could possibly want a more expensive Audi A3 instead of this inspired remake of the definitive compact hatchback.