VW Golf

The Swiss army knife is a wonderfully diverse tool that allows you to open bottles, letters and - in its original guise - disassemble rifles. Since its introduction in the 1880s, it has had to adapt, naturally, to stay ahead of the competition so while tiny tweezers, toothpicks and corkscrews used to be the highlights, now your useful little pocket instrument includes digital clocks, LED flashlights and USB flash drives. Those incremental improvements have allowed it to have such a long and illustrious career. The adaptive approach has not only elongated the life of an army tool; cars, too, have benefited from evolutionary changes – and none more so than the Volkswagen Golf.

In 1974, when the first generation hit the roads, no one knew the impact the compact car would have. But 30 years later, and with 30 million vehicles sold, it continues to set the benchmark for the sector. The seventh-generation is no different.

Look at it and you probably won’t be able to discern it from the previous model – many a motoring journalist has shrugged his or her shoulders and lamented VW’s lack of revolution in the vehicle’s looks – but don’t judge a book by its cover. Take a deep breath and read on.

The new Golf has seven airbags, including one for the driver’s knees, five three-point seatbelts, anti-lock brakes with electronic stability control, electronic differential lock, Isofix points for two rear child seats and semi-automatic air conditioning. The entry-level media system includes a 5.8-inch colour touchscreen, DAB digital radio, a CD player and interface for your MP3 player. There’s also Bluetooth telephone preparation, audio streaming and eight speakers.

Move up a spec and you can add Automatic Distance Control with Front Assist and City Emergency Braking (which will bring the vehicle to a complete halt if necessary, to keep you safe when driving around town), Driver Alert System, PreCrash preventative occupant protection, Driver Profile Selection, rain-sensitive wipers, an automatically dimming rear-view mirror and automatic driving lights.

Options include high beam assist, lane assist, park assist (it’s a very helpful vehicle…), keyless entry, adaptive chassis control, rear-view camera, navigation system with eight-inch colour touchscreen, panoramic sunroof. Even a Swiss army knife can’t compete with that…

…but it’s under the bonnet that this Golf truly stands out from the previous generation. There are, of course, the usual array of engines – 1.2 and 1.4 litre petrol and 1.6 litre and 2.0 litre diesel – but one stands out as brightly as an LED flashlight: the 1.4 litre petrol engine with cylinder deactivation.

Treat the unit with gentle inputs of the throttle and it’ll run on two-cylinders and reach 60mpg. Not bad for an engine that throws out 140hp and 250Nm of torque.

And it’s a dream to drive, without a hint that you’re trundling along on only half the engine’s lungs for much of the time. You get the full four-cylinder blast when you press the car a little harder and require a bit more urgency from the engine.

The meandering coastal roads and the more adventurous mountain passes around Sardinia where VW launched its best-selling vehicle only endeared me more to all that technology underneath the metal, and from the cabin – another area where evolution has made it even more comfortable – it didn’t put a foot wrong. It’s from here, too, that subtle improvements can also be seen in the infotainment system. Tick the options box for the larger eight-inch screen and the top-end system features a DVD instead of a CD drive, extended voice control, 3D navigation and a 64GB flash memory; a UMTS telephone module is available as an option. The system also operates as a WLAN hotspot for mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, so your passengers can surf the net as you drive.

The Swiss army knife is probably the iconic all-purpose tool and it has sold millions since its inception; the VW Golf is its automotive equivalent. Subtle changes have kept it at the top of the tree, and a relatively competitively priced from £16,975: it’s still the car to beat.

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