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Is the Vauxhall Adam supermini special enough to provide an answer to the Fiat 500 and Mini, or merely an exercise in style and marketing?

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Thank Mini and Fiat, but today's small cars are aimed squarely at urban fashionistas. In a market where image is everything, it’s a fine line between funky and failure. Impressively, the best of breed are able break out of this narrowed and clichéd demographic, too.

Prior to the introduction of the Vauxhall Adam, it was a market unknown to Vauxhall, especially as the model represents an effort to climb from the volume to semi-premium market.

Some of the interior trim options come backlit with LEDs to make the panels glow

On paper, the Adam shows promise. It is certainly eye-catching, although perhaps not cute or attractive enough to bother Fiat or Mini’s stylists. It also offers huge scope for customisation. That’s important, because a couple of thousand pounds’ worth of stickers, wheels and trim substantially increases profit margins.

But is its styling is too wide of the mark to give it enough visual punch to steal many sales from the Fiat 500? Does it offer enough dynamic flair to bother the DS 3? And does it have the all-round driveway appeal of the Mini?

Before we get to any of that, there’s that name to deal with. It is so-called in homage to the founder of Opel, Vauxhall’s sister company, Adam Opel. That works with the Ferrari Enzo, but here it sounds a little odd. Even more unusual are the three core trim levels: Jam, Glam and Slam. Each, predictably, come with their own party pieces, but loosely the Jam is the base model, Glam has a little more glitz, while Slam sits at the sporty end.

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Where the Adam scores well is with a range of customisation options that make it entirely possible that you’ll never see two identical models. In spring 2016, Vauxhall hit the peak of personalisation with the Unlimited model, available with any combination of roof and body colours, wheel styles and sizes, interior trims, and technology options.

There is also an Adam Rocks, a supposed urban crossover featuring plastic bumpers and wheelarches, while the chassis is given a supposed rugged makeover, as well as the ride height being jacked up 15mm.

The Rocks, proving that the basic name could be made even more ridiculous, is completed by a large retracting cloth roof on the Rocks Air, and is a pricey and slightly unnecessary addition when it joined the range in 2014.

There’s bags of space in the cabin and its economical, too – no model in the range drops beneath 50mpg on the combined cycle.

But in a market that is overwhelmed with unique subtleties, objective ability doesn’t necessarily equal appeal. Read on for our full verdict.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Vauxhall Adam rear

If the slightly stubby, four-square proportions of the Vauxhall Adam seem unusual, it’s because they are. The car is 25mm shorter than the Mini, but nearly 80mm taller. It apes the Fiat 500, a car that was itself revised in late 2015, quite faithfully. But its width and length mean there’s considerably more to the Adam than the Fiat. At 1720mm without mirrors, it’s wider even than the fourth-generation Vauxhall Corsa.

The Adam’s relationship with the Vauxhall Corsa is critical. The two are built in the same German factory and the Adam shares the Corsa’s platform. Fairly early in the Adam’s gestation Russelsheim took the decision not to use GM’s global ‘Gamma-II’ small-car platform as originally intended, which serves under the Mokka compact SUV and Chevrolet Aveo.

Oddly, the inside of the filler cap contains no information about what fuel to put in the car

That didn’t alter the car’s mechanical layout: engines go in transversely under the bonnet and drive the front wheels, as is universal law for small cars, and suspension is via struts at the front and a torsion beam at the rear. The question is, do warmed-over mechanical ingredients designed for a supermini launched in 2006 belong on a ‘premium’ small car years later?

Engine choice was previously limited to a 1.4-litre petrol unit producing 86bhp and 99bhp, or a 69bhp 1.2-litre engine, all mated to a five-speed manual. Early 2015 saw a new three-cylinder engine come along and transform the Adam. The 1.0 turbocharged unit offers 113bhp, but more importantly offers a refinement level in particular that shoves the other units firmly to the sideline. 

Vauxhall would argue that Adam buyers are more likely to be interested in the car’s extensive colour palette. There are 12 body colours here, with contrasting roof colours, and seven different alloy wheel designs to choose from, and then optional exterior trim and decal packs on top. But, for the time being at least, those same buyers may be hard pressed to find as much substance as style here.

INTERIOR

Vauxhall Adam interior

The market continually fails to produce a 3.7-metre car that’ll seat four six-footers in genuine comfort. So it’s no serious shortcoming to find that the Vauxhall Adam has a rear bench that’s best kept for the kids. By class standards that doesn’t actually make it impractical – and although it’s not ideal, neither does a 170-litre boot.

In fact, the Vauxhall’s cabin is quite large. A low scuttle and tall glasshouse make for good visibility and a strong impression of space inside. The wide cockpit and high roofline deliver generous footwells and fairly abundant headroom. Even larger drivers should seldom find the Adam’s interior plastics with their shoulders and knees, as they often would in narrower city cars.

Don't spend a lot on top spec models – better to buy a modest trim level and spend on options instead

The seat bases are slightly short, flat and lacking in thigh support, but otherwise the driving position is sound. It’s less recumbent than in a Mini, but not necessarily the worse for it. The large steering wheel has plenty of adjustment and the instruments are clear and quite attractive.

Cars featuring a black fascia and black cloth seats do little to demonstrate the more vivacious possibilities that Adam customers can choose between. There are four options on fascia colour, 15 different seat trims, several different roof linings and 18 fascia ‘decor’ panels (ours were red), which add a flash of colour and can be changed by your Vauxhall dealer to refresh the cabin.

Wisely specified models distinguish themselves better on material richness, though. The Adam’s dashboard has just enough variety and visual interest to lift the ambience above the small-car norm. It’s also quite tactile and appealing; all the better for being less slavishly devoted to unadorned functionality than Opel/Vauxhall’s default setting.

The Adam is available in six trim levels - Jam, Glam, Slam, S, Energised and Unlimited. The entry-level models come with 16in alloy wheels, air conditioning, cruise control, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, upgrading to Glam gets you luxuries such as climate control, DAB radio and LED day running lights. 

The mid-range Slam trim comes with 17in alloys, a choice of roof colours, Vauxhall's OnStar system, and numerous chrome trimmings, while the sporty S gets 18in alloys, uprated brakes, sports suspension and a beefy bodykit. Topping the standard Adam range is the Energised trim which comes with Vauxhall's Intellink infotainment system.

The Unlimited trimmed Adams come with less equipment than most of its peers, but do include climate control, smartphone integration and cruise control, while those who opt for this trim on the Adam Rocks will get OnStar, a folding canvas roof, numerous plastic mouldings and a chrome-style exhaust.

The rest of the rugged Adam Rocks range is punctuated by three main trims - Rocks, Rocks Air and Rocks S. Those opting for the Rocks and Rocks Air will find Vauxhall OnStar, DAB radio, smartphone integration, cruise control, 17in alloys and air conditioning as standard, while the latter gains a retractable canvas roof.

The range-topping Rocks S comes with sports suspension, uprated brakes, 18in alloys and a rear spoiler.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Vauxhall Adam side profile

The Vauxhall Adam’s positioning as an urban kickabout is reflected in the engine line-up. All engines are small and are best suited to the grind of city use. The 1.2-litre unit and both versions of the 1.4-litre feel thrashy and underpowered at speed, while the 1.0-litre unit has made itself the pick of the bunch by a distance.

The 1.2-litre engine is muted at idle, with a slightly cammy tickover entering the cabin. Less impressive, certainly when cold, is the five-speed gearshift, whose throw lacked compliance and a willingness to engage, particularly into first and second. It improved as it warmed, but never to the point where it was pleasurable.

The 1.2-litre engine is the one to have. The 1.4 is too gruff and vocal.

It’s a particular pity when the engine is as smooth and revvy as it is, if not quick. In a car tipping the scales at 1090kg when laden with a few options, the 69bhp engine fails to provoke sparkling pace. Even so, our road testers recorded a 0-60mph time of 14.3sec, which compares well enough with 13.7sec in a 1.2-litre Fiat 500.

It’s a similar story with both versions of the 1.4-litre unit, in 86bhp and 99bhp guises. At motorway speeds they get a bit loud, and begin to run out of shove above 70mph. The low-power unit doesn't compare well to more modern engines of a similar capacity, and the 86bhp version's official 50-75mph time of 17.8sec in fifth gear tells you most of what you need to know. Even the 99bhp 1.4 is lacklustre, if slightly more useable at speed. 

The 1.2 and 1.4 units are left looking pretty archaic by the 1.0T, which has already impressed in the Vauxhall Corsa and the Vauxhall Astra.

Regardless of engine, the Adam’s performance translates to a level you’d class ‘acceptable’ on the road: fast enough for most conditions, and able to hold a decent speed on a motorway without necessitating a downshift on inclines. 

At those speeds much of the cabin noise comes from the engine, which spins at higher speeds than we’ve become accustomed to in an age of small turbo petrols and small diesels.

RIDE & HANDLING

Vauxhall Adam cornering

Many buyers will understandably gravitate towards models at the sportier end of the Vauxhall Adam range, with the promise of bigger wheels and lower, stiffer suspension. But choose at your own risk.

Models with sports suspension configurations pick up every surface nuance as speed rises. They certainly look the part, but drivers looking for a more relaxed and cosseting ride will do well to ignore the racy trappings of sports suspension.

On the limit the Adam feels safe, with a fast-acting ESP system that cuts in cleanly

But if you are tempted by the idea of sporting pretensions, then the Adam S is for you. Not hot enough to warrant VXR designation, the hottest Adam still comes with 148bhp, and can complete 0-62mph in 8.5sec while toting an official 47.8mpg, marking it out as the quick Adam. To go with the oomph Vauxhall has equipped it with a body kit, tuned chassis with uprated springs and dampers, VXR brakes and Recaro seats.

But among the regular models, the entry-level Jam represents a significant improvement in ride over its more expensive siblings. For a start, on its modestly sized 195/55 R16 tyres, it rides decently. It’s not massively better than the sports-suspended models around town, but the difference at speed is stark.

At low speed it suffers the same problem as any other Adam – and, to some extent, most other very short cars – in that no sooner has the front suspension had to deal with a heady surface input, it’s the rear’s turn, and that can leads to a particularly unsatisfactory bounce.

However, while the high tyre sidewalls on lower-spec models protect the Adam from small imperfections and prove their worth at higher speed, there is a payoff in steering precision compared to sports-suspended models. Here the electrically assisted system is always light – light enough that, even around town, we found no need to push the ‘City’ button to ease it further. It is also acceptably accurate and, at 2.8 turns from lock to lock, of middling speed. 

It reflects the rest of the dynamic ability in that there’s nothing here to get excited about which, in a class dominated by cars that are intentionally fun to drive, is a pity.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Vauxhall Adam

The Vauxhall Adam is a well priced car at its headline figure, and although it’s simple enough to up the price by ticking option boxes, that’s true of its rivals. It’s only to be expected when a car is this customisable, and we rather like the way that it can be specified to individual taste.

But like decorating a house a few years prior to selling it, buyers ought to exercise some care. As with a Mini or Fiat 500, it would be particularly easy to pick options that nobody will want come resale time.

You have to pay extra for the Ecoflex stop-start — without it, emissions rise by 6g/km to 124g/km

The Vauxhall will already have a tough enough time, with residual values predicted to be a few per cent lower than a 500’s and more than 10 per cent lower than a Mini One after three years/36,000 miles.

We did record a decent level of economy, mind you: the Adam 1.2 EcoFlex returned 45.4mpg on a touring run, with 39.2mpg overall. That compares with the official combined figure of 56.5mpg. It’s the fuel economy champion in the range, but official figures are generally worse for Adams fitted with 18in wheels, compared with 16 or 17-inchers.

Vauxhall says you can expect around 55.4mpg on the combined cycle from either of the 1.4-litre units, which in the real world should be comparable with the 1.2. Cars without stop-start are around 3mpg worse off than cars equipped with the system. 

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VERDICT

3.5 star Vauxhall Adam

To realise how important perception and subjectivity are in this class, take the respective merits of the Ford Ka and Fiat 500. They were ostensibly similar under the skin, but there’s only one that generates serious quantities of ‘want’, and it’s the one from Italy. The Ka faded into obscurity, and Ford has needed a complete rethink in the form of the Ka+.

And therein lies some of the Adam’s problem. To our eyes, it is not sufficiently attractive, and although it is enviably and admirably customisable, so are some of its rivals.

The Adam fails to overwhelm or underwhelm in a class where subjective appeal is all

Besides, that is no guarantee of success: most Minis and 500s are delivered in sensible trims and in normal colours. 

But looks are subjective; dynamics are less so. The lack of a sufficient compromise between the steering feel of sportier models and the improved ride comfort of cooking versions disappoints.

The fundamental problem is that the Adam doesn’t deliver in a class dominated by laugh-a-minute cars.

The Adam isn’t without merit, though. It is frugal, spacious and offers some interesting kit, most notably the multimedia system. Ultimately, though, the Adam reveals itself to be a competent but unremarkable city car.

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Vauxhall Adam 2012-2019 First drives