2013 Vauxhall Adam First Drive

It doesn't take much time driving in the U.K. to understand why small city cars are so popular here. Narrow roads lead to tiny parking spaces, gasoline costs the equivalent of $8 a gallon, and the amount of road tax you pay is directly linked to a car's carbon-dioxide emissions. No surprise, then, that subcompact hatchbacks are everywhere. Vauxhall, the General Motors brand that is paired with Opel, saw how much Europeans loved cute runarounds like the Fiat 500 and the MINI Cooper, and launched the Adam to grab a piece of the action.

Taking a page from the Mini Cooper handbook, there are countless ways to customize a Vauxhall Adam from the factory, as almost all shoppers custom-order their cars. The options have whimsical names to keep things fun -- our tester's paint was called Saturday White Fever -- and Vauxhall claims that, factoring in all the wheel choices, contrast roof colors, and trim pieces, there are millions of different ways to configure an Adam. In other words, you're unlikely to see the same car twice.

We drove an Adam Glam, the middle trim level that is bookended by the affordable Jam and the top-spec Slam (Dr Seuss would love the Adam's order book). Standard equipment includes 16-inch alloy wheels, a large fixed sunroof, automatic climate control, and LED running lights and taillights. On top of that were options like heated leather seats (£900), color-changing ambient lights (£125), gray 17-inch wheels (£400), and the same IntelliLink touchscreen radio found in the Chevrolet Spark (£275).

The well-built cabin seats four, just like the Mini and Fiat, though adults wouldn't want to sit in the back seats any longer than necessary. The trunk is deep but there are only a few inches of horizontal room between the liftgate and seatbacks, so we had to fold one of the rear seats to accommodate our luggage. That's what you get for borrowing a city car for a ten-day vacation.

High-quality materials and interesting textures render the interior more far inviting than that of the cheap Fiat 500, and the minimalist controls are extremely intuitive -- Mini would do well to take notes. The cabin is remarkably devoid of engine or road noise, too. The large sunroof doesn't open or tilt, but it can be covered by a fabric shade to keep sunlight out; deleting the glass roof allows buyers to opt for funky headliner designs including checkerboards and flower patterns.

Avoid Hills

The three four-cylinder engines on the order sheet all have double-digit horsepower ratings, so it's a blessing that the car is very light. Our tester had the mid-range 1.4-liter, which delivers 86 hp and 96 lb-ft of torque. Vauxhall claims that 60 mph arrives in 12.5 seconds, which would be unthinkably slow for an American-market car but is competitive with the Adam's European rivals.

Stated performance figures aside, the car easily keeps up with traffic both in London and on the freer-flowing A-roads and motorways of the countryside. Yet we begin to wish for more power on rural roads near the Welsh border, as climbing hills taxes the engine enough to require dropping into fourth and occasionally third gear to keep momentum up. Good thing the five-speed manual transmission's light, direct shift action is never a chore, but it's too bad the engine sounds so gruff when revved.

Despite the engine's small displacement and its excellent stop-start function, we never came close to the optimistic 55.4 mpg (46 mpg U.S.) combined fuel-economy rating. In fact, after 550 miles the trip computer reported just 40.9 mpg -- 34 mpg in U.S. gallons. Much of that discrepancy probably comes down to time spent in stop-and-go London traffic, plus the frequent downshifting necessary to climb country hills, but it's still not particularly impressive for a subcompact car with such a small, underpowered engine. A 1.0-liter three-cylinder turbo engine, due next year, promises better fuel economy.

The Vauxhall Adam dispatches with rough roads without transmitting much discomfort to passengers, impressive for a car with such a short wheelbase and low-profile tires. Only the largest potholes upset the suspension enough to seriously jar passengers. The Adam happily bounds and darts around winding country lanes, and though it's not as exciting as cars like the Mini Cooper, the taut suspension rewards enthusiastic driving. Quick electric power steering has more weight and feedback than is typical of subcompact runabouts, so the Adam feels planted and stability at motorway speeds -- especially compared to the darty, floaty Fiat 500.

Slow Start

Wherever we drove the Vauxhall, Brits said it was the first one they had seen on the road. Vauxhall planned for the Adam to sell in fairly limited numbers, and with 4500 sold in the first six months on the market, it's meeting official predictions. Yet the larger Vauxhall Corsa, on which the Adam is based, sells more than 19,000 units in the U.K. per year, proving that the Adam is far from an overnight hit. It's a shame the Adam hasn't caught on better, as it's a well-designed small car that makes a compelling alternative to its two main rivals. The Adam is prettier, more interesting to drive, and better built than the Fiat 500; it's easier-going in regular driving and has a more sensible interior design than the Mini Cooper. (It's worth noting that a new Mini is due this fall.)

What the Vauxhall Adam lacks is the heritage that made those two subcompacts popular. Fiat and Mini stirred up interest for their modern subcompacts by building on nostalgia for the original Cinquecento and Cooper. The Adam lacks that sort of pedigree, so it faces an uphill battle to ingratiate itself with car buyers. And that battle is made only more difficult by the car's aggressive pricing. At £11,255 to start, it's a bit cheaper than a base Mini Cooper but much costlier than a Fiat 500. All of which means that the Vauxhall Adam is unlikely to be a huge hit in the U.K. That's a pity, because the Adam's unique blend of fun and quality makes it one of our favorite European city cars.

2013 Vauxhall Adam Glam 1.4i ecoFLEX

  • On Sale: Now
  • Base Price: £13,270 (including taxes, delivery, and registration fees)
  • Price as tested: £15,470 (approx. $24,000)
  • Engine: 1.4L I-4, 86 hp and 96 lb-ft
  • Transmission: 5-speed manual
  • Drive: Front-wheel
  • Curb Weight: 2469 pounds
  • Cargo Volume: 6.0 cubic feet