Retro without a cause: Vauxhall Adam vs MINI Cooper
No time like the present, we reckoned. If we were going to drive 900 miles through Europe to northern Denmark for our first-ever drive of VauxhalFs all-new baby car, the Adam, why not take a Mini, the competitor Vauxhall most wanted to emulate? That would be a sure way of judging the Adam’s potential for stealing a slice of the premium baby car m arket currently controlled by the 260,000-sold-a-year, Oxford-built, brick-shaped phenomenon.
Our preferred choice of a Mini Cooper looked a little unfair next to the Adam at first. Sure, the 120bhp, 1.6-litre hatch saloon would be better for our European dash than a lower-powered 1.4 litre Mini One, but its power and performance would be too much for the 1.4 litre, 99 bhp Adam, the most powerful version currently available. But when we saw the price of our chosen Adam – a top-spec Slam model priced within £900 of the Cooper before plentiful options – we didn’t feel so bad.
In any case, this was going to be a preliminary comparo, conducted away from the pertinent road surfaces of Britain, and thus a decent guide to the new baby Vauxhall’s behaviour rather than a settled opinion. So we let in the Cooper’s clutch and drove to the top of Denmark in one very long day.
Vauxhall’s recent difficulties have battlehardened its people: they admit instantly that their history lacks a world-famous model (a Beetle, Mini, Fiat 500 or Citroen 2CV) that might have provided the kind of nostalgic connection that has helped others justify premium pricing. Instead they used other weapons, starting with an off-the-wall name – the kind of attention-getting image cars need. It provides “cut-through” according to the blurb, and any naming link with Adam Opel AG, the German company, is denied. Adam is a short, memorable handle that stays in people’s memories, they insist, and so far, despite attracting some pretty scathing criticism, it has done precisely that.
The Adam plan has been to build a cute, spaceefficient but essentially conventional car, using a dozen whizzy wheel designs, outlandish and dramatic colours inside and out, some crazy decals, decidedly zany and apparently youth-orientated colour names. And they’ve built unprecedented configurability into the whole thing. Adam people say more than a million spec combinations are possible within the three deceptively simple trim levels Jam (colourful), Glam (sophisticated) and Slam (‘sporty’). There is a huge number of colour and trim combinations, as well as options offered in packs: Style, Technical and Urban. Vauxhall wants owners to enjoy making their cars special, and having seen the web-based configurator, we reckon they will.
Style first, substance later
Though it has no styling link with a car of the past, the Adam manages to look as if it does. It seems cuter and more expensively and carefully styled than a simple mainstreamer. There are interesting devices, such as the styling-line ‘kick’ on the rear pillar, that look as if they might allude to something old, although they don’t. The colours and wheel styles are arresting. The interior, especially the fascia, is especially impressive – notably so against the Mini with its useless, central dinner-plate speedo and weird graphics.
Park the two cars side by side and it’s the Adam that instantly looks bigger. It is 77mm higher but 25mm shorter overall and a striking 156mm shorter in wheelbase than the Mini, which means it has markedly longer overhangs, especially at the front. The Adam is 40mm wider in the body, not counting door mirrors, and almost identical in width to the Adam’s bigger brother, the Vauxhall Corsa, with which it shares some key chassis components including much of its MacPherson strut front suspension and subframe. As a result of its superior height and width, the Adam feels a bigger, roomier car than the Mini, with notably easier access and more adult-friendly rear accommodation, although the extra space costs it nothing in small-car agility.
It’s when you settle into the cars to drive them that the differences really begin to accumulate. The Mini’s whole ethos is telegraphed by the driving position: it’s a ‘wheel at each corner’ car with a very low seating position and consequent low roof, and a special kind of agility created by that lowness and a lack of overhangs. There are rear seats, but only for kids or smallish adults willing to squeeze in. The Adam’s extra height is very apparent, although the expected visibility benefit isn’t there because, whereas the Mini has very vertical screen pillars positioned out of the way, the Vauxhall’s conventional thick pillars create much more of a barrier.
However, the Adam, with its big (and much higher) door is as easy to get into as a big car, and access to the rear around the folded front seats, though never actually convenient, is better than in the Mini. If the purchaser plans to use their car for toting kids older than 12 in the rear, the Vauxhall pulls out an instant advantage.
Look forward in the Adam and you see a fascia that is conventional in layout, except that you’d expect to see its finish and quality materials in a car several classes higher. The craftsmanship and sheer boldness of the colour and trim combinations are refreshing and attractive. The dash is quite conventional in layout: a twin-dial set-up straight ahead with a small info screen between the two, four circular air outlets across the two-tone dash (they might have come from an Audi TT) and a big screen at the top of the centre console. The three-spoke steering wheel in our test car was a particular feature – a black affair with a third of its rim covered in yellow leather, and some high quality metallic pieces on the spokes.
The Mini’s interior isn’t nearly as good, and further hamstrung by its extreme familiarity. Everything is governed by that speedo – never used by the driver as such – that has a circular info screen within its perimeter. The instrument that matters is the compact tacho binnacle mounted on the steering column (so that it can move and up and down and thus never be obscured), which contains a digital speedo and even echoes instructions from the nav system. It’s already clear the next-gen Mini will ditch the dinner plate, but let’s hope they keep the column-mounted tacho.
The Mini’s seats are generously proportioned, have good lumbar and side support and feel comfortable because you sit low, down among the wheels. The Adam’s are more chair-like – not as topply as a Fiat 500′s, though – and decently firm. Like the other major bits of the interior, they look like quality, too.
Start the engines. The Adam’s is a thoroughly familiar 1398cc four, albeit with variable valve timing and a new round of tweaks that give it a decent CO2 output of 119g/km when fitted (at extra cost) with stop-start, or 129g/km without. Neither power nor torque outputs are especially impressive (there’s no Adam diesel because GM contends oil-burners aren’t needed in city cars), and in general the Adam engines show how badly the 1.0-litre three-cylinder and additional small-capacity engine family promised “later in the model’s life” are needed. The Mini engine, admittedly 200cc bigger, is a revelation: torquey, smooth and very responsive by comparison. Chuck in the fact that it has a standard six-speed gearbox (plus the grunt to pull high gears) and you soon see how much the Adam is lacking. Its own fivespeeder doesn’t even have a nice shift action and the distance between the first to second and third to fourth planes is unsatisfyingly different.
Let’s get driving. We’re going to overlook the fact that the Adam isn’t as fast as the biggerengined Mini. Both cars are noisy over coarse surfaces and lateral bumps (there is definitely room for something else – maybe Volkswagen’s Up – to come through on the inside) but the Adam impresses by nearly matching the Mini’s feeling of rock-solidness. Its engine, however, lacks oomph and what Ford would call ‘performance feel’, even for a 1.4. There has to be a quicker, zingier Adam and soon, if only to match the promise of all that stirring decor. What’s the point of a great-looking cocktail if it doesn’t taste very good?
It’s more of the same for the brakes, which are wooden and not very responsive, and the steering. On first contact at low speed you think the steering is quick and sporty. But when speed rises and greater precision is needed it proves to be inert near the straight-ahead, then too twitchy as you apply lock. We’re growing used to steering systems, even electric ones, that are subtle and natural in feel. This one is neither, and it’s abad time for a company known for decent steering to muff it just as the Koreans start proving they have the secret. Ride quality seems reasonable without being special, and will need better assessment in the UK. We sense damper limitations and detect cost-saving under the skin, although Vauxhall says it is planning to retune the car’s suspension and steering to better suit British needs. The Mini is firm, of course, but fl at and controlled. Very BMW.
In hard cornering, our Adam again had most of the key advantages: very wide tracks (because of the Corsa relationship), fat tyres on 17-inch rims, compact dimensions and quick-acting steering. It grips, too, although steering loads build up from a low base in cornering and there isn’t a breath of the precision you’d hope for in a baby car like this (and which you get with a Mini). The Adam understeers safely and stays pretty flat in corners but inspiration is hard to find.
The Vauxhall Adam is very different from the Mini. It is better at accommodating people, and it’s always going to be cute and attractive in any company, especially if its owner makes full use of the cosmetic options available. Configuring your own Adam from the huge choice of variables is going to be a big drawcard for many people.
But the Adam loses to the Mini on just about every point of dynamic comparison. Hard driving appears simply not to be its priority. Yet it is too simple to say this is not an enthusiast’s car. It may even create a new breed of enthusiast. It may not be long before we see know-it-all companies 1 ike BMW rushing to compete with the Adam’s record levels of configurability, because buyers love them so much. For the health of GM Europe, that would be good to see. But nothing obscures the fact that if you buy your A-segment car primarily for the joy of driving it as you can do with the likes of the Mini, VW Up, Fiat Panda and arguably Ford Ka – then the Vauxhall Adam is rather behind the game.