The lovely TwinAir engine helps. If you like engineering and you like old motors – and if you don’t, may we please direct you down the WH Smith magazine shelf towards Lincolnshire Caravanning Monthly – you can’t help but adore the 500’s bubbly two-cylinder. Even at idle, it emits a cheery array of splutters and pops, climbing to a chuntering buzz as you rise through the revs. It sounds wonderful – albeit a mite intrusive if you don’t appreciate the noise of a small scooter with a hole in the exhaust – and produces a surprising amount of shove. But the twin is a long way from perfect: with no low-end power to speak of, you have to work through the gears to find its sweet spot.
Our mid-spec Adam makes near-identical power to the Fiat’s twin, but through far more conventional means: a four-cylinder, non-turbo petrol making 86bhp (there’s an entry-level 69bhp 1.2-litre four-pot and a 100bhp version of this n/a engine, too). Against the chirpy TwinAir, this 1.4 feels firmly, resolutely… like an engine. Press the throttle, and it goes faster; release the throttle, and it goes slower. And that’s about it: nothing exciting to report in the noise or fizz department. But it does its job, hauling the Adam up to pace with minimal drama and a hint of drone. It’s easier to balance throttle and clutch here than in the peaky, long-geared 500, which requires revs to get it spinning.
We struggled to top 40mpg in either: not so criminal for the Adam, which quotes 55.4mpg, but more worrying for the ‘71mpg’ 500. And it’s not just our hammer-footed driving: consensus from owners is that the Fiat falls far shorter of its claimed mpg figures that most. But, with CO2 emissions of 92g/km, at least it escapes VED – the Adam, even with stop/start, coughs out 119g/km.
But park up and start poking buttons, and the Adam claws back. The Vauxhall serves up a host of goodies more commonly associated with cars twice its price: a self-parking system and blind spot indicators (£450), even DAB radio as standard. The 7in colour screen is a £250 option and well worth it, syncing with your smartphone to run a dedicated nav app, display photo galleries and, no doubt, update your Facebook status on the move.
Elements of the Adam’s interior make you wish Vauxhall had gone further to differentiate it from its more pragmatic offerings. The dials are lovely, lighting up like chunky, luminescent watch faces, but between them lies a tatty dot-matrix display borrowed from the Corsa, sitting ill against the slick hi-res central screen. Similarly the steering wheel, though wrapped in smart colourcoded leather on even the base versions, looks suspiciously like it’s been borrowed from an Astra. These anomalies are all the more apparent because, for the most part, Vauxhall has done a fine job of disguising the Adam’s utilitarian underpinnings.
Similarly, the 500 avoids the grey drudgery that afflicts most city-car cabins, but it’s feeling a bit spartan nowadays. What little there is of it is all very nice, but there’s not the array of tech you’ll find in the Adam. The 500 suffers a few ergonomic flaws, too. Approximately an inch to the right of the 500’s handbrake is a lever to adjust the tilt of the driver’s seat squab. This lever is shaped very much like a handbrake. This may cause confusion and/or mild crashing. And, no matter how far you lower the seat, you still seem to sit on the 500 than in it. The Adam, by comparison, feels much more… like a car: you perch lower, in better seats, behind a bigger wheel, with a proper footrest beside the clutch. The Adam feels a touch larger inside, a function of both its longer sunroof and, er, the fact it’s a touch larger. That said, only the most optimistic dwarf could call either car a ‘four-seater’ with a straight face. If you are a person with head and limbs, you won’t want to be trapped in the back of either for anything but the shortest journey, the high beltlines and fat C-pillars amplifying the claustrophobia.