BBC Autos

Review

Purple reign: Fiat 500 v Vauxhall Adam

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In 1957, Fiat introduced the 500. Cute and affordable, it was an instant hit, shifting nearly four million units and mobilising a post-war generation. More than that, it defined a genre of city cars for decades to come, encapsulating an effortless, Italian chic that no car has matched since.

In 1957, Vauxhall introduced the Victor. Apparently, it was OK, but everyone was too busy admiring the 500 to notice.

Such is the weight of history Vauxhall faces with its new Adam. By setting its sights on the all-conquering 500, it is attempting to overhaul not only the metrosexual market leader, but 56 years of history. The new 500 has been such a cash calf for Fiat, not simply because it’s a fine little city car but because it allows feckless urbanites to buy into that whole La Dolce Vita, ciao bella thing. The Adam has no such recognisable image on which to trade, so it’s attempting to catch the 500 from a standing start.

Can it? To find out, we’re in London’s reassuringly expensive Shad Thames district to conduct the most purple twin test in history. Going face-to-face are the Adam Glam and Fiat 500 TwinAir, decked out in colours to resemble, in the words of passing Londoners, either “some lovely aubergines” or, more prosaically, “a pair of plums”. Officially, the 500 is painted Chillout Purple, while the Adam is wearing Purple Fiction. The latter should give you some idea how Vauxhall is marketing its latest creation: a combination of quirky branding and appalling puns. You want colours? How about The Greyfather (grey)? Or Sweet Greens (yep, green)? And why not a contrast roof in White My Fire with Red ’n’ Roll spoke clips on your alloys?

Point is, the Adam is a) very annoyingly branded and b) truly, extraordinarily customisable, making the lurid paint and decal options available on the 500 look veritably pallid in comparison. You can have colour-coded wheel inserts, decals and stripes galore, foil-overlay dashboards, or, most inadvisably, clouds-and-blue-sky headlining replete with LED “stars”. Unless you are Katie Price, you must under no circumstances spec your Adam with the last of these options.

But peel back all the branding and punnery, and the Adam turns out to be – shock horror – a car. A decent one. With a wide footprint, it hangs onto the road nicely – hardly an eye-widening sports car but a more-than-acceptable thing to punt down a B-road. We’re driving the first Adam to get Vauxhall’s UK-specific dynamic tweaks, which have focused on the Adam’s steering software to add more weight and improve the feeling of connection to the front tires. The Brit boys have done a good job. The steering on Euro Adams felt over-light, but the new UK set-up is much heavier and more progressive. So the Adam steers well and doesn’t ride badly, even on the sports suspension that’s standard with 17- or 18-inch wheels. It’s compliant enough, only turning a little crunchy on truly bad roads, but we suspect the comfort chassis with 16in wheels might be the sweeter set-up.

Stepping from the Adam into the 500 is like unclipping your leash from an obedient poodle and attaching it to a hyperactive cocker spaniel. It is decidedly boingy (not a word? Should be), springing and burbling about in a fashion that immediately turns you into the goodie in a Seventies car chase.

It topples more through the corners, the 500, feeling taller than the Adam. That’s because it is, at least proportionally: though 15cm shorter and nine centimetres narrower than the Vauxhall, the Fiat is the same height. It’s softer-sprung, too, making it less harsh over potholes but bouncy over bigger undulations.

With road-tester hats on, we’d concede the Adam handles more tidily than the 500, but there’s an ineffable zing about the Fiat. Yes, you’d be more comfortable going fast down a greasy road in the Adam, but the 500 puts a bigger smile on your face.

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.

But assuming you have neither children nor many friends, which one should you buy? We’re going to have to declare this one a score-draw. The Adam drives tidily, offers mountains of kit and does a fine job of appealing to those people – and by ‘those people’ we mean ‘men’ – who find the 500 too effeminate. Granted, they probably wouldn’t spec their Adam in purple with matching leather and a white roof, but go for a less campy colour scheme, and the Vauxhall can be made more masculine than the bubblesome Fiat. It’s a pity Vauxhall couldn’t find any interesting powerplants for the Adam, but engineers have confirmed it’ll be the first to receive GM’s new three-cylinder turbo, expected to arrive in a year or so. They’ve also hinted heavily that there are hotter versions on the way: the Adam shares its front subframe with the Corsa, meaning there’s plenty of room in the engine bay for, say, the 1.6-litre turbo from the Corsa VXR, a unit that’ll easily run towards 200bhp. An Adam with Clio RenaultSport pace? Now you’re talking.

The 500, of course, has its hot Abarth versions, but even this tiny-engined TwinAir has soul in spades, and is still turning heads more than any other city car even after five years on sale. It’s less rounded, less complete than the Adam, but has more… er, what’s the Italian for joie de vivre? The Vauxhall is a neater fit for modern Britain, but we’ve a sneaking suspicion the Fiat will be the one that people will remember in the year 2069.

This story originally appeared in the February 2012 edition of Top Gear magazine.