City chic: Fiat 500 vs Vauxhall Adam

Image of James Fossdyke
Author: | Updated: 18 May 2021 13:57

City cars have become so much more than practical runabouts these days, and two cars epitomise that unlike any other.

The Fiat 500 and its retro charm made people see the segment in a whole new light, and then Vauxhall’s Adam came to add a little class to proceedings. If you want a chic city car, then, these are the two front runners, but which is best? We went to find out.

Fiat 500 v Vauxhall Adam Front Static

Exterior

There are two very different approaches at work here, and each has its own merits.

The ‘retro’ scene has been revitalised over the past few years and there is no greater symbol of that than the Fiat 500. The 1950s original has been fattened up with crumple zones and airbags, but it’s unmistakably a relation of the characterful old ‘Cinquecento’.

It’s a design that’s worked for years, and the light refresh at the end of last year has done little to change it. For those that haven’t spotted the changes yet, the lower grille has been re-jigged slightly and the tail lights have had the centres taken out of them. Told you the differences were subtle.

Fiat 500 v Vauxhall Adam Rear Static

Without an iconic old supermini to reinvent, Vauxhall has had to employ a slightly different tactic. The Adam is a fresh, modern design, and though it’s definitely rounded and softened around the edges, it’s a slightly more masculine shape.

At the front it’s pure Vauxhall, but further back there’s more freedom to the design. The tail lights stand slightly proud of the tailgate, and the chrome lining around the ‘floating’ roof gives it a classy, sophisticated touch.

Interior

The Fiat continues its retro theme with a Bakelite-esque dash and that vast expanse of body-coloured plastic, although there are concessions to the modern world. Our top-spec Lounge test car came with satellite navigation and climate control, for example.

All these mod cons have been rather shoehorned in though, and that means ergonomics have been sacrificed. Combine all that with some less-than-impressive plastics and a distinct lack of space and you should be left with something fundamentally flawed, but it’s the idiosyncrasies that make it special.

Fiat 500 Interior

Read our first drive review of the Fiat 500 here

In that oh-so Italian way, the seat height adjust (such that it is) is worryingly close to the handbrake, so it’s easy to imagine an absent-minded driver parking up and failing to do anything other than tilt the seat squab a bit and the electric window switches are rather confusingly placed by the gear lever. These little things are inconveniences, but they’re part of what gives the car its character.

In the Vauxhall, things are much more conventional, not to mention more practical. The 170-litre boot actually trails the Fiat’s 185-litre load bay in terms of outright volume, but the Adam’s less rakish tailgate means the overall boot shape is a little more accommodating for square items like suitcases. It also feels more spacious in the back, and the seats adjust properly, making long journeys far more palatable.

The Vauxhall’s real trump card, though, is the classy build and first-rate ergonomics. The dashboard plastics feel soft and squishy where the Fiat’s are coarse and brittle, while the buttons are all where you expect and want them to be. Then there’s the 7in infotainment touchscreen, which edges out the Fiat’s 5in screen with its clear graphics and intuitive layout.

Vauxhall Adam Interior

On the road

Both these cars sell well in their basic 1.2-litre guises, and though they aren’t especially fast, they’re quite smooth and easy to drive. Both have light clutches and the throttles elicit a progressive and predictable response.

With these circa-70hp engines under the bonnet neither car is going to set your hair on fire, but if you’re into driving the Adam is the machine of choice. It feels like a bigger car than the 500, despite only being about 10cm longer, and that’s thanks to the meatier and more precise steering, as well as the slicker gearbox and improved body control.

Vauxhall Adam Red Front Static

The Fiat is noticeably lighter on the steering wheel though, and the high seating position means visibility isn’t too shabby – good for the tight spaces of the urban jungle.

But if a comfortable ride is what you’re after, you’ll have to go for the Adam. That’s not because of its superior suspension – both cars jolt a bit over the bumps – but because the seats are so much better than the Fiat’s form-over-function chairs.

Running costs

In entry-level 1.2-litre guise the Fiat is the more economical runner, officially returning 60.1mpg and 111g/km carbon dioxide emissions while the Adam struggles by pumping 125g of CO2 from the tailpipe every kilometre and returning 53.3mpg.

The Fiat’s desirability and super-strong residual values mean it is cheaper to lease though, with average three-year personal leases costing £191 per month while Adams average £212 per month.*

Fiat 500 v Vauxhall Adam Detail

The verdict

At the end of the day it comes down to a matter of taste, and for every punter that prefers the Fiat, another will be more sold on the Vauxhall. The Adam just about takes the honours in this head-to-head by virtue of its big-car feel, classy cabin and more unisex design, but the 500’s rock-bottom lease rates make it a very close-run thing.

*Average lease rate based on ContractHireAndLeasing.com three-year personal leasing deals, correct at time of writing.

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