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Vauxhall Adam S (2017) long-term test review

Published: 10 January 2017

CAR’s Vauxhall Adam S long-term test
Reminiscent of hot hatchbacks past
Flawed but fun, and surprisingly fast

Month 7 running a Vauxhall Adam S: the conclusion to our long-term test

The best long-term tests end with the talk of handing over of actual money; of finance calculations and approved used searches. I know contributor Ben Whitworth came within a coin toss of keeping his Caterham 160, and Ben Pulman would have been over the moon had Mini forgotten to ask for his Mini Cooper back. The Adam S hasn’t prompted similar dreams of happy-ever-after ownership, but neither have I found myself wishing it had never turned up. And given Vauxhall’s hot-hatch track record, plus this car’s ridiculous hue, that’s a result, particularly when you consider the Adam S came in off the back of a departing McLaren.  

On numbers alone the Adam S isn’t a car to rock worlds or blow socks from feet. The 148bhp turbocharged 1.4 four-cylinder, tuned for flexibility over heady rush, is strong rather than spectacular, and the un-optioned list price (£17.5k) scarily on a par with the truly exceptional, usefully more powerful Ford Fiesta ST, which summons 179bhp – 197bhp on overboost – for a 1.6sec advantage to 62mph (6.9sec versus the Vauxhall’s 8.5sec). Still, a 1178kg kerbweight is always a good start. (Remember when hot hatches weighed in with three-figure kerbweights? Same. Great days, though the way they folded like damp cardboard wasn’t so good).

You’re unlikely to go far without noticing the Adam S’s slightly awkward driving position too. The brilliant optional Recaro buckets can only go so far, hamstrung by the intrinsically un-sporty package and ergonomics of a super mini. Then there’s suspension firmly calibrated – and calibrated firmly – for mid-corner heroics, not day-to-day comfort. Next to the nicely supple Ford, the Adam S’s set-up is old-school and unyielding, though I suspect – but never managed to prove – that you’d ultimately achieve higher minimum apex speeds in the Vauxhall, given its broader rubber (225-section to the Ford’s 205) and resolute resistance to bodyroll.

So no one’s going to buy an Adam S based on its spec sheet. But while there are a lot of numbers in new car development, feel still matters. Ford r&d boss Raj Nair reckons extensive datalogging and the reams of data it produces every millisecond have made the development engineer’s life harder, not easier, and that it’s easy to lose your way in a Hampton Court maze of spring rates, ESP thresholds and yaw-gain. Nair told me the RS project lost its way for a while, adrift in hard drives of zeroes and ones: easy to do, you’d imagine, when the project also involves an all-wheel-drive powertrain developed from scratch. Seat-of-the-pants feedback got things back on track.

2016 Vauxhall Adam S long-term test

While the Adam S doesn’t hit the same highs as the RS, there is a cohesiveness and verve to the way it drives. Over the last six months the Vauxhall’s proved endearing, putting a smile on my face most mornings (particularly those on which you can’t see the sky for the rain) and brightened up those late-night cross-country drives when you seem to have the world to yourself. The car’s keen balance, playful set-up and impressive mid-corner grip are timeless Good Things, as is its plucky spirit. Every time I told myself I was just going to cruise home, frustratingly prodding at the too-small, hard-to-hit touchscreen and just about hearing the radio over the road noise, that plan would last as long as it took to get to the first proper corner.

Numbers aren’t the whole picture, which is why Nair makes a point of getting behind the wheel at least once a week, and why Fords have, since the first Focus, excelled at that feeling of connection so crucial to a satisfying driving experience, regardless of speed. Vauxhalls? Less so, as contributor Ben Whitworth found out with the blunt-instrument Corsa VXR last year – another in a line of strong-on-paper but ultimately frustrating fast Vauxhalls. But the Adam S is a very enjoyable thing to drive, and better for its more modest power output and less tuggy diff.   

It is not, as you’ll have surmised from just looking at it, a very practical car. That ride and plenty of road- and wind-noise don’t make for a relaxing cruise, and rear-seat accommodation and boot space are both meagre. But criticising the Vauxhall for those feels distinctly unfair, like castigating a Caterham for its towing capacity. Of greater concern is that price, a factor that makes the Adam S about as rare on UK roads as, well, a Caterham towing a trailer. But, like I said, it’s not about the numbers. Yes the Adam S is flawed, and yes you probably should buy the Ford (or a three-door Mini Cooper – only 134bhp but 7.9sec to 62mph, £15.6k and altogether more premium feeling, inside and out) but don’t be surprised if you find yourself test-driving the little Vauxhall and enjoying yourself. It’s easily done.

Count the cost

Cost new £17,475 (including £2665 of options) 
Dealer sale price £13,500
Private sale price £12,755
Part-exchange price £11,855
Cost per mile 15p
Cost per mile including depreciation £1.14

Logbook: Vauxhall Adam S 

Engine 1398cc 16v turbocharged 4-cyl, 148bhp @ 4900-5500rpm, 162lb ft @ 2750-4500rpm  
Gearbox Six-speed manual, fwd  
Performance 8.5sec 0-60mph, 130mph, 139g/km CO2  
Price £17,475  
As tested £20,130  
Miles this month 960  
Total miles 8159  
Our mpg 33.8
Official mpg 47.9  
Fuel cost overall £821.37  
Extra costs £0

By Ben Miller


Vauxhall Adam S driving position

Month 6 running a Vauxhall Adam S: 911-bothering ankle biter 

That the Adam S and I comfortably stuck to the back of a 911 being driven swiftly last week says less about my skills behind the wheel and more about how liberating it is to pilot a small car on narrow, centuries-old UK back roads.

Though noticeably bigger in its current guise, Porsche’s timeless 911 isn’t particularly wide as sports cars go. But still my Porsche-driving friend’s speed was being governed in part by the odds of meeting oncoming traffic and having to squeeze past it, be it an Audi A6 Allroad (1898mm wide, fairly common round these parts, always driven at full ride height regardless of terrain) or JCB FastTrac (2520mm wide, everywhere, always driven flat-out regardless of load).

In the Adam S – which measures just 1720mm flank to flank, and 3.7 metres from nose to tush – you need never worry. Focus instead on not braking, hoarding corner speed and – crucially – being in the right gear on the way out. (The turbo-assisted midrange is thick and juicy but below you’ll find only an ineffectual wilderness).

Needless to say the Adam S is also great in town, where its tiny size and handy speed means you’ve already cut through into that opening gap and disappeared before everyone else has even thought about cutting you off at the pass. You can also park anywhere and everywhere, even in the gaps Range Rover’s leave for boot access.

What you can’t do is seat more than two adults comfortably (another parallel with the 911…) or transport any meaningful load without first having folded down the rear seats. With all four seats in the place the boot is predictably minuscule and, while there are loops for straps, there’s no net with which to secure your milk, inevitably leading to carnage after a 911-bothering drive home.

Logbook: Vauxhall Adam S

Engine 1398cc 16v turbocharged 4-cyl, 148bhp @ 4900-5500rpm, 162lb ft @ 2750-4500rpm 
Gearbox Six-speed manual
Performance 8.5sec 0-60mph, 130mph, 139g/km CO2 
Price £17,475 
As tested £20,130 
Miles this month 1279 
Total miles 7392 
Our mpg 34.6 
Official mpg 47.9
Fuel this month £195.19 
Extra costs £0

By Ben Miller


2016 Vauxhall Adam S long-term test

Month 5 running a Vauxhall Adam S: watch this!

Interesting column in US mag Road & Track last month. A track instructor states that, given how advanced stability control systems are now, unthinkingly turning them off is foolhardy. He argues that you can learn much within their confines.

In the case of the Adam S he’s wrong, but then the car isn’t on sale in the US so I’ll let him off. It’s not that the Vauxhall’s stability programming is ham-fisted, more that the car’s so communicative you’d need deaf hands and butt cheeks to fluff it. What have I said? Cruunch.

Logbook: Vauxhall Adam S

Engine 1398cc 16v turbo 4-cyl, 148bhp @ 4900-5500rpm, 162lb ft @ 2750-4500rpm  
Transmission 6-spd manual, fwd  
Stats 8.5sec 0-60mph, 130mph, 139g/km CO2  
Price £17,475  
As tested £20,130  
Miles this month 1042  
Total miles 6113  
Our mpg 34.7  
Official mpg 47.9  
Fuel this month £139.53  
Extra costs £0 

By Ben Miller


2016 Vauxhall Adam S long-term test

Month 4 running a Vauxhall Adam S: not in the mood? Forget it

Superbly qualified for messing around, the Adam S is much less interested in being a grown-up car. Here’s why:

Sitting comfortably? Not really

 While there’s much to like about the Adam S’s three pedals, proper handbrake and fabulous optional Recaros, the lack of decent wheel adjustment has come to grate (as has the odd off-centre steering weight, the vague clutch and the rubbery shift). For 6ft me I can either have the wheel where I want it or I can see the dash, not both. 

2016 Vauxhall Adam S

Never give up! 

 The single greatest thing about the Adam S is the way its front end pivots into corners without fail and regardless of entry speed, how much brake you’re carrying or even what the weather’s doing. Credit must be apportioned equally to the amazing (Continental) rubber, the sheer amount of it the Vauxhall presents to the road and the set-up, which is refreshingly unrepentant in the way it gleefully sacrifices ride comfort for poise, and stability for understeer-free response. 

2016 Vauxhall Adam S

Three’s a crowd

 You wouldn’t expect much space in a car just 3698mm long, and you’d be right. Try to use the Adam S as a family car and the frustrations come thick and fast, whether you’re trying to stash more than one suitcase or put a human on the back seats. Instead pack light, deploy a bungee to secure the load (hooks are provided; nets aren’t) and take off like you’re in the dying seconds of Q3. Used thus, the Vauxhall’s myriad niggling shortcomings are swiftly, if temporarily, forgotten. 

2016 Vauxhall Adam S

Bluetooth blues

 The Intellilink infotainment is okay but there are numerous niggles, not least its pigheaded refusal to pair with my iPhone. The screen’s also set too low which, with the Adam S’s unyielding ride, makes accurate B-road interaction all but impossible. So I drive with the stereo off, listening to the Continentals mostly thrum and occasionally squeal. Sidestep the Technical Pack (which bundles Intellilink with tyre pressure monitoring and rear parking sensors) to save £500. 

From the driving seat 

+ Saw another Adam S this week. Flashed. Got a thumbs-up. I call that a community
– Likes 97 Ron unleaded…  …go with the cheap stuff and the 1.4 turbo feels flaccid

Logbook: Vauxhall Adam S  

Engine 1398cc 16v turbocharged 4-cyl, 148bhp @ 4900-5500rpm, 162lb ft @ 2750-4500rpm  
Transmission Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive  
Performance 8.5sec 0-60mph, 130mph, 139g/km CO2
Price £17,475  
As tested £20,130  
Miles this month 759  
Total miles 6113  
Our mpg 36.8  
Official mpg 47.9  
Fuel this month £107.85  
Extra costs £0 

By Ben Miller


2016 Vauxhall Adam S

Month 3 running a Vauxhall Adam S: is the Abarth 695 Biposto Record twice as nice?

The Adam S is Vauxhall’s Abarth Fiat 500. But quite understandably Luton doesn’t have an answer for the 695 Record, a £36,610 track-ready 500 with carbon bucket seats, no rear seats – Biposto, see – Brembo brakes, 18in OZ rims, a sublime chassis set-up that feels ready for World Touring Car racing and 187bhp. And to be fair you can’t legislate for this kind of whimsy. It’d be like trench warfare stalemate in which one side suddenly decides to get up, paint themselves yellow and come dancing across no man’s land humming the theme tune to The Simpsons. No matter how ready you thought you were, you’d be flummoxed. 

Normality in the Record lasts as long it takes to open the door and climb in. The seats are set vertical, and hug like your mum. You close the door with a fabric loop. The little rollcage in the back wouldn’t look out of place in a 911 GT3 RS, and the gorgeous alloy kick-plates bolted to the floor look like they might singlehandedly account for the Record’s price premium. Still, you’d trade most of the Record’s race-car cool for a steering wheel you could adjust exactly as you wanted. Like the Adam S, it’s impossible to get the driving position right, a legacy of both cars’ humble runabout origins. 

Get moving and the Abarth’s an addictive drive. While still laggy the engine’s smoother and more flexible than the Vauxhall’s, with an altogether more potent, dawdler-bashing top end. The gearshift is slicker and more accurate, if almost as long of throw, and the pedal feel and power of the Brembo brake setup sources of deep joy. Clever people have, you soon realise, put a lot of time and effort into this very silly car, meaning it drives with an unexpected cohesiveness, proving poised and responsive while you have grip in reserve and impressively pointy, understeer-proof and biddable when you haven’t.

In terms of fun and satisfaction, this thing’s right up there with some of the genuine sports cars its price tag puts it up against. Twice as good as the Vauxhall, though? Nope. The Adam S is 80% as sweet when you’re messing about. And though the Fiat’s power would be nice, the things I really wish I could steal for the Adam are the calibration and weights of those controls. After the Record the Adam’s rubbery shift, vague clutch and oddly geared steering are all the more noticeable.

Logbook: Vauxhall Adam S

Engine 1398cc 16v turbo 4-cyl, 148bhp @ 4900-5500rpm, 162lb ft @ 2750-4500rpm  
Transmission 6-speed manual, fwd  
Stats 8.5sec 0-60mph, 130mph, 139g/km CO2
Price £17,475
As tested £20,130  
Miles this month 673  
Total miles 5354  
Our mpg 34.0  
Official mpg 47.9  
Fuel this month £109.56  
Extra costs £0

By Ben Miller


2016 Vauxhall Adam S long-term test

Month 2 running a Vauxhall Adam S: practical problems

Last month I gushed unreservedly about our Adam S’s optional (£1610) Recaros. I haven’t yet tried an Adam S without them but they are pretty special seats: comfortable, supportive, handsome.

All good then, unless you want to get in the back. The mechanism to release them is awkward, the seats themselves viciously spring-loaded to fly back to upright and, when you release the catch, they stay where they are rather than returning to where they were (and where you want them). Planning to regularly take more than one other human? Buy a different car.

Logbook: Vauxhall Adam S

Engine 1398cc 16v turbo 4-cyl, 148bhp @ 4900-5500rpm, 162lb ft @ 2750-4500rpm  
Transmission 6-spd man  
Stats 8.5sec 0-60mph, 130mph, 139g/km CO2  
Price £17,475  
As tested £20,130  
Miles this month 775  
Total 4681
Our mpg 34.1  
Official mpg 47.9  
Fuel £110.55  
Extra costs £0

By Ben Miller


2016 Vauxhall Adam S long-term test

Month 1 running a Vauxhall Adam S: the introduction

What to make of a car that swells the basic Adam’s cheap-and-very-cheerful entry price of £13k to nearer £20k, sits on more serious rubber than many sports coupes and that conspicuously buzzes about the place in a shocking shade of luminous custard Vauxhall calls James Blonde? 

Others in the office snatched drives in the Adam S before I did. ‘Perfect pedal set-up for heel-and-toe shifts,’ muttered in-house helm James Taylor, miming a rat-a-tat sequence of just-so downshifts and a delicious curtsy of turn-in oversteer on his swivelling office chair. ‘So nice with the stability control off,’ smiled dot-com lynchpin Lewis, glint in his eye to rival Nicholson’s behind the axe-ravaged hotel room door. Intriguing. 

Just over a month in and, cards on the table, I’m a happy camper. McLaren 650S Spider to Adam S isn’t a consumer journey many are likely to undertake but the Vauxhall’s proving an effective post-supercar methadone. Key to its appeal are the spot-on basics: not always a given with power-addled modern hot hatches in general, and modern power-addled Vauxhall hot hatches in particular. The fairly heavily boosted 1.4 has lag and an addictively well-defined turbo rush but its delivery and output are perfectly pitched, delivering an engaging turn of speed without completely overwhelming the little front-drive chassis. The seats – a pair of incongruously serious, Vader-black Recaros – are fantastic. The chubby wheel, quick steering, well-placed pedals, fine if a touch ponderous six-speed manual ’box and convenient trad handbrake require no getting to know. Hop in, go. 

In the vivacious, all-action way the car careens down empty lanes and buzzes dual-carriageway roundabouts the Adam S reminds me of the 205 Peugeots I owned in the first years of post-pass liberation. The Vauxhall’s limits are far higher, naturally, its potential for light-hearted misbehaviour altogether more serious, but the two cars – separated by just a few hundred miles and 30 years – share a similar spirit. But you might guess the Adam S is fun.

The more pertinent question is perhaps whether or not such an initially endearing midget will prove tiresome with time and miles. Can it summon answers to the questions posed by long motorway stints to airports, very tall teenagers with enormous sports bags and the need to clear out junk-stuffed greenhouses with as few trips to the municipal tip as possible? (Re-reads sentence; winces at evidence of rampant middle age.)

The baptism of fire was a 150-mile pre-dawn charge to Gatwick. The Vauxhall isn’t the quietest motorway cruiser but neither is it uncouth. A month in I still can’t get my iPhone to connect via Bluetooth but neither am I unduly concerned, since it’s not hushed enough inside for civilised phone conversation and besides, I can access music and podcasts via the USB port. The cup holders are behind you, aft of the handbrake, but you get used to the double-jointed elbow action that demands. The touchscreen’s responsive enough but an MX-5-esque iDrive knock-off would get my vote.

2016 Vauxhall Adam S long-term test

The boot is tiny, obviously, with a comedy parcel shelf the size and shape of those expensive wooden planks Jamie Oliver sells for the serving of cured meats, and the rear seats are cramped for anyone with legs, but for you and one carefully chosen other there’s room enough here for day-to-day practicality. And of course that tiny footprint works for you on England’s leafy lanes, where more of the road’s width is yours to exploit and the ability to blat about without high-fiving oncoming wing mirrors is very liberating. The thing’s a tool in town too, and easily capable of parking in the kind of vestigial spaces everyone else will dismiss as impossible. 

So for now every drive is a nostalgia-soaked, back-to-basics riot of frantic shifts, cheeky moves and squealing Continentals. The Vauxhall’s like a hot hatch of the type’s long-gone heyday, when the closest thing to stability control was a steady nerve, connectivity was the rich exchange between clammy palms and hard-working front tyres, and the biggest worry in life was finding the £25 a full tank required. Jumpers for goalposts. Essentially then the Adam S is a time machine to a simpler age for a smidge over £200 a month. (Re-reads sentence; winces at evidence of rampant middle age.)

The upgrades

Winter pack 

£215 of must-have warming for bum and hands, or free in a bundle with the Recaros. The joy of snuggling into the bear-hug chairs at 4am, firing up the toasty heated wheel and seats and being able to run with the heater more or less off, is a great thing.

Technical Pack

£495 anti-hassle bundle brings Intellilink infotainment, rear parking sensors and tyre pressure monitoring. Without it the stereo’s a standard CD/MP3 set-up. Hardly needs parking sensors but they’re bundled in nonetheless.

Extreme carbon pack, Brilliant Paint 

Carbon pack lobs the now firmly passé ‘performance’ finish at the grille bar, wing mirrors and, weirdly, the rear-view mirror. £275? I’d go for a trackday instead. Cost paint options range from £275 to £545. I’d go Forget About Grey with the I’ll Be Black roof… James Blonde no longer available on the Adam S. Good news.

Recaro leather sports seats 

They barely fit in the car, the rear seat access mechanism is a pain and £1610 isn’t pocket money but these are essential nonetheless. 

Logbook: Vauxhall Adam S 

Engine 1398cc 16v turbo 4-cyl, 148bhp @ 4900-5500rpm, 162lb ft @ 2750-4500rpm  
Transmission Six-speed manual  
Stats 8.5sec 0-60mph, 130mph, 139g/km CO2  
Price £17,475  
As tested £20,130
Miles this month 1397  
Total miles 3906  
Our mpg 30.7  
Official mpg 47.9  
Fuel this month £211.43  
Extra costs £4 (screen wash)

By Ben Miller

Read more Vauxhall long-term tests here

By Ben Miller

The editor of CAR magazine, story-teller, average wheel count of three

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