WILLISAU, Switzerland – It would be a stretch to think the pint-sized Opel Adam could champion the automaker’s turnaround in Europe, but the plucky 2-door already has begun turning around notions of the 118-year-old General Motors subsidiary.

Opel desperately needs to change perceptions, too. A decade’s worth of financial losses put its products behind key rivals such as Volkswagen, and the brand grew stale and fell off the shopping lists of many Europeans, including native Germans.

GM finally said enough was enough and early last year revealed it would resuscitate Opel with a €4 billion ($5.2 billion) investment, an outlay funding 23 new products, 13 powertrains and a massive image makeover.

After a long string of year-over-year sales declines, Opel/Vauxhall deliveries in Europe and the U.K. last year flattened at 1.02 million units, according to WardsAuto data. That was well off the unit’s pre-recession annual totals but a sign the bleeding had stopped. The result included a modest market-share gain for Opel not witnessed in 14 years.

The Adam has been central to moving the Opel lodestone forward. Dealers have filled more than 80,000 orders for the car in one year on the market, but perhaps more importantly the car’s fun, quirky design and eye-popping color combinations paint the Opel brand in a much different light.

And the automaker has taken advantage of the car’s trendiness at every turn.

Earlier this year, the Adam gained headlines as the 3 millionth vehicle produced at Opel’s Eisenach plant when a flashy polar-white model with an Arden-blue roof rolled off the assembly line.

Opel also pairs the Adam in television advertisements with throngs of busy young hipsters, and Canadian rocker and photographer Bryan Adams, who lives in Berlin, recently composed a calendar portraying the car in variety of edgy images. Supermodel Claudia Schiffer is Opel’s new brand ambassador.

But does the Adam live up to the hype? Yes, for the most part.

We took delivery of a 2-tone Adam at Grimm Centre, a seller of Opel, Cadillac and select Chevrolet products, outside downtown Geneva. The 4-seater feels buttoned-up out of the gate. A 1.2L 4-cyl. gasoline engine mated to a tolerable 5-speed manual transmission gets the car jumping at moderate speeds, although it takes some revving.

Geneva traffic can rival other European cities, and we hit the streets during morning rush hour. But at a compact 146 ins. (3,700 mm) long and 68 ins. (1,720 mm) wide with lots of glass making for excellent sight lines, the Adam deftly negotiates the traffic and puts us on the E25 motorway frustration-free.

However, things get a bit dicey around 60 mph (100 km/h). Wind and tire noise noticeably increase, the reasonably good handling it exhibited in the city grows fuzzy and it takes a lot of clutch work to tackle the hilly countryside.

The buzzy power plant proves underpowered for highway travel, and fuel economy plunges trying to keep pace in the faster traffic.

Thankfully, that will change in the coming months as a range of more efficient and powerful gasoline engines roll out, beginning with a 1.0L 3-cyl. turbocharged unit shown at the recent Geneva auto show. A new 6-speed manual also will be available, and a sure-to-thrill 1.4L turbo will be available in a future Adam S model.

Fashionista on Four Wheels

The Adam also seems intimidatingly small on the highway, despite the high population of B- and C-segment cars on European roadways, evidence a minicar is a minicar wherever you might drive.

So in short, if regular cross-country jaunts are in the books, there might be wiser choices than the Adam, but few better for the city and probably none more fashionable.

Our tester was outfitted in bright yellow paint with a contrasting white roof and white exterior mirror caps. White wheels and a smiling white bar cutting across the grille give it a cheerful demeanor. Black trim at the base of the greenhouse gives the Adam’s roof a floating appearance.

The chrome Adam script at the base of the C-pillar is a notable detail, and an Opel “lightning” badge at the rear of the car doubles as an innovative hatch release.

Inside, the Adam we tested carried over exterior accents with attractive white stitching in the door panels and matching inserts to the dash, shift knob and parking brake. The rearview mirror also featured the same white housing and black “paint splash” motif as the exterior mirrors. There’s a good bit of front-row roominess.

A “starry night” roof panel steals the show, though. It’s a feature normally reserved for cars more expensive than one priced at €11,500 ($15,955) and gives the Adam’s interior a unique flair.

Second-row seating is unsurprisingly tight, but rear seatbacks flip and fold in a 50/50 split to open up a fair amount of cargo space.

The Adam’s award-winning infotainment system, which in other trim levels includes items such as a 7-in. (18-cm) touchscreen with navigation and access to Internet radio, paired easily to an iPod for crisp, clear driving music.

So while not altogether perfect, the Adam scores highly on a number of fronts, leaving no reason to expect its shortcomings will not improve right alongside Opel’s fortunes.

jamend@wardsauto.com

Opel Adam Specifications

Vehicle type Front-wheel-drive, 3-door, 4-passenger city car
Engine 1.2L 4-cyl. with stop/start
Power (SAE net) 70 hp
Torque 84 lb.-ft. (115 Nm)
Bore x stroke (mm) 73.4 x 72.6 mm
Compression ratio 10.5:1
Transmission 5-speed manual
Wheelbase 91 ins. (2,311 mm)
Overall length 146 ins. (3,698 mm)
Overall width 68 ins. (1,720 mm)
Overall height 58 ins. (1,484 mm)
Curb weight 2,894 lbs. (1,086 kg)
Base price $15,955 (€11,500)
Fuel economy Euro cycle 47 mpg (5.0 L/100 km)
Competition Fiat 500, Mini
Pros Cons
Head-turning design Underwhelming powertrain
An urban adventurer No X-Country traveler
Freshest Opel in years But enough to save brand?