This article extends the analysis of local power of unit root tests in a nonlinear direction by considering local nonlinear alternatives and tests built specifically against stationary nonlinear models. In particular, we focus on the popular test proposed by Kapetanios et al. (2003, Journal of Econometrics 112, 359–379) in comparison to the linear Dickey–Fuller test. To this end, we consider different adjustment schemes for deterministic terms. We provide asymptotic results which imply that the error variance has a severe impact on the behaviour of the tests in the nonlinear case; the reason for such behaviour is the interplay of non-stationarity and nonlinearity. In particular, we show that nonlinearity of the data generating process can be asymptotically negligible when the error variance is moderate or large (compared to the ‘amount of nonlinearity’), rendering the linear test more powerful than the nonlinear one. Should however the error variance be small, the nonlinear test has better power against local alternatives. We illustrate this in an asymptotic framework of what we call persistent nonlinearity. The theoretical findings of this article explain previous results in the literature obtained by simulation. Furthermore, our own simulation results suggest that the user-specified adjustment scheme for deterministic components (e.g. OLS, GLS, or recursive adjustment) has a much higher impact on the power of unit root tests than accounting for nonlinearity, at least under local (linear or nonlinear) alternatives.