Spread adaptive quadrature amplitude modulated (AQAM) code-division multiple access (CDMA) is proposed as a powerful means of exploiting the time-variant channel capacity fluctuations of wireless channels. It is studied in comparison to variable spreading factor (VSF)-based techniques. These adaptive-rate transmission methods are compared in the context of joint detection and interference cancellation assisted adaptive CDMA (ACDMA) systems. More explicitly, we exploit the time-variant channel quality of mobile channels by switching either the modulation mode (AQAM) or the spreading factor (VSF) on a burst-by-burst basis. The most appropriate modulation mode or spreading factor is chosen based on the instantaneous channel quality estimated. The chosen modem mode or spreading factor is communicated to the remote communicator either through explicit signalling or extracted at the receiver using blind detection techniques. The multiuser joint detector (JD) and the successive interference cancellation (SIC) receiver are compared in the context of these adaptive schemes, with the conclusion that the JD outperformed the SIC receiver in the ACDMA schemes at the cost of increased complexity. Finally, the performance of the uncoded AQAM JD-CDMA scheme is also compared to that of adaptive trellis coded modulation (TCM) assisted AQAM JD-CDMA, which allows us to incorporate adaptive channel coding without any bandwidth expansion. We also show that in the particular scenario studied, adaptive TCM outperformed adaptive turbo TCM since the system was designed for maintaining a low turbo-interleaver delay.