Not even BMW, a brand built around the slogan "ultimate driving machine," has been able to avoid the pull of front-wheel drive. It started with a minivan – the Series 2 Active Tourer – but the space-saving tech has quickly spread across to BMW's smallest SUV. So, is the X1 worth the sticker price and can a roomy family SUV really be built on the skinny carcass of the Mini Cooper? After spending a week in the xDrive25i, we have some answers.
A BMW SUV built on a front-wheel drive platform? In years gone by, the Bavarians would have scoffed at such a suggestion. In fact, they did, long and loud, with a series of fun ads poking fun at the very idea. But there are clearly some buyers who like the greater efficiency and space-saving packaging of pullers as opposed to pushers. The X1 is designed to appeal to this segment.
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The first generation X1 was something of a trailblazer. Although our roads are flooded with high-riding wagons with German badges on the bonnet now, when the X1 first launched in 2009 it was the only one around. Even though it was cramped inside, rode stiffly and looked ungainly, over 730,000 were sold before the second generation car dropped. Based on that previous success, the new car should sell like hotcakes, because it's a far more attractive package.
In M Sport trim, you get a neat (and entirely fake) rear diffuser, twin exhaust, bigger wheels and a front bumper with gaping air intakes. They're all touches that could look out of place on a compact faux-wheel drive, but somehow they don't. The M Sport upgrade gets better from the driver's seat: textured aluminum on the dash, stitched leather sports seats and a chubby steering wheel. Once again, small touches, but touches that make the X1 feel that little bit more special inside.
Design package aside, the X1's fundamentals are all well and truly in the right place. As soon as you glance at the dials, which have hardly changed since the days of the E30 3 Series, or slide into the low-set seats and put your hand on the iDrive controller, the important bits and pieces are exactly where you'd expect.
In the past, BMW has been criticized for the quality of its cabin materials, but everything you touch here feels expensive, and iDrive is also right up there with our favorite infotainment systems at the moment, thanks to its logical layout and crystal-clear graphics. Our only real complaint comes down to the fact right handers will find the handwriting input a bit difficult on the RHD version we tested on Australian roads.
As this is a car that will be driven by families, there are practical touches spread generously around the interior. There are bag hooks in the boot, and the three rear seats fold individually so skis, surfboards and bikes can be loaded without too much fuss. Although the 575 liters (20.3 cu.ft) of cargo space on offer is less than you get in a Range Rover Evoque, folding all three seats gives you a cavernous 1,550 L (54.7 cu.ft) – it's worth keeping in mind, though, that's only if you load it from floor-to-roof, not just to the height of the seatbacks.
With the rear seats raised, there's plenty of space for longer-legged kids and teenagers. BMW makes a big fuss about the X1's 56 cm (22 in) of legroom and, while it mightn't sound like much, there's much more room for gangly passengers than the original model offered – although laterally you'll struggle to fit three adults. We also found it easy to get a baby seat in the back.
But enough talk about interior space and baby seats. How's it go?
The X1 is bound to spend the vast majority of its driving life doing insanely boring things. Traffic-clogged commuting. Picking up the kids. Cruising on a freeway. For a car to do boring motoring well, it's got to be smooth and predictable, quiet, efficient and safe – and the X1 absolutely nails this brief.
As tested, the X1 has a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, putting out an impressive 170 kW (228 hp) of power. That's more than a Golf GTI can manage, while the 350 Nm (258 ft.lb) is more than the Ford Focus ST offers up. Power is smooth, predictable and always available, and the 8-speed Aisin automatic gearbox is a genuine pleasure around town. It's never too busy, never panics when you put the foot down, and never catches you out.
Our test car had a further bag of tricks fitted that made boring driving even better. BMW's adaptive cruise system is the best thing we've experienced this side of Tesla's Autopilot. It reads and reacts to traffic on the highway, keeping you a safe distance from the cars in front of you, but it's the way it drives that really impresses. Where some systems (I'm looking at you, Ford Kuga) can be a touch heavy-handed on speed adjustments, the Bimmer is just butter smooth, coasting on a closed throttle instead of bricking itself and braking when another car merges into your lane. That's the sort of thing that gives you comfort and confidence on the freeway.
On the other hand, queue assist is less useful in my mind - that's using adaptive cruise at low speeds right down to zero. The LiDar system can't see two cars ahead like a driver can, so it waits for the car right in front of you to move before it lets you tap the throttle and set off. You end up sitting there just long enough to annoy the guy behind you, but not long enough to get a beep out of him, and then the system accelerates off at such a conservative pace that I found myself getting a bit self-conscious.
It's best to drive this thing yourself in stop-start traffic, or at least take over the throttle until you're up and running. But it does illustrate one thing about autonomous cars that people seem to miss when they're discussing those well-worn ethics questions; they'll be far more conservative and safety conscious than us red-blooded mammals are behind the wheel.
I'm a big fan of head-up displays and the X1's optional HUD puts a big fat speed figure right in your face, along with handy navigation prompts, emergency braking warnings and information about the cruise control system. Minimal, functional, elegant; two thumbs up. And if you really want to be conscientious about speed, you can always pop on the limiter or use the cruise system.
The interior just works. The leather seats are comfy and heatable if you want to feel like you've peed yourself (they're not coolable), and include extendable thigh supports. The stereo sounds great, Bluetooth integration worked a treat with an Android phone, and the built-in navigation system is a beauty. Not only does it look great, the car's got its own SIM card so it can go online and get instant real-time traffic updates using data from other cars and fleet vehicles, as well as mobile phones and other devices. If it finds a quicker route, it'll tell you and give you the option of switching. It won't pop up alerts for cops and cameras the way your smartphone can with Waze running, but otherwise the nav system's as classy, smart and efficient as the rest of the car.
Speaking of efficiency, the X1 delivers an impressive 10-11 L/100km (28 - 26 mpg) even in the worst start-stop traffic, and around 6 L/100km (47 mpg) on the highway. That's in Normal mode where we did most of our driving. If you really want to pinch a penny, you can engage Eco Pro mode, which, we can tell you, is no half measure.
Engaging Eco Pro mode absolutely neuters the throttle. You need to stomp the pedal to about 70 percent throttle to access the meat of the car's power. Any less, and the X1 takes off like a wounded snail and feels like a vastly different car. The gearbox likewise stays a cog or two higher than in Normal mode, unless you really frighten it. But there's no question this is a far more economical way of driving; a readout on the dash tells you exactly how many extra miles Eco Pro mode is giving you, and that number piles up pretty quickly. I could see myself using it. Occasionally.
The final mode, of course, is Sports mode, for those rare occasions when a family SUV can throw off the yoke of its workaday existence, hike up its skirts and deliver some high-octane stress relief. It might be built on the same platform as the Mini, but the xDrive model we drove was fitted with all-wheel drive. Although it defaults to front-wheel drive, the system shuffles torque to the rear wheels when it detects slip, and that ought to give it a bit of ability on a twisty road.
To be honest, we weren't expecting all that much from this thing in the corners. It does such a good job playing Clark Kent around town that you smirk at the very idea it might pop into a phone booth and come out as a performance car. But, it is a Bimmer, after all. When you poke the Sports mode button, the transmission drops a gear, the steering wheel firms up, the throttle gets a dollop more attitude, and we were pleased to discover it gets a decent hoon on.
You're still in a family car – the suspension's set for comfort, not racetrack tenths. But it corners harder than it feels like it's got any right to, powers out with a gleeful roar and generally gave me all the feedback I needed to push on with vigor. The transmission doesn't do a great job of sporty driving, getting confused and doing laggy downshifts mid-corner, but that's hardly a problem when there's paddles on the wheel and sports shift on the stick. And when you're hitting it hard on the open road, you want to be choosing your own gears anyway.
At the heart of it, this is just a really nice car. It does boring driving exceptionally well, and fun driving much better than we expected. The exterior doesn't give millennials much to take selfies in front of, but the minute you plonk yourself down in the driver's seat there are plenty of reasons to start feeling pleased with yourself. The first impression is one of a smart, stylish and well thought out car, and it's done nothing in the last week to make us think otherwise.
With a starting price of just over AU$59,900 (US$46,400), the xDrive 25i isn't cheap. But it feels bombproof inside, and has enough neat touches to set it apart from slightly older competitors like the Mercedes GLA and Audi Q3. If you've got the cash, the X1 is a winner.
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