Diesel clatter in a BMW is like watching Bullit to the tunes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In other words, distasteful and illegal in 48 states. And yet, driving BMW’s new X1 is a surprisingly John Deere-like experience. Is this a BMW or the ultimate agricultural machine? Maybe this sort of confusion is the X1’s worst problem.
In this day and age, BMW’s identity crisis justifies a psychological hotline. Ever since Mercedes beat BMW in defining the midsize-luxury-SUV segment with its successful ML, the Bavarian automaker is having a separation anxiety of sorts, racing to create new and increasingly eyebrow-raising niches. The X3 may have invented the premium-compact SUV, but the X6 and the recent 5 GT have been trying to answer questions no one really asked.
You’d expect the X1’s nomenclature to indicate its roots lie in the compact 1 series, but the X1 is actually a chopped 3 series Touring (same wheelbase, different overall length), which makes the X3 the ugly duckling of the BMW family. Expensive and outdated, the X3 is less than 5 inches longer than the new X1, meaning the next generation of the sandwich child of the X series will have to get a serious bump in size and kit to justify the price increase over its baby brother. When it does – likely in 2011 – the X1 will also arrive stateside.
The exterior of the X1 is almost as confused as its identity. Up front, the X-junior bears BMW’s new upright kidney grill. Coupled with the bulbous bumper from the 1 series, the result isn’t completely unattractive – but definitely polarizing. The back is influenced by the 5 GT, with an uncanny resemblance to the E32 7 series, but the way the X1’s design elements connect is what makes it a bit of an odd bird. The proportions are strange, and they aren’t helped by the profile line sweeping from the front to the back – which is handsome on the new 5 series, but feels busy on the compact hatchback that the X1 fundamentally is.
Thankfully, the X1 still provides at least some core BMW experience. The seats are comfortable and grippy, and the thick, neatly stitched steering wheel falls comfortably into the driver’s hands. The driving position is also much closer to a conventional car than a true crossover – so that fans of the genre may be a little disappointed.
The rest of the cabin gets the basics right: everything in eye-level is fairly pleasing to the eye and touch, but as you go down you will discover flimsy plastics not worthy of a car of this caliber. There’s nothing here to make you feel particularly luxurious, and the general design of the cabin is a little dull – even BMW’s signature gearlever is replaced by a run of the mill stick. Annoyingly, there isn’t even a proper armrest.
The newest member of the X series does, however, get the practicalities right. Four passengers will be comfortable and so will their luggage – a huge improvement over the cramped 1 series. At almost 15 cubic feet, the X1’s trunk is smaller than the standard 3 series’. It is, however, significantly more comfortable to load, thanks to the practical benefits of the rear hatch and the slightly raised ride height.
Call me mad, but I’ve actually taken the baby-X to some mild offroading, and imminently proven that the X1 – and its expensive looking bumpers in particular – is allergic to as much as moderate potholes. And unless you don’t live in a country as sunny as mine, you really don’t need xDrive – BMW speak for 4 wheel drive – the car’s minimal clearance will probably limit it much quicker than treacherous mud will.
The X1’s natural habitat is the road, where it offers a good (but mixed) experience. The ride is bad. Blame BMW’s beloved low profile runflat tires for that. In moderately slow driving the X1 feels bumpy and crashes on minor asphalt imperfections, while in higher speeds and flatter roads the experience improves significantly – wind and tire noises are kept at bay, too.
Other than that, the X1 drives like a BMW should, with weighty hydraulically-assisted steering that’s not to anyone’s liking – especially not in town and during parking maneuvers. Thankfully, it’s also accurate and communicative, greatly contributing to a driving experience that’s very close to its road focused sibling. Body roll is minimal and the brakes are excellent, both in pedal feel and bite retention. The well-praised six speed ZF gearbox is well-praised here too, with a smooth and decisive action, but tap-shifters are sorely missed for spirited driving.
The engine is a mixed bag too. With 177 brake horsepower on tap, it won’t set this BMW’s tires alight (or puncture them, for that matter), but 258 lb-ft of torque have their way of getting this crossover to 60 in about 8.5 seconds on paper. Off paper, it feels quicker once the turbocharger kicks in at about 1,500 RPM. But then there’s that John Deere identity issue. The diesel clatter, which is well silenced in the rest of BMW’s diesel-sipping offerings, is present not only while the engine is cold, but also during moderate accelerations, almost never letting you forget it’s down there, and it won’t take regular unleaded without a fight.
Casting a verdict on the BMW X1 isn’t a “good car, bad car” affair as with most cars, because you have to put it in context, and right now you can’t. BMW want us to believe that their newest crossover is the opening shot in a new and busy segment which will be populated by the upcoming Audi Q3 and Land Rover LRX, but as of the present, the X1 can’t be readily compared to any vehicle on the market.
Even more confusingly, the X1 isn’t a bad car – it handles well and has some practical edges. The downsides – a mediocre cabin, iffy ride comfort with the stock runflat tires, and noisy engine – place it closer to the 1 series in the BMW quality hierarchy. In the end, it all boils down to pricing. UK pricing of the X1 place it close in price to an equally equipped 3 series sedan, but significantly cheaper than the more spacious 3 series touring.
In this price range the X1 can make sense for people looking for added practicality and raised ride height, who are willing to sacrifice some refinement and cabin quality. But it also comes mighty close in price to the larger Audi Q5, which makes me wonder: is there really a place for another sub-niche in the niche of the century?