I know a guy who used to own a BMW 318ti. Like most 318 shoppers, he paid way too much because it had a roundel on the front. At some point he realized that 25-grand (in 1997) was an awful lot to have paid for an asthmatic 138-horsepower rattletrap and sold it. Likewise, the fog lifted at BMW and they refocused on volume models. Then came the 1 series, a fantastic little car that hasn’t exactly set the sales charts on fire. The Germans are a persistent people, so for 2013 they are fishing with fresh bait. Click through the jump as we look at the cheapest BMW in America, the 2013 BMW X1.
OK, so BMW would prefer that I called the X1 “the most affordable” BMW in America, but I suffer from political incorrectness. So what is the X1? It’s a crossover of course. While that term has become synonymous with “ginormous FWD soft-roader” the X1 is more of a “true” crossover in that it looks like a cross between a pregnant 1-Series and a mini X5. The result is a handsome BMW version of the Subaru Outback or Volvo XC70. (The X1 is a cousin of the 1-Series (E87) and 3-Series (E90).) Since wagon’s don’t sell well either, BMW stretched the X1 vertically and called it good.
Unlike the X3 and X5, the one thing BMW didn’t do was shorten the hood. As a result, you might almost call the X1 BMW’s latest hatchback. Only that wouldn’t sell as many X1s either. Get it now? Speaking of the X3, the X1 is 6.5 inches shorter and 3.5 inches narrower than its larger cousin.
I should point out a few things before we move on. First up, BMW’s rear hatchback design makes the X1 look less like a Volvo wagon, but also reduces practical load space. My only other quibble outside is that the wheels look a bit small for the X1. What’s your opinion? Sound out below.
European car companies are accused of making the same sausage available in different lengths. That’s obvious outside as well as inside the X1 where you’ll find the same shapes and many of the same controls/screens found in other BMW products. This parts bin approach pays dividends for the X1 where you get the same shifter and iDrive controller found in six-figure BMWs. (How those six-figure shoppers feel about this is anyone’s guess.) Once you’re done playing with the high-rent knobs, your hands will discover where BMW saved money: plastics. Instead of the soft molded instrument panels used in other BMWs, the X1 gets a hard plastic unit. The black upper portion of the dash has then been coated with a thin layer of soft material to improve feel, while the rest of the dash remains hard. This is an interesting choice when even Buick and Chevrolet have ditched their hard plastic interiors for squishy bits.
Germans car engineers don’t understand America. Sure, they understand driving dynamics and styling, but the Burger King drive-thru is incomprehensible. It’s obvious they are making effort to understand ‘mericans, bless their little hearts, but I think a US field-trip is in order for the guy who designs center consoles in Bavaria. Go to the south, my friend, go to the south. When the X1 arrived, I was starving. Being a lover of convenience, I headed to Taco Bell. It was at that point I noticed I had only one cup holder. Behind my right elbow. After consulting the instruction manual, I found the other one. If you look at the picture below, you’ll see it: a funky little thing that inserts into a slot in the center console to the right of the shifter. When it’s not inserted, you have an odd hole with a springy-cover concealing its depths. When in place, you have a cup holder positioned to splash its contents on your snazzy iDrive knob. You will also have a passenger complain their knee hits it all the time. Want to jam a enormous southern-style Styrofoam drink in your X1? Good luck. BMW: you got the X5 and X6’s cupholders so right, what happened?
Cupholder woes aside, there is little to complain about inside the X1. Front comfort is excellent, even in the base model with an 8-way manually adjustable seat. Our X1 was equipped with the $3,000 M-Sport package which brings aluminum trim, a black headliner, steering wheel mounted shift-paddles and BMW’s excellent sport seats. The optional thrones contort in more ways than I can describe and are one of the most comfortable seat designs in any $30,000-40,000 vehicle. If you can’t find a comfortable position, go see a back surgeon. Something that isn’t standard however is leather. If you want real cow, be prepared to pony up an extra $1,450. If that surprises you, it shouldn’t. Even Lexus is ditching real moo in their latest designs.
Most cars get less comfortable as you move rearwards, and that is certainly true of the X1. Back seats are firmly padded with little bolstering and very straight backs. Thankfully, the seat bottom cushion is not as close to the floor as many small crossovers, although the lack of padding made passenger’s legs just as tired on a one-hour car trip. On the flip side the rear seats recline to soften the blow. Rear legroom and headroom are excellent thanks to the X1’s upright profile and BMW and getting in and out of the X1 is made easy by large door openings. The ever-efficient Germans made the rear seats fold in a 40/20/40 manner allowing you to insert IKEA flat packs and four passengers at the same time. Behind the seats you’ll get 25 cubic feet of cargo room if you load the X1 to the ceiling, and 56 cubes if you fold the rear seats flat. That puts the X1 behind other small crossovers like a RAV4 or CRV but decidedly ahead of a 128i coupé.
The X1 gets the latest generation of BMW’s iDrive. The system builds upon the previous versions in small, but important ways. Keeping up with the times, BMW has swapped the CD button for a “Media” button which makes accessing your USB and iDevices easier than in the past. Unlike the 328i we recently tested, the X1 gets a single USB port. Likely because of cost cutting, BMW located the solitary USB port and Aux input at the bottom of the center stack instead of hiding it neatly away in the armrest of glovebox. If you want to know more about iDrive, click on that video at the top of the review.
Part of what went wrong with the 318 was the drivetrain. Instead targeting a high fun/dollar ratio, BMW went for “low bottom line” and used an asthmatic 138HP four-banger. Learning from that lesson, BMW fit their new 2.0L N20 turbo engine and 8-speed automatic in the sDrive28i and xDrive28i. Producing 240HP from 5,000 to 6,000RPM and 260 lb-ft of twist from 1,250 to 4,800RPM that’s more oomph than the 3.0L inline engine under the hood of the 128i.
More important than the power number is the weight. A base RWD X2 is 3,527lbs, only 240lbs heavier than the considerably less powerful 128i coupé. Even our heavier AWD X1 sports a HP to weight ratio better than the smaller and more expensive two-door 1. As a result, performance is more than adequate with a 6.5 second run to 60 (2/10ths faster than a 128i) but decidedly “un-BMW” in terms of power delivery. The torque “plateau” starts early but drops precipitously after 5,750 RPM is a stark contrast from BMW’s 3.0L that comes alive at high RPMs (and screams like a banshee). Proving that BMW loves America, we get an optional powertrain not available anywhere else. For $38,600, BMW will jam a 300HP 3.0L (N55) twin-scroll turbo six under the hood. Sadly the quick shifting 8-speed transmission is lost in the process (you get the old 6-speed) and BMW still won’t offer a manual X1 in the USA.
The N20 isn’t just 33% shorter than the N55, the whole drivetrain is 165lbs lighter. In addition, the 2.0L sits behind the front axle instead of above it. The effect of the weight reduction and nose-lightening is obvious on the track where the X1 is incredibly nimble. That nimble feeling is especially pronounced in the RWD X1 sDrive28i thanks to a somewhat unusual weight balance with less than 50% of the weight on the front wheels. In contrast, the AWD xDrive28i BMW lent us for a week has a near-perfect 50.6/49.4% (F/R) weight balance while the more powerful 3.0L turbo model is nose heavy at 52.1/47.9 %.
Since our X1 was an M-Sport model, our 18-inch wheels were shod with grippy 255-width rubber. To put that in perspective, 255s are rare enough in full/mid-sized crossovers and unheard of in the compact crossover segment. With the front wheels turned slightly, the X1 looks like a kid wearing his dad’s shoes but the extra rubber pays dividends when you encounter a corner. The unexpectedly high grip combined with a neutral chassis dynamics makes the X1 predictable and confident on the road. In many ways the manners of the X1 reminded me of the (much larger) X6M. Just a little. In an unusual move, BMW fits AWD X1s with hydraulic power steering while the base RWD sDrive28i uses BMW’s lifeless electric assist. The difference isn’t night and day, but the hydraulic unit does have more steering feel. Be warned however that neither power steering system provides as much assist as the competition, so your arms may get tired after a long trip on a winding road.
Speaking of the RWD model, BMW claims it will get 23/34/28 MPG (City/Highway/Combined) and adding AWD to the 2.0L turbo drops those numbers to a still respectable 22/33/26 MPG. Over 544 miles, I averaged 22.9MPG, largely due the way the X1 devours mountain roads. That oddly brings me to the Mini Countryman, which is really the only competition for the X1 (since the VW Tiguan doesn’t play in the upper-crust playground). This is a perfect example of the right hand stabbing the left hand. The Mini Countryman is a nice enough vehicle, but driven back to back the X1 is a hoot-and-a-half while the Mini’s FWD manners, less powerful engine, similar MPGs and skinny tires register half a hoot. Now I know why the Mini doesn’t come up as a competitive vehicle on BMW’s website.
The 318 proved, there’s more to life than a low sticker price. The X1 proves that given time BMW can make a compelling entry-level vehicle. The X1 is more than just the least expensive BMW on the lot, it may well have the highest fun/dollar ratio of any modern BMW, especially in the $33,800 X1 sDrive28i M-Sport trim (damn that’s a long name). It’s also one of the few vehicles I would actually buy if my money was on the line.
- Most fun I’ve had for $30-large. OK. 45-large.
- Get a BMW with hydraulic power steering while it lasts.
- Too many hard-plastics on the inside for a car that costs this much.
- The Germans still don’t know what cupholders are for. Maybe its time for a field trip?
BMW Provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Specifications as tested
1/4 Mile: 15.08 Seconds @ 92.6 MPH
Average Observed Fuel Economy: 22.9 MPG over 544 Miles