BMW’s smallest X model has always had the biggest hill to climb, but now it’s a changed character. Is this for the better?
For: More practical and better finished, strong diesel engine, good safety.
Against: Choppy ride, front-drive feel, engine rattle.
CONFUSING one small utility vehicle with another is a real potential these days simply because the sector’s so congested these days.
Even so, debatedly the BMW X1 has never had much trouble standing out. It’s almost been an especially … erm … individualistic car, after all.
Given this, what’s happened now might seem unexpected. Yet it’s very likely anyone with experience of the previous version of Munich’s smallest crossover will be in for a surprising degree of re-education when they come to assess the second generation here now.
It’s not a stretch to suggest the Mark II is the same only in name and broad mission statement. Everything above the wheels has changed – including the set that has priority for driving.
The old X1 was like all the other xDrive models of its time. Built upon a rear-drive platform, in this instance one originally developed for the previous generation 3-Series Touring, it was a rear-drive model with all-wheel-drive ability.
The new car is also all-paw, but now we’re in the era of UK1. That’s the code-name given the new small car platform that, being designed for Minis as well as BMW-badged cars, demands a change to a front-drive priority. Even though the X1 20d on test here is still a four-wheel-drive car, it’s one that ‘pulls’ rather than ‘pushes’ as it predecessor did.
That, in itself, is a major new direction. There’s more: Clearly, the body is bigger this time around and looks to be far more family-friendly.
So there’s give and there’s take, but the sum total of it all should conceivably be a better car. Right?
In response to all the argument over the old car’s rather polarizing shape, BMW used to suggest that brash – their word for ‘ugly’, perhaps - was intentionally part of the X1’s persona. Munich argued that its sports activity models demanded to be extra-bold, simple as that.
Funnily, you don’t hear that now the new model has arrived. It’s probably not quite as overt as the previous model, but certainly is better-looking, having grown taller and a bit wider while also losing 15mm of length.
The dimensional tweaks are far more rewarding. In gaining a taller body it avoids looking like a box but also shakes off the old car’s squashed hatchback silhouette so that it’s no longer the odd looker of the family. All in all, it sits more comfortably alongside X3 and X5.
The real benefit of the reshape comes when slipping into the cabin. That’s where the previous X1 sucked. It was a terrible proposition practicality-wise, with interior and luggage space being really limited.
Change for good starts an an elemental level: UK1 is about the engine being mounted transversely rather than long ways, and dropping the north-south arrangement brings far greater interior space.
Thus, despite being shorter between front and rear bumpers, the second gen car has 37mm more rear legroom (even a bit more with the seats slid back on runners). There are greater gains in the boot; with the 505 litres’ capacity with the rear seats up and 1550 with them down, it respectively offers 50 and 200 litres’ extra capacity over the old car, which makes it a far more practical proposition.
The old X1’s driving position was sports car low; that’s gone, too in favour of higher-set stadium-style seating to make best advantage of the taller roofline. The person who held the wheel might be disappointed to hear that they cannot play rally driver, but it’s a relief for everyone else because now they get to enjoy acceptable leg and headroom.
The narrow chair backs do remind, though, that this is still a compact car in respect to shoulder room. Putting three adults across the back seat and achieving comfort will demand that the mid-seated occupant is a beanpole.
Still, it’s dimensionally strong enough and so flexible in its practicality that you have to wonder why BMW builds this model and 2-series Active Tourer MPV. The interior space of each model is quite close overall and the same design tricks apply. For instance, the X1 also has rail-mounted rear seats with the bench and backrests split into 40:20:40 sections, and the seat backs can be folded down remotely from the boot via electric switches.
The X1's passenger compartment still remains faithful to the style of the predecessor insofar that it continues to include large door pockets with bottle-holders, a storage compartment integrated within the lower dash fascia, covered cup-holders on the centre console and armrests for both front seat occupants. There are also drawers under the front seats, map nets on the back of the front seats, a central armrest with cup-holders in the rear and an additional rear 12-volt outlet.
BMW has retained the X1's driver-focused dash layout and the traditional two-dial instrument panel, though the look is lightly refreshed. Enhanced equipment accounts for upward price alignment but nonetheless appeals.
An integrated (not floating) centre screen in 6.5 and 8.8-inch format (app-based services including internet connectivity plus navigation, infotainment and climate systems), the option of ConnectedDrive with head-up display and BMW's Driver Assistant Package with stop-and-go active cruise control, autonomous braking and collision avoidance systems and revised self-parking technology.
Foglights, keyless entry and ignition, auto headlights and wipers, a tilt/reach adjustable steering column, cruise control, dual-zone climate control and a rear-view camera and reversing sensors are on the kit list.
Safety items include the usual array of passive and active driver aids, including hill-descent control, as well as an optional lane-keeping assistant and blind-spot monitoring. There's also a range of paint, upholstery and trim options, and the Sport personalisation packages.
BMW is among brands that have twigged that an all-wheel-drive look is enough for some people, thus the $65,500 to $83,500 line starts with front (sDrive) variants before stepping up to the xDrive variants, with thermally efficient 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol and turbo-diesel engines, all running through an eight-speed automatic.
The petrol creates identical outputs in front or four-wheel-drive formats, but the 1995cc four-cylinder turbodiesel generates 30kW more power with all wheels being driven, with a maximum of 140kW at 4000rpm, and 70Nm more torque – 400Nm at 1750-2500rpm – than its front-drive alternate.
In all likelihood, the diesel won’t be that popular in this model simply because, in this category, the swing is very much toward petrol technology; it’s more manageable (cleaner, less smelly, no pesky Road User Charge) and the latest types are pretty economical.
There’s also the refinement issue. BMW’s unit has lots of strengths, but quietness – at least at idle – isn’t wholly one of them. Still, once on the move there’s better news. It delivers strong, consistent pull from around 1500rpm to keep you rolling along easily in most situations. And though you do feel few vibrations through the controls, it’s smoother, too. There’s some road noise to be heard at cruising speeds as well, but wind noise is very well contained.
Fuel economy is quoted at just under five litres per 100km but the test car wasn’t quite that thrifty; a six-hour open road run returned an an average of 6.1-litres per km. That’s frugal but you need to take heed that the tank capacity of 61 litres isn’t the biggest in this category.
First, a lesson in BMW xDrive: The system in the X1 is not the same with that used by the rear-drive platforms. Basdically, it’s a less sophisticated on-demand type, also utilised by the Mini Countryman and the 2-Series the Active Tourer xDrive.
Here a hydraulically controlled clutch inside the rear drive axle acts to direct a more or less infinitely variable split of torque to the front and rear wheels. This might suggest it is still all-wheel-drive all of the time, as is the case with the X3 upward. In fact … no, it’s not. During steady-state driving the hydraulic pump depressurises and returns the car to its front-drive roots.
This action conserves energy and fuel but it also affects the car’s road feel and explains why, even though it can theoretically send up to 100 percent drive to the rear and can adjust the torque split while cornering, for the most past it lends impression of being a front-drive car.
So who will care about this? Motoring journalists aside, quite possibly only those who have come to it directly from one of the larger X models will pick up on it feeling a bit different.
It’s not bad. Nor is it unorthodox – at least not outside of BMW-dom – because the greater majority of rival vehicles are already derived from front-drive donors. But, there's a tendency for the nose to ‘push’ - and it just doesn’t impart as being as sensitive to driver input. Also, if suddenly hitting gravel from seal, you may may well distinguish there’s an obvious point of transition from front to four-wheel drive. It can be a bit slow-witted working this out. I have to wonder if it’ll be any sharper when encountering ice.
In general driving there’s no shortage of grip and traction. The most obvious change of flavour is that it perhaps loses some handling sweetness. There’s an ultimate tendency toward understeer – a natural inclination when the engine is slung across the engine bay rather than longitudinally. All the same, balance is helped by provision of Performance Control, a type of torque-vectoring-by-braking that shifts the power side-to-side to aid cornering stability.
There’s not a hint of slack in the steering, with instant and evenly rated response, and body control is impeccable with less roll than you’d expect. That said, our test car was equipped with the optional electronically controlled adaptive dampers.
More intrusive for more of the time is the level of road noise over coarse chip. It’s always an unavoidable with a small, firmly-sprung car, but BMW’s insistence on employing run-flat tyres – which have extra-stiff sidewalls – doesn’t help any.
Yet it’s not a dud. For the crowd it is aimed at, the X1 now will seem so much more refined than before. They’ll like the Sport mode that asks use of the steering wheel-mounted paddles shifts; it’s definitely a good access to the diesel’s abundant torque.
The X1 is much friendlier in its shape and design than previously: It is, at last, a useful tool for families setting out on modest adventures.
The other thing that strikes you about the interior is the quality, which is a marked improvement over the old car’s. There are some soft-touch materials and attractive finishes on show.
The driving demeanour is certainly different than previously. It hasn’t the same finesse as the old car.
Even so, compact SUVs are on the rise for popularity and there’s enough here to suggest a model that has been the sales runt of the X family now has the opportunity to grow its standing.