The world's first compact luxury SUV still holds appeal - especially in the way it drives
BMW’s X-badged SUV range now comprises five vehicles, and the BMW X1 remains the smallest.
The X1 is the only BMW SUV to remain in first-generation form, having made its debut in 2009 (2010 in Australia). The latest update is a mild one, with some price/value tweaks further up the range plus the eight-speed auto that became optional in late 2012 now standard across the range.
The BMW X1 no longer offers a manual gearbox so the line-up is a simple, four-model affair – comprising two rear-wheel-drive and two all-wheel drive models, each set offered in turbo petrol or turbo diesel form.
Here, we’re testing the BMW X1 sDrive20i, the rear-drive petrol variant that starts from $48,300. That’s nearly five grand more than a petrol X1 cost when the model initially launched, even if that was for a manual version, while the lowest point of entry is the $46,300 sDrive18d.
Equipment highlights for the sDrive20i include cruise control with brake function, 17-inch alloy wheels, rear parking sensors, rain-sensing wipers, auto-dimming rear view mirror, satellite navigation with iDrive menu control and 6.5-inch colour display, and leather-wrapped sports steering wheel.
A rear-view camera is standard only on four-wheel-drive X1s, however, so you need to pay $850 for a Parking Package that also brings front sensors – a smart addition in our opinion.
Other options that took our test car to an RRP of $56,035 included metallic paint, interior trim upgrades, panoramic sunroof, and an xLine trim line that includes the introduction of 18-inch alloys, ambience lighting, Nevada leather seating and an X logo stamped into headrests.
All of the interior enhancements are welcome because while the materials selected for the door trims are good there’s an inordinate amount of tinny and scratchy plastics used for the dash and console you wouldn’t expect in a luxury SUV.
It’s even more noticeable if you compare the X1’s cabin with the interior of the rival Range Rover Evoque.
The front seats are great for long trips, though, and the driving position feels like you’re in a slightly elevated hatchback rather than a tall-riding SUV.
Switches, buttons and dials fall easily to hand (not just those on the steering wheel), and iDrive continues to be CarAdvice’s benchmark for infotainment interfaces. The 6.5-inch screen is a good size (though a 8.8-inch version is available as an option), the graphics are sharp, and the operating system completely intuitive.
The sat-nav mapping is excellent, there’s clarity and quality sound from the standard audio if you can’t afford the optional Harman Kardon system, and for $200 you can add the ability to browse the Internet on that 6.5-inch screen.
There are more places to put your mobile phone than coffees, though, with just the one cupholder in the centre console. Well-sized and well-shaped door bins make accommodating bottles easier.
Because the X1 is actually based on the previous-generation 3 Series there’s more rear-seat legroom than you’ll find in the 1 Series five-door, though expect some grumbles from passengers exceeding six feet in height.
The boot is shaped to sufficiently accept a pram but its small size (just 420-litres; smaller than many hatches) can present a challenge to small families looking to go away for a weekend break. That’s despite the absence of a spare tyre as the X1 features run-flat tyres that can be driven up to 80km/h in the event of a puncture.
To be fair, the same applies to all of its direct rivals including the new Mercedes-Benz GLA.
Those run-flats compromised BMW ride quality when they first emerged, though the construction of the latest-generation tyres thankfully allows for more sidewall compliance.
The ride of the BMW X1 is still firm enough that some owners might wish to have the option of a Comfort suspension setting they could activate at the touch of a button.
Yet even though there’s some stiffness to the X1’s ride – on the optional 18-inch wheels here rather than standard 17s here – its suspension is still more effective than other SUVs we could name that run a far softer set-up. BMW’s smallest soft-roader deals effectively with potholes and rougher roads, and there’s a reward on country roads with hugely satisfying rear-wheel-drive handling despite more body roll than you’d experience in a 1 Series hatch.
Those 18s generate noticeable road noise at times, though.
Aiding the enjoyment is steering that, while potentially heavier than ideal for some buyers, is better than you’ll find in more recent BMWs, including the latest-generation X5 and 3/4 Series.
The BMW X1 isn’t the most economical in the compact luxury SUV class, or the most affordable.
Both those honours go to the Audi Q3 1.4 TFSI, priced from $42,300 and with fuel consumption of 6.2 litres per 100km versus the sDrive20i’s 6.9L/100km.
The BMW counters on the performance front, though, with quicker acceleration and stronger in-gear response.
The eight-speed ZF auto that transfers the engine’s 135kW of power and 270Nm of torque to the rear wheels is also a terrific transmission, whether you let it do its own responsive gearchanges for you or you decide to use the paddleshift levers.
There’s no doubt the lure of a premium badge is a key factor for buyers of compact luxury SUVs, because for similar money there are more rational, more practical choices. For similar money to this X1, for example, you could have a Mazda CX-5 Akera that comes with a torquey turbo diesel engine, more space all round, and is loaded with equipment including active safety systems not offered by the BMW.
Otherwise the BMW X1, despite being the oldest model in its segment, remains competitive against direct rivals, the Q3, Evoque and the GLA.
If it’s let down in comparison in terms of interior quality, it does counter at least with its refined drivetrain and excellent dynamics.