2016 BMW X1 Review

It has ditched the rear-whee drive platform, but is it still the best driver's small SUV?

The 2016 BMW X1 brings an unrivalled level of sophistication, technology and driving dynamics to a segment that sorely needs it.

The first-generation BMW X1, which debuted in Australia all the way back in 2010, was quintessentially nothing more than a slightly higher riding and longer 3 Series touring. It had its benefits though, in that for an SUV it drove like a hatchback, but consequently, it was space-compromised inside and, lets be honest, aesthetically challenged.

Fast-forward to today and an Australian has designed the second-generation BMW X1, heading our way in October this year.

From the outside the new X1 is far more grown-up and stylish in its design than the car it replaces. It sits 53mm higher (1598mm) than before though it actually measures 14mm shorter in length (4439mm). The extra height means a higher seating position, better emphasising its SUVness, as well as providing more headroom. While it may not stretch as long, it actually offers more interior space inside thanks to the new platform.

The new BMW X1 is based on the front-wheel-drive architecture that powers the 2 Series Active Tourer as well the Mini range. It’s a big change from the existing car, which is inherently rear-wheel drive, though both generations are at their best in the xDrive all-wheel-drive configuration.

Which, in xDrive25i form, is what we tested in Germany at the international launch of BMW’s smallest SUV.

The 25i replaces the xDrive28i, now sporting a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine with 170kW of power and 350Nm of torque. Coupled to the well-known ZF automatic transmission, the little SUV will go from 0-100km/h in just 6.5 seconds, fast enough to put plenty of wannabe performance cars to shame.

The interesting thing is, you get a little addicted to going fast as the X1’s cornering ability is surprisingly good for the kind of car it is. We found ourselves pushing it harder and harder around the Austrian countryside and wondering how it sat so flat in the bends and how little it complained when presented with tight corners.

Our test car was fitted with a better (variable) steering system as well as dynamic damper control (adjustable suspension) for a smoother more compliant ride. Both features are options and it would be remiss of us to say the X1’s body control and ride will be equally accommodating in Australia’s poor quality roads until we drive the car locally.

Nonetheless, compared to, say, a Mercedes-Benz GLA or Audi Q3, it’s a significant step up both in terms of dynamics and ride comfort and goes to show that a front-wheel-drive bias SUV doesn’t need to compromise on its sporty character.

Perhaps it’s only when compared to the car it replaces that it falls just that little bit short. Driven enthusiastically, the X1 is almost as good as before. Given it sits a bit higher and has a habit of leaving torque to the rear wheels out of the picture (by decoupling the rear-axle) when extra grip isn’t required, it does have a slight tendency to understeer, but that’s only close to the limit. It’s fair to say the first generation didn’t exhibit this character.

To be fair, it’s hard to complain as the great majority of owners spend their time in the X1 conducting basic city driving and conquering the occasional dirt road, two tasks this small SUV will do tremendously well.

The BMW X1 range will initially consist of the all-wheel-drive xDrive25i petrol turbo (tested here) and the xDrive20d, which is powered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel (140kW of power, 400Nm of torque, 0-100km/h in 7.6 seconds). They can be had in three equipment and style grades; xLine, sport line or with the M Sport package (available after November 2015).

The diesel is the pick of the two if fuel economy (around 5L/100km in the European test cycle) and torque are paramount, while the petrol, at around 6.5L/100km of premium unleaded fuel, seems like a worthy compromise if you’d prefer something with a bit more traditional BMW character.

The front-wheel-drive sDrive models will not arrive in Australia until the first quarter of 2016 and while they will cost less than their xDrive siblings, they’ll be best suited to suburban duties. Speaking of which, to showcase that the X1 is not shy to leave the comforts of smooth suburban tarmac, we performed a series of off-road tests in xDrive models that proved, well, that you could indeed take your X1 off-roading… if you’re mad.

But while the X1 may indeed be the best car in its class on and off the road, it’s the interior that provided the biggest surprise for us. The cabin ambience is a huge improvement over the old, in fact, it’s more like an X5 and certainly more upmarket than any of its German competitors. We would go so far as to say it’s actually better inside in tactile feel and overall quality than BMW’s just updated 3 Series.

BMW’s iDrive infotainment system remains the best in the business and unequivocally puts to shame offerings from Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Lexus.

The seats themselves are very comfortable both front and rear, while the second row offers plenty of head and legroom. You can fit five adults (though four is best) and a reasonable amount of luggage (505L boot capacity, expandable to 1550L). There are two ISOFIX child seat anchorage points and the boot will take a large pram and the week’s shopping with a bit of Tetris skill. It’s the ideal SUV for families with one young child (and all that comes with it) or two older ones.

If you tick an option box, the rear seats can be put on rails so you can essentially move them back and forward a few centimetres for that little bit of extra luggage capacity (additional 200L). This is handy if you have young kids that don’t need the legroom and you’re short of luggage space. It would’ve been logical if BMW had simply made that a standard feature.

As usual, that’s where the downsides of buying a luxury car come to light. The X1 has an unbeatable array of technological features, but even on the top-spec xDrive 25i, they are mostly options.

The best example is the brilliant head up display system, which projects on to the windscreen (so the driver remains focused on the road) not only the car’s speed but infotainment and navigation information as well. You guessed it, an option, not only that, but you have to first option the Navigation plus (larger screen) before it’ll work.

Low- and high-beam LED headlights? An option. Cornering lights? Option. Worst of all, it’s the potentially life-saving active safety features such as lane departure warning (vibrates the steering wheel if unintentionally changing lanes) and autonomous braking (using forward facing sensors and radars, the car automatically applies the brakes at speeds between 10-60km/h if the driver is not paying attention to a fast approaching object or person) that BMW really needed to make standard on the top-spec variants, if not the whole range, particularly autonomous braking.

On the plus side, a rear-view camera with sensors is standard (as is the case with a base model Toyota Corolla) as is the basic 6.5-inch satellite navigation system with iDrive.

Nonetheless, BMW Australia is yet to determine the full specification of local cars, so there’s some hope that not only will it nail the pricing, it may also increase the standard level of kit or at the very least offer option packages at reasonable prices to entice buyers to not only get a very versatile and capable small SUV, but have it as it was intended.

Pricing is expected to remain largely unchanged. We believe the new sDrive models (arriving next year) will start the range from around the mid $40,000s while the two choices for early adopters, the xDrive20d and xDrive25i, will be around the $55,000 and $60,000 marks respectively.

It’s a big call, but we believe there’s no other choice in the luxury small SUV segment that will outdo the new BMW X1 in terms of dynamic capability, interior quality, practicality or refinement.