2016 BMW X1 Review

Rating: 7.5
$49,500 $59,900 Mrlp
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My, X1, you’ve changed. But instead of transforming from bland to bold, like some makeover reality television contestant, the 2016 BMW X1 has gone the opposite way. You used to sit on flamboyant small-SUV fringes, now you’re thoroughly middle of the road.

It’s not as if the old, audacious and gangly looking ‘E84’ X1 — its underpinnings owing much to rear-drive 3-Series that reflected positively in the driving experience — didn’t sell.

At last count, 10,588 of them found Aussie homes since 2010, and nearly three-quarters of a million sold globally since 2009.

It’s just that in the massive wholesale shake-up that is this new ‘F48’ generation — with its building blocks aligned closely with 2-Series Active Tourer and Mini — BMW decided that conforming to small SUV conventions while aping the middling X3 and large X5 in form and function would ensure greater popularity. Not just with established BMW owners but as a tool to leverage brand new-comers.

Although four variants are slated for launch, blending petrol and diesel power with newly adopted ‘transverse’ front- and all-wheel-drive arrangements, only the all-paw xDrive versions are for immediate release, with entry two-wheel-drive petrol sDrive20i ($46,909 plus on-roads) and diesel sDrive18d ($45,000 list) hitting showrooms just before Christmas.

As is often the case with new model lines, BMW’s initial and immediate X1 rollout is a high-end affair: a choice of diesel xDrive20d at $56,500 (list) and the price-topping petrol xDrive25i which, at $59,900 (list), replaces the old xDrive28i spec.

For a full rundown of range pricing and specifications, check here.

And it’s the two xDrives that BMW provided for around 400 kays of mixed on and off-road testing in backwater NSW at the X1’s Australian launch.

Blind Freddy could not merely see the design similarities between new X1 and X3, he might need to run fingers over the tailgate badges to distinguish the two, such is the smaller family hauler’s derivative styling.

Visually, our two sample X1s were virtually indistinguishable beyond their badges and wheels — 19s on the 25i, 18s on the 20d — though the larger wheel can be cost-optioned on the diesel, while buyers can opt to downsize to 18s on the 25i at no extra charge.

Although shorter in length (by 15mm) and wheelbase (a massive 90mm) than the old X1, the newie is wider (up 23mm) and taller (up 53mm), and clever repackaging means growth in cabin accommodation and cargo space.

Crucially, there’s now a very noticeable 66mm of extra legroom in the second row, an extra 85 litres of luggage space (now 505L) with the rear seats in place, and a huge 200-litre bonus (now 1550L) with the 40:20:40 split-fold rears stowed. The generational gap, then, trades (dubious) style for useable substance.

Climb into these upper-level variants and there’s much to like. With its stretched instrument panel and wraparound centre console, the cabin is quite stylised by usually staid BMW standards — even moreso than the new 3-Series — which will no doubt appeal to buyers both familiar and unfamiliar with BMW product. Retained is that BMW chunkiness in the styling brief, familiar switchgear and signature ‘classic’ instrumentation.

Our 25i certainly looked more upmarket of the pair. Bar some piano black trim virtually all of the richly finished surfaces are classy satin or matte in sheen, the double-stitched and perforated Dakota leather exceptional in look and supple to touch. The browny-purple with ($400 optional) matte black oak trim inserts imparts a more premium lift over the neat if dowdy cream/grey and glossy ‘fineline’ wood trim (also $400) scheme opted into the 20d, though choice is at the buyer’s discretion.

The top-shelf petrol variant certainly puts the ‘sport’ into sport utility vehicle: 19-inch alloys with low-profile 45-series run-flat tyres, Performance control, variable (ratio) sports steering, a head-up display and paddleshifters all standard fitment. Our test car added optional Sports seats ($750), which are fully electric, properly rib-hugging and appear lifted from a true M-car.

Such buckets in a small SUV might seem utterly pointless, but not only can you thankfully relax the angle of the side bolsters to improve long-haul comfort, these seats are noticeably more supportive than the flat-contoured standard pews. The height of the seats, 36mm up on the old car, is ideal, providing excellent outward visibility while allowing a sort of medium-slung, car-like driving position and comfortable ergonomics.

Interestingly, our 20d added a Comfort Package ($2700) and Dakota leather ($1690) cost options to raise trim/adjustability/heating functionality levels in line with 25i. The point? Optioning up the 20d to match the 25i in spec can prove more expensive at the bottom line. In fact, our petrol, even with sport seats (optional) and high-grade Navigation Plus with 8.8-inch screen wanted for two grand less than our $64K-odd 20d without sports seats and fitted with standard-issue sat-nav, 6.5-inch screen and no heads-up display.

Either infotainment system gets slick iDrive functionality, crystal clear floating tablet screens and the excellent RTTI (colour-coded real-time traffic display) functionality, and are easy and intuitive to use. The X1 does seem to leverage features over real innovation. And while the standard features are hardly skimped on the 20d, many bells and whistles are, disappointingly, cost options. For instance, the only way to get the 25i's licence-saving digital speedo in the 20d is to fork out $2700 for the Innovations Package for its bundled-in head-up display.

The second row is a huge improvement over the old X1. There’s a sizeable 130mm of fore-aft seat adjustment, the whole bench split-able 60:40 on its rails, and in the rearmost position leg-, toe- and headroom is comparable with numerous X3s BMW had on hand with which to compare. Setting the bench full forward does present a gap between the cargo area and second row for items to fall through, though you only realistically use this position to load bulky objects when the second row is required in play.

The seat backs drop in a 40:20:40 split — there’s that handy ski port, then — via remote switches in either the cargo area wall or, one-handed, via fabric handles when standing in the rear doorways. If there’s a hitch to all of this handiness, it’s that it takes two hands and decent force to put the rear seats back into play.

The rear seating is also a full 64mm higher than old X1, so even the smallest toddlers can get full viewing of the passing scenery through the side windows. The second row is also kitted out with outboard Isofix points, three tie-down tether points, large door bins with litre-bottle-sized stowage, dual rear vents and a single 12V outlet.

Out back, to compliment the huge cargo space, the X1 offers a massive load opening for its electric powered tailgate, which adds height adjustment and (in 25i or as part of the Comfort Access option in other variants) hands-free opening if you kick the air behind the rear bar with your foot. There’s no spare, hence the fitted run-flats, though the counterpoint is a rather large ‘hidden’ storage area under the false floor.

On the road, the xDrive 25i is a quiet operator, with impressive isolation from outside noise in the cabin, the powertrain unobtrusive…right up until the moment the 225/45 19-inch Bridgestone run-flats touch coarse chip surfaces. Thereafter, the roar from the tyre tread is ever-present. The economy-type 18-inch Pirellis, fitted to our xDrive 20d, knocked the volume down, if merely a notch or two.

It’s a real shame, too, as the 140kW two-litre engine in the 20d seems one of the quietest four-cylinder diesels on the market. You notice it some of the time, only on smooth hotmix once tyre noise dies down. And it’s nicely married to the eight-speed automatic, a silky and intelligent unit that always seem to leverage its hefty 400Nm shove near-instantly.

The 20d’s engine, surprisingly, makes the 25i’s 170kW and 350Nm two-litre petrol four — 10kW down on the old flagship X1 — feel a little flat and uninspiring by comparison. But, again, the Aisin-sourced eight-speed auto behind it is a real gem, making the most of the engine it’s tied to.

On the move, there’s much to love about the X1 driving experience, but it’s not immediately apparent — in fact, downright difficult to discern — because the ride quality of the standard-fit suspension tune is, frankly, third rate.

Firm is an understatement. And along the patchwork back-country roads BMW chose for the X1 launch drive program, every lump and ripple was felt in the car’s vertical movement. Some of the blame may lie in the stiff sidewalls of the runflat tyres, but when the nose of the 25i skips a good ten centimetres off the chosen line in even modestly sized mid-corner bumps, the blame can be squarely aimed at the suspension tuning.

The X1 actually negotiates large bumps quite well, it’s just that the primary ride is grumpier than a spoilt child across surfaces that aren’t smoothly manicured. During one misadventure into a square-edged pothole, the vehicle jarred so violently that the rear seat flipped forward in protest…

The firm suspension allows some nice athletic control in the corners and a satisfying degree of enjoyment best appreciated behind the wheel. But while this is a sport utility vehicle by definition, it’s not a sportscar by nature, and dynamic talent forsaking passenger comfort is something of a fail here. Personally, I’d trade the X1’s show of sportiness for a level of compliance that wouldn’t discomfort all aboard, one cosseting enough to allow my kids to sleep on long trips.

The adaptive sport steering, fitted standard on the xDrive 25i, reduces the lock-to-lock action during low-speed maneuvering, feels inert and lacking linearity on the move, and at times the petrol X1’s nose tended to wander around and ‘tramline’ across undulations. Perhaps unusually, there were no such gripes for the 20d, its ‘regular’ non-adaptive steering comparatively more faithful and direct.

Around 20 kilometres of slippery and twisty gravel road presented a decent workout for the xDrive all-wheel-drive system’s off-road capabilities, though no descents were steep enough to test the standard hill descent control. Outright (off)-road-holding is ultimately at the mercy of road-going rubber crying freedom across the loose and slippery surface, but the X1 is innately balanced and very controllable.

The clever xDrive system uses all manner of inputs to sort the torque feed between the axles, but the default state is that once the rear end slides and the DSC (stability control) flickers the throttle pedal goes dead. And that’s in any of three drive modes — Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport — selected. So the X1 refuses to drive in oversteer out of corners, instead sort of settling itself under deceleration until the slide stops, though you can trick the xDrive a little and modestly slide the X1 if you keep all wheels rotating in unison under constant, moderate throttle.

The upshot is that the xDrive is a soft-roader at the limit of its beaten path talent, though quite an adept one by small SUV measures. But by the seat of the pants, it feels to divert torque between the axles in a 50:50 split. Interestingly, though, BMW claims that this xDrive system “diverts up to 100 per cent of the engine’s power to the rear wheels,” though it certainly doesn’t behave as if it does. (Nor does it seem plausible for an inherent front-driver with selective rear-drive enhancement — via a rear axle-mounted active clutch — to completely relinquish drive rearward, though that’s a technical argument for another day…)

What’s abundantly clear is that the thorough boot camp BMW presented for the X1's local launch isn’t really indicative of typical urban shopping and school loop regime typical of small-SUV ownership.

Throughout, the new X1 is a fine and accomplished car that improves the breed in lots of crucial areas. And very well should be for the price point. It’s just let down badly by a few prominent ones.

Does the urban environment tame its ride? Or its roar? Will a simple $690 option of two-mode (Comfort and Sport) adaptive dampers cure its Achilles’ heel? And will a more genuine and typical driving cycle return more favourable consumption than the alarming figures returned at launch: averages of 7.8L for the 20d (4.9L combined claim) and 9.8L for the 25i (6.6L combined claimed)?

We’ll have to get it into the CarAdvice garage soon to find out.