It has the X factor
There is a problem with the X1, and it's not so much a fault of the car, but rather charged-couple devices and curved glass - it looks awkward in photos, but fabulous in the metal. Indeed the angry snout combined with four lovely creases on the bonnet draw your eye to the front end, and with frosted glass-styled eyelids over the headlights, it even has character.
The black plastic skirts to the front and rear bumpers blended in nicely with the dark blue of our test car, with the silver lower inserts (part of the X Line Package) along all four sides serving to give the X1 a more utilitarian appearance.
The body sides, with their swage-line which intersects the door handles and scalloped lower half, give the X1 a sense of girth, despite its compact dimensions. Indeed, the X1 may look quite large, but walk up to it and you'll realise how small it actually is. By co-incidence, we parked next to a 120i hatch, and the X1 looked not much bigger - in fact it's only 21cm longer, most of that being a slightly larger wheelbase (100mm) and longer rear overhang.
But despite what you might expect, the X1 is not based on the BMW 1 Series platform. It uses the BMW 3 Series Touring's platform, with the identical 2760 wheelbase giving it away. The 18-inch wheels, despite their size, do look a little small for the wheelarches, although the non-round shape prevents higher profile rubber being fitted.
No matter, because even on the optional 18-inch alloys, the ride is quite firm but nicely controlled. There's little harshness, with the latest generation of run-flat tyres absorbing the hard-edged ridges our wonderfully maintained roads offer. Yes, you can feel the bumps, but that fits in perfectly with the personality of this car.
You see, the X1 is without a doubt the best driving compact SUV on the market today. The Tiguan has been dethroned. It’s a big call, but if you love your driving, you cannot go past this little gem. On its 18-inch wheels, the grip is just fabulous, mostly because the centre of gravity is so low. This is not a car you will be wanting to take to the beach, because it’ll bottom out pretty quick. But if you love being involved with a car, and the missus just has to have an SUV, this is the car for you.
The steering, for an SUV, is simply brilliant - plenty of heft and immediate reactivity from dead centre. The steering may be a little heavy for some though; in carparks it can take a little strength to wield the wheel, but the tradeoff is so much feedback your fingertips will be singing. It turns in so sharply and handles so neutrally the X1 sets the benchmark for all soft-roaders. A $400 option called Performance Control also contributes, by its gentle braking of the inner rear wheel and diverting extra torque to the outside rear wheel - definitely check that box.
We had the manual gearbox in our tester, which offers a solid, positive shift with defined gates and a nicely progressive but light clutch (an automatic can be had for an extra $2200). It all makes for a package that integrates man and machine. In fact, dynamically, there’s not much wrong with this car at all. The brakes feel great, the balance is perfect and the steering is brilliant.
Even the 2.0-litre turbo-diesel sounds sweet and is willing enough. Of course, if a grunty diesel is your thing, then you’d best opt for the xDrive23d with its twin-turbocharged version of this engine. But for daily transport, the xDrive20d’s oil-burner is quiet, smooth and very efficient.
Helping things is BMW's Efficient Dynamics programme, which uses Brake Energy Regeneration, auto stop-start, and an optimum shift point indicator. It pops up on the dash, telling you which gear to change into for maximum economy. The stop-start also occurs when you're in neutral and you've pulled up to a stop and let the clutch out. Once you press the clutch pedal to engage first gear, the engine springs into life immediately. In our week of driving, with no freeway or country driving, we averaged 7.5-litres/100km, which for an urban-only SUV is absolutely fantastic.
With 130kW, and 350Nm, it's no slouch, either. The benchmark 0-100km/h time is a not-too-shabby 8.4-seconds, and being a diesel with peak torque coming in at 1750rpm, it's super flexible in all gears and at just about any point in the rev range. As a driver's car, then, the X1 has all the bases covered.
We never took it off road, but we suspect most owners wouldn't either. If it was destined only for the city, with no snow or gravel driving, we'd suggest sticking to the sDrive versions, as they're rear-wheel-drive only - the xDrive nomenclature signifying all-wheel-drive.
The interior, while not perfect, is also a pretty nice place to be. Front seat passengers experience the best of the X1 with miles of headroom, decent visibility and when you option the Design Cool Package with its sports seats and pneumatically adjustable bolstering, body hugging comfort is the only way to describe it. The gold stripe across the seat backrest would look more at home on a sports shoe than in the car, and the woodgrain could be a little more convincing. While we're having a winge, the back seat squab length is simply inadequate for under thigh support, so you'll be relying on your feet on the floor to prop your legs up.
The X1 is not as well suited to young families either, and I can say that as someone who has one. Let me explain. We have one of the narrowest booster seats on the market that can be legally used with the new child-restraint laws. The X1's rear seat is shaped in such a way that the backrest curves around toward the rear door, while the squab angles up from the same point. This serves to force the booster seat more toward the centre of the car.
It wouldn't be a problem, except the car is built to take three people, which means the two outboard seatbelt buckles are closer to the doors. As a result the booster sits over the top of the buckle, so once your child has sat on the booster seat, you can't clip the seatbelt together.
The rest of the interior fares better. There are a few cheap details, like the cutlines which join the centre console to the centre stack, but in the duotone of our press car, the X1 feels a lot more expensive than it costs. The faux-leather doortrims are stitched beautifully, and the curvy styling of the doors echoes the exterior design. The instrumentation is just like every other BMW - clear and functional. If you option the Business Navigation System, you also get a crystal clear, high resolution screen along with iDrive - a clearer nav screen is yet to be found in this price range.
BMW says that the X1 is the world's first luxury compact Sports Activity Vehicle, and with that it's hard to argue. But it does let itself down in practicality with its small rear seat and small boot. But if you're a young couple, or even an older retired couple - if you are truly after a SUV that rewards the driver, something that really involves, you cannot go past it. It really does have the X factor.
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