Magical touch lacking in BMW's small crossover
ROAD TEST:The arrival of the BMW X1 back in 2009 heralded yet another sub-category for the premium segment as car firms like BMW sought to eek out extra sales by creating an array of cars that is as close to personalisation as mass production will allow.
Somewhere out there in the red-bricked estates of suburbia resides a buyer with a desire for a beefed-up supermini that looks like an SUV from a distance. At least that’s what BMW believes. And it’s not alone. Arch-rival Audi unveiled its own rival to the X1 at the Frankfurt motor show last autumn, albeit in “concept” form.
In reality the X1 is only an SUV if, like Dougal in Father Ted, you haven’t yet grasped the difference between small and far away.
The designers have pulled off some spatial magic with this new model and when it’s parked on its own it does look remarkably like the larger X3. It’s only when you park it alongside other cars that you realise how small a footprint the X1 has.
Sit it alongside a line of regular cars and the shape-shifting design loses its magic. Regardless of what BMW may christen this sub-sub-category of car, this is simply the premium rival to popular mainstream models like the Nissan Qashqai and its ilk.
There’s a lot to like about the X1, particularly when you sit inside. The fit and finish demands no significant sacrifice over larger siblings, at least up front. The plastics you encounter at eye level are all soft to the touch, even if those lower down are more basic fare. The higher seating position gives a better view of the road ahead than a regular family car – as with most SUVs – while there’s plenty of power on tap from the engine up front.
It’s in the rear, despite the high seating position, that the space-shifting magic starts to wear off.
Legroom is tight for adults when compared to larger models, although the boot space is akin to what you would find on a 3-Series Touring. The link with the 3-Series is not just coincidental, for the X1 shares many of its underpinnings with the BMW family saloon. Indeed, it’s really a vamped up version of the 3-Series estate.
The test car featured BMW’s xDrive four-wheel-drive system so there was plenty of grip and the X1 hunkers down well on corners to give far more nimble handling than you might expect.
Our biggest gripe with the X1’s driving dynamics was with the hydraulic steering system on the four-wheel drive version we tested, which felt far too heavy for a car of this size. Perhaps BMW wanted to give the X1 the feel of a more substantial SUV - in keeping with the styling tricks - but the end result just leaves you wondering if the power steering is acting up.
While the feeling becomes far smoother at speed, the extra weight makes parking a chore and you start to wonder if the power steering is acting up. Parking is also hindered by the narrow rear window that limits visibility, which means you can either play the guessing game when reversing into a space or invest in rear parking sensors.
It’s hardly surprising that the X1’s performance is enhanced by its 2-litre 143bhp engine. Slip an engine block this size into any car this size and it will shift. Yet it’s official times of 10.1 seconds from 0 to 100km/h is hardly record-breaking. That’s partly down to the extra weight of the four-wheel-drive system.
Of course you could opt to lighten the load and save a few euros with the rear-wheel-drive sDrive version. Opting for the sDrive variant also means you reduce emissions, so if you don’t need the extra grip then it’s the smarter buy.
Lot of money
However once you start thinking practically about what you really need and what offers the best value the very idea of the X1 starts to come unstuck. While the range starts at €35,160, most buyers will not leave the forecourt without forking out close to €40,000. That’s a lot of money these days for a high-set family car. You don’t even have to leave the BMW showroom to realise that you can get a well-dressed 3-Series for similar money and if you need a little more functionality then the 3-Series Touring – the model upon which the X1 shares much of its underpinnings and one of my favourites in the range - is well within reach.
For the sake or argument let’s accept that you still hanker for those SUV looks: well there are a host of mainstream crossovers and SUVs that you could choose and with €40,000 to spend you could lavish all sorts of extras upon these cars.
The reality is that mainstream brands have closed the gap on the so-called premium rivals, at a time when value for money has become the priority for buyers. There are a host of larger SUVs you can get – some with an extra row of seats – that offer more practicality but all the comfort features and plenty of driving pleasure for the same price as this BMW. The X1 may boast a premium badge, but it lacks any overriding wow factor to warrant placing it ahead of the mainstream pack.
The lowdown BMW X1 Drive 18d Sport
1,995cc turbodiesel engine putting out 143bhp and 320Nm of torque
143g/km (4WD version with auto transmission)
5.4 L/100km (52.3 mpg)
Hyundai Santa Fe Executive 4WD - €41,995; Mitsubishi Outlander 4WD, €36,950; Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0 TDi 140bhp 4motion Spot, €35,490
€42,500 auto (starts at €35,160 for X1 16d sDrive)