There was a time in my life when I considered myself a Bimmer guy, a Propeller-head, as some of them are called. I owned seven BMWs in total, new and used, from a base E36 318iS, to a wagon, to an M5, all in succession. Nowadays I still get excited whenever I get to drive a new BMW because, while the company has moved in a very different direction over the last decade, some of the old BMW magic remains in all of its cars.
When the new X1 arrived at my doorstep I knew nothing about it. I assumed it’s just a smaller X3, which is just a taller 3-series wagon. While once BMW made the same sausage in three different lengths, they now make the same hamburger in three different sizes. No biggie, people love buying CUVs, so BMW is giving them what they want. But, this BMW is unlike the others, and it become evident the moment I opened the hood.
It was surprise at first. Then it was disbelief. I even lifted the plastic cover to confirm my suspicion. I even followed the air intake hose with my hand, in case my eyes were deceiving me. Then it was just pure shock. I slammed the hood in angst and did my best gagging Lloyd impression.
The engine in this BMW is mounted transversely!
Is nothing sacred anymore!?
My hands are shaking as I type this. First it was xDrive on all the cars. Then run-flat tires. Then they removed dipsticks. Then the company that made the best naturally aspired engines went turbo happy. Then they cut cylinders off their engines. Then they made a supercar with a three-cylinder MINI Cooper engine, which actually is pretty brilliant, if a bit weird. And now this, a front-wheel-drive based BMW.
Excuse me while I scour Craigslist for a cheap E46 M3.
The new X1 then. Here is the kicker; it is actually a pretty damn good vehicle. I have to admit that I had no idea that it was FWD-based until I opened the hood, because in normal street driving scenario it drives pretty much like any other all-wheel-drive BMW CUV. It has decent power, handles better than just about any other CUV, and is quiet and refined. If it had me fooled, casual customers who don’t know the difference between a lug-nut and wing-nut will be equally ignorant about which way the engine is facing.
The four-cylinder turbocharged 2-liter engine is the only choice. It produces 228 horsepower at 5000rpm and 258 lb-ft of torque at only 1250rpm. Likewise, the only transmission offered is an eight-speed automatic that puts the power to all four wheels. Between good low-end power and all those gears, the power delivery is very linear. Selecting the Sport mode livens up the throttle response significantly and when Sport is selected on the transmission, the little engine stays out of the top gear and spends more time at higher speeds. The EPA rates the X1 at 22mpg in the city and 32mg on the highway, and my results were not far off that.
While I generally refrain from giving my opinions on the appearance of a vehicle, because everyone can have an opinion on that, I think this is a pretty good looking vehicle, at least as far as CUVs go. In this case BMW had shown restraint from odd angular and angry shapes and instead kept it pretty conservative and BMW specific, perhaps to distract from its new chassis layout. Two big kidney grills in front of a long hood, resemblance of four round headlights, the rear window kink, and wide L-shaped taillights attached to a two-box body. It’s as modern BMW as it gets.
The interior is equally modern BMW. Clean gauge display, easy to use HVAC, just the right amount of knobs and buttons for everything to feel intuitive. In a great irony, the iDrive system, which was once criticized by everyone, is now probably the best infotainment system on the market. It still has an overwhelming amount of options and features, but the things most people use most of the time are very easily accessible. If there is something to complain about it is the cup-holders, which are located in the very forward section of the console, are small, and have a 12V socket between them.
The seats at first seem a little thin and a little hard, very similar to BMW i8 seats, but they remained comfortable even on a long highway drive. Being picky and tall, I wish that the bottom cushions were a bit longer. Where a lot of these small CUVs really sacrifice rear seat legroom, the X1 has enough space for real adults to sit back there or a rear-facing child seat. The rear seat is split 40:20:40, but if you put a pair of skis through the middle portion, chances are that the tips will end up on the front armrest, as this is a relatively small CUV.
With each new vehicle I drive, I either get used to poor visibility or automakers are addressing the issue, I am not sure. The visibility to the front and sides is very good in the X1, even if the A-pillars are still a little thick. Likewise, visibility backwards through the rear view mirror is good, as long as it isn’t obscured by rear passengers’ heads. There is a large blind-spot, however, and the side mirrors are rather small and I found myself constantly adjusting both of them. While there is an optional back-up camera and beep-beep sensors, the latest in crash avoidance and lane departure technology, there are no blind-spot detectors, which are much needed on the X1.
The X1 starts at $34,800. In a typical German fashion, everything is an option, either as package or stand alone. The vehicle pictured here was pretty much fully loaded with everything but the M Sport Package and a fancy paint. The total price came out to $48,270, with a $995 destination fee. While that seems like a lot of money, it is priced slightly higher than a comparable Audi Q3 and Acura RDX, but about as much as a loaded Lexus NX, and below the Mercedes GLA250 and Land Rover Discovery Sport. I have not driven the Lexus, but I preferred the Bimmer over the others in this group.
While enthusiasts are a demanding bunch, we often forget that car companies exist to make money. They make the money by making and selling vehicles. In order to keep those sales high, vehicles must evolve to appeal to the ever demanding mass customer, engine layout be damned, and apparently most new car buyers want small CUVs. The good news is that the new X1 retains a bit of the old BMW magic and is one of best driving small CUVs, with the tiny Mazda CX-3 close behind. The really good news is that BMW still offers great sports cars for those of us with oil flowing through our veins.
Disclaimer: BMW of North America provided the vehicle for this review. Images: ©2016 Hooniverse/Kamil Kaluski, All Rights Reserved.