BMW could ill-afford to launch another crossover SUV as cramped, noisy and disappointing to drive as the last X1. Fierce competition even from volume brands such as Nissan and Mazda has transformed the crossover market since the launch of the original X1 in 2009. There’s now simply no hiding place there for a bad car – particularly one with a premium brand on its grille.
No such cover is needed for the new BMW X1, though, thanks partly to the German brand’s somewhat controversial ‘UKL’ front-wheel drive platform technology, which helps to give the second-generation version the practicality, refinement and all-round handling polish that its predecessor lacked.
Although BMW AG in Germany offers low-CO2 three-cylinder turbocharged petrol and diesel engines for the X1, BMW GB doesn’t think there will be enough interest in the more modest end of the engine range to bring them to the UK – which seems a shame. Instead, we're at other end of the spectrum to sample the BMW brand's other key selling point: power.
Above the big-selling ‘20i’ and ‘20d’ versions of the X1 will be ‘25i’ and ‘25d’ petrol and diesel derivatives, each markedly faster and more powerful than almost any like-for-like rival you can buy – Mercedes-AMG and Audi RS models aside. It was the four-wheel-drive, hot-hatch-fast, 228bhp ‘25d’ turbodiesel we tested first.
What is the BMW X1 like to drive?
BMW’s relatively highly strung four-cylinder diesel engine occasionally intrudes into the cabin with a very gentle vibration detectable through the pedals, but it’s otherwise quiet, smooth and fairly free-revving. It’s responsive, too, and sufficiently grunty in the mid-range to give the X1 easy overtaking ability and an energetic turn of speed.
Both the ‘25d’ and ‘25i’ X1s get BMW’s eight-speed automatic gearbox as standard. Although it juggles ratios in quick and slick fashion, there are a lot of them to choose from. You notice that particularly with the transmission left in ‘D’, when it often has to squeeze in as many as four downshifts when you’re speeding up for a motorway merge. Meanwhile, in paddleshift manual mode the unfamiliar ratio spacing can lead you to select a downshift too many for any given corner. Get used to being deliberate with the accelerator, and judicious with the paddles, and the gearbox works fine, but it can feel unintuitive to begin with.
Our test car had BMW’s adaptive dampers fitted; even in Comfort mode it rode a bit more firmly than the crossover class norm, but controlled road noise and suspension thump well. Handling is grippy and secure, and body roll is checked long before it might otherwise make the car begin to wash wide, even when cornering hard. The car’s standard steering, though heavy and not blessed with much feedback, is direct and precise.
What is the X1 like inside?
The new X1 has grown slightly taller than it was, to the marked improvement of interior headroom. The car is also about an inch shorter on overall length, but the packaging freedom conferred by a sideways mounted engine has made for an equally notable gain on leg room in the second row.
Add BMW’s optional split-sliding rear bench to your order and you’ll get enough back seat space for a couple of large adults – much more than in an Audi Q3, and enough to beat a Mercedes GLA, we suspect. The back seats themselves are a bit short in the squab, and the cabin is still too narrow for three full-size passengers to comfortably sit side-by-side, but neither is a serious black mark at this end of the market. The omission of a third set of ISOFIX anchorages for the X1’s middle back seat is more disappointing.
The X1’s boot has grown by some 85 litres to a much more useful 505-litre size, and will now even accommodate bigger suitcases loaded longways – even with the back seats in their rearmost position. Remote release buttons conveniently flop the rear seatbacks down, the latter being split 40/20/40 as standard for extra carrying flexibility. The car’s front passenger seatback folds flat to squeeze in extra-long loads, rounding out a nifty transformation of one of the least practical cars of its kind into one of the most.
Despite its upward growth spurt, the X1 still feels quite low-slung for a crossover, obliging many to sit down into the driver’s seat. And yet the driving position feels at once higher than many rivals, with a low-set dashboard in front of you and a steering wheel sprouting towards you at an uncharacteristically raked angle for a BMW.
Solid-feeling switchgear, attractive chrome trims and veneers and consistently high standards on material fit and finish all play a part in conjuring an impression of richness and quality inside the X1’s cabin that is as convincing as in any of its rivals. A 6.5in multimedia system with sat-nav and an iDrive controller come as standard, but the optional 8in Professional Media set-up is, as usual, excellent.
Should I buy one?
Having had its rough edges knocked off and ill manners trained out, the new X1 is a much better car than it was. The sportier engines such as the 25d make a particularly strong case for themselves on paper. There’s little or no penalty to be paid here in terms of CO2 output or fuel economy, given the car’s advantage on power and performance compared to top-of-the-range diesel versions of its closest German rivals.
But BMW has been quite ambitious with this X1’s pricing, and poorer residual values than some won’t make contract hire or PCP prices too appealing. If you’re interested, our advice would be to take a test drive – and, if you like what you find, to bargain hard. If you can secure a good enough deal, you’ll certainly be getting a good car.
What Car? says...
BMW X1 xDrive25d Engine size 2.0-litre diesel Price from £36,060 (est) Power 228bhp Torque 332lb ft 0-62mph 6.6 seconds Top speed 146mph Fuel economy 56.5mpg CO2 132g/km