BMW's new SUV handles supremely at speed but is unforgiving at pedestrian pace.
2010 BMW X1
With BMW's 3 Series chassis at its heart, the X1 baby-SUV was never likely to want for dynamic ability. And it doesn't. What it lacked was urgency and linear power delivery. That's because when BMW launched its sub-X3 machine a few months ago in Europe, it only fitted it with strong turbodiesel engines that hauled at high speed without stopping.
But they lacked that vital spark and intuitively linear feel that only petrol engines can give. Now, finally, the X1's energy levels have taken a major pep pill with the addition of the much-praised 3.0L, inline six-cylinder petrol engine. The engine's details ought to be familiar, with most of it made from aluminium alloy and the oil pan crafted out of an even-lighter magnesium alloy. It's been around for a generation of BMWs, powering everything from the 1 Series up to the 7 Series.
BMW has kept it fresh with infinitely variable camshaft timing and variable valve lift, too, so it breathes better, gets a broader spread of torque at lower revs and keeps spinning sweetly up high. Yet this is the first time BMW has mated it with its new X1 baby SUV. Aimed directly at its European heartland, the X1 initially launched in Europe carried a range of diesel engines. But the rest of the car world has a much broader scope, so expect the petrol-powered version to be available everywhere else.
Lower and lighter than the 5 Series-based X3, the X1 gathers a lot of clever components and practicality in a less-imposing machine that handles more like the BMW stereotype than its big brother. It uses BMW's electric steering to help pull down fuel consumption to 9.4L/100km on the combined cycle, which is good, but not brilliant. What it does is help the X1 to react more like the clean crisp sort of machine that many have come to expect from six-pot Beemers.
It fires up smoothly and sweetly, settling into an impressively composed idle, then it moves off with a lovely, familiar feeling of oodles of strength in reserve. The trouble is that, even when you roll out of the drive, you notice vertical shocks that, disturbingly, weren't there any of the times I've arrived and left the same building in old taxis with poor suspension. So, almost immediately, we pulled over to check. Sure, BMW fitted the test car with the larger 18-inch wheels instead of the standard 17-inch wheels and 225/50 R17 tyres, but that should not have mattered much. If it's offered with 18s, BMW should figure out a way to make it ride properly on them. It's becoming a bugbear from Bavarian cars, and even before the X1 2.8i has hit third gear, it has encroached on the rest of the driving experience, making a simple, potholed junction feel like you're driving over a relief map of Switzerland. It's not an impression that dissipates with speed, either, and there wasn't an opportunity to try one with the smaller tyre package, so all we can tell you is this: if BMW tries to up-sell you into a sportier suspension setup, just say no.
The pity of it is that, with more suspension travel from what is essentially a high-rise 3 Series wagon, it should have far better ride quality than the big-selling sibling, not worse. Yet, in spite of all that extra height, the 1,685kg X1 doesn't suffer much by comparison to the smaller car in handling, acceleration or interior comfort. The engine is just a sweetheart, with its tone light and friendly at low revs, deeper and gruffer when you bury the throttle and, finally, sparklingly clean as it revs to its peak power at 6,600rpm.
And it's fast enough, too, bursting to 100kph in 6.8 seconds on the way to a 205kph top speed. And it will do that, too, because we tested it on the autobahn, and it will do it with stability and assurance. The 255hp engine thumps out 310Nm of torque at 2,600rpm - which is very low down in the range for a petrol engine. Even though that falls well short of the 400Nm laid down as the benchmark by the X1 23d's twin-turbo four-cylinder diesel, it isn't so surging and it feels more linear and easier to live with day in and day out.
If its torque output suffers next to the new diesel, so does its economy. Where the diesel uses 6.3L/100km, the X1 28i chews through 9.4. The six-speed auto works a treat, too, shuffling comfortably through the gears to prove that it's in perfect harmony with this engine, moving 60 per cent of the drive to the rear end of the car most of the time. While electric steering hasn't developed enough to be a highlight here, it doesn't let the car down and the entire handling package is crisp and, well, easy. There just never seems to be a situation that catches it out and, even when the skid control systems are needed, they just do their job with the blink of an orange light, then disappear again quickly.
Inside, it's a familiar mix of 1 Series-style treatments across the dashboard, extremely comfortable seats, a hip point somewhere between the 3 Series and the X3 in height and lots of spaciousness and vision everywhere you look. The rear seats can be tight for fully fledged adults, though three kids will sit across them happily enough, and the rear luggage compartment is riddled with clever touches to tie small packages down without compromising its ability to swallow surprising loads with its 1,350L maximum capacity.
In the end, the X1 looks like the car that could finally topple the X3 from its lofty sales position. It carries the same, unfortunate body styling, it's lower and easier to get in and out of, it uses a lot of the same hardware as the sweet-handling 3 Series, doesn't suffer too much in interior space and it will be cheaper, too. And, with the addition of the 3.0L straight six to the diesel units, it's added the jewel in the BMW engine crown as well.
If they give it some suspension compliance on small bumps, it'll be stupendously formidable. The X1 is expected to be available in the UAE in May next year. Prices have yet to be confirmed. firstname.lastname@example.org